Without a doubt, Marrakesh is it the largest of the affected cities by the earthquake that shook a large area in southeastern Morocco last Friday. However, the damage to the city is significantly less than that to the mountain population of the High Atlas, focus on the old medina, an ancient labyrinth of alleys that stretches around the Yamma El Fna square. More than 150,000 people live on the 600 hectares, the heart of the city and its main tourist attraction.
And among the districts that make up this Marrakesh’s old medina, the Jewish quarter or mellah – a word that means salt in Arabic and Hebrew due to Jews’ historical connection to the business of this product – was the one that bore the brunt of the earthquake.
The Mellah – a name also generally applied to Moroccan Jewish neighborhoods, all of which are located in one of the ends of the medina to separate the community – Marrakesh currently suffers from severe architectural damage, some of which is irreparable. The district was built in the 16th century with the aim of separating the Israelite population from the Muslim population.
Destroyed houses, crumbling scaffolding, detached cornices and grilles, sunken beams, closed roads and rubble strewn on the ground. At the entrance to many houses, mattresses, refrigerators and household items tied together with ropes await a new destination. It is not safe to live in these houses, although the ability to leave the medina is a luxury that not all families can afford.
But at midnight, in the square in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, groups of neighbors, unaware of the drama and severity of the damage to the surrounding buildings, gather to chat at tables over coffee or mint tea. Leaning against cracked building.
On Talmud Tora Street is the Slat el-Azama Synagogue, whose construction began in 1492, the year of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, initially in a setting of half-destroyed houses. A group of neighbors is inhabited by a Muslim family and guards the entrance to the church all night long.
However, this is most common in the rest of the country’s synagogues Security guards monitor the area around the clock to ensure the safety of the buildings. It was not for nothing that two of the terrorists involved in the May 2004 attacks detonated a bomb at the Israeli Alliance Cultural Center in Casablanca, an attack that fortunately did not cause any casualties as the facilities were empty.
Marrakech was one of the largest Jewish populations in a country that in the mid-1940s was home to between 250,000 and 300,000 Jews, the largest Israeli minority in the entire Arab world. Moroccan nationalism and the anti-Semitic atmosphere, which made Morocco’s native Jews accomplices of the emerging State of Israel, began to drive out the Jewish population from the country’s various mellahs. This is the case in the Mellah of Marrakesh, where only a few dozen Jewish families remain. Israel in particular, but also France, Canada, the United States and Spain, were the final destination countries for these population groups.
In the 1980s there were only about 8,000 Jews left in Morocco and today no more than two thousand of them live in the Maghreb country, almost all of them concentrated in the city of Casablanca.
For almost a decade, Moroccan authorities have acted at the request of King Mohamed VI. set about restoring the material heritage of the different mellah, including that of Marrakech, and precisely in 2017, the district regained its historical name. The current monarch, like his predecessor Hassan II, distinguished himself by defending Morocco’s Jewish heritage, a desire expressed in recent years in the restoration of cemeteries, Talmudic schools and synagogues. In addition, some of the most prominent royal advisers or advisors are members of this community, such as André Azoulay or Serge Berdugo.
As a special feature of the Jewish Quarter of Marrakech, the signage on many of its streets is written in three languages: Arabic, French and Hebrew, in an unmistakable gesture of the state’s collective recognition of the memory of the community that has lived there for centuries. the mellah
An allusion also to the numerous Israeli tourists who now visit the Jewish Quarter in search of traces of their ancestors in streets, synagogues and even houses. This can also be observed in the Jewish quarter of Essaouira, a city that can boast of being the only one in Morocco whose population was once majority Jewish.
Almost a week after the earthquake, normality is gradually returning to the medina of Marrakech. The space was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985 and at the request of the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, the mythical square Yamaa el Fna was declared an intangible cultural heritage by the same United Nations organization in 2001.
Outstanding literary figures such as Elías Canetti and Juan Goytisolo himself dedicated famous pages to the medina of Marrakech. The Barcelona writer, who died in the city in 2017, lived in the old medina for more than three decades and dedicated his novel Makbara to this space.
In contrast to that of Fes, the ocher and rugged medina of Marrakesh boasts of being the largest in the country, with its 600 hectares and 19 kilometers of walls.