"A northeast wind, a cloudless sky, a glowing sun.”
That’s what a British Consul wrote about Essaouira, 100 years ago. His description of this Moroccan city, formerly called Mogador, a Berber word meaning “safe anchorage,” is still valid.
This white-walled port city on the Atlantic coast has captured the hearts of tourists to this North African country. Midway between Safi and Agadir, it once was occupied by the Phoenicians and then Carthaginians.
Known for travelers wandering along its picturesque walls, Essaouria is thought to be derived from the Arabic word for “ramparts,” but translates as “little image.” The walls give the city its charm as well as the blue and white medina, a “sweet retreat” especially if you have been in big-city Casablanca, or the frantic towns of Marrakesh or Fez.
Essaouira, I discovered still remains exotic. It is quiet and calming without the rush of the major cities, and somewhat off the beaten track. Its market is not old and overcrowded with visitors, and its passageways are wider than other souks.
I relaxed while walking the seashore and seeing the fishermen mending their nets.
I sat in one of the cafes on the Place Mouley Hassan and watched the world go by, later dining on delicious grilled fish caught fresh that morning for lunch or dinner and displayed at stalls alongside cafes by the harbor. Actually, I walked with my guide to those very same stalls and watched as he carefully examined each fish, choosing the best one to be grilled for our meal.
Here, the sky is blue or is it azure; the contrast is amazing, appealing against the white buildings and sand-colored fortifications. Seagulls are continuously wheeling overhead, their cries occasionally silenced by the muezzin’s call .
In 1949, film director and actor Orson Welles stayed in Essaouira, where he filmed the classic version of Othello, which contains several memorable scenes shot in the labyrinthine streets and alleys of the town’s medina.
Once here, Essaouira remains a difficult place to leave because it has more open spaces and wider streets than most cities in Morocco.
A travel writer wrote in 1900 that it is the best-planned and cleanest town in the Empire, “and in consequence, it stands high as a health resort.” This is still true today.
In 1760, Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah founded the city and named the fortified port Essaouira, as a rival to Agadir. The city was laid out and designed by a French architect, Theodore Cornut, by order of the sultan. It was actually built by European captives under Cornut’s supervision.
Interestingly, Encyclopedia Britannica says that “a colony of Moroccan Jews was installed to extend commerce.” Sultan ben Abdallah chose 10 important families and conferred upon them the title of “Merchant of the King.”
They received luxury housing and were entrusted with missions to the European courts, and for a century and a half dominated Moroccan trade. The privileged personalities became the nucleus of a dynamic community, which lasted until just after World War II and gave the town a distinctly Jewish character, says Encyclopedia Judaica, noting that everyone rested on the Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
But back in 1808, it was decided to confine the Jews within a mellah, a Jewish quarter. From then on, the only exceptions were families of the above-mentioned “Merchants of the King,” and some businessmen of European origin. The mellah became overcrowded with new arrivals, and during the 19th century, the Jewish population grew from 4,000 to 14,000.
Under the 1912 French protectorate, the city lost some of its economic importance, and only a small community of 5,000 Jews remained. Many left in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970, most of its former Jewish citizens lived in Europe, America and Israel, and only a few hundred Jews continued to live in Essaouira.
Historians tell us that in days past, Jews spoke Arabic if they lived among Arabs, Berber mixed in with Hebrew words if they lived among the Berbers. Some reported that better- class Jews regarded themselves as French, and were treated as such.
In 1844, the French bombarded the city to force Morocco to stop supporting Abd al-Qadir, leader of an Algerian resistance movement.
The city declined when the French turned Casablanca into the commercial capital, as well as Agadir, which was opened to foreign trade.
The medina (old city) here is smaller, hassle-free and considered the cleanest in the country. It is a good place to shop. For instance, for woodwork, boxes in cedar, try Afalkay Art, 9 Place Mouley Hassan.
A permanent Jewish resident of the city is Joseph Sebag, who operates a fine book store known as Galerie AIDA, 2 Rue de la Skala. I bought Paul Bowles’s book, The Sheltering Sky, from him.
Extensive Jewish cemeteries were built on the shore of the ocean.
Here in Essaouira are the tombs of famous rabbis.
A future for Jewish presence in Essaouira is seen on the horizon by a number of Moroccan Jews with whom I spoke. Located in the city is a large international community which includes about 60 Jews, according to Essaouira native Andre Azoulay, an economic adviser to the king of Morocco and president of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue Between Cultures, with headquarters in Alexandria.
Just this past November, Essaouira celebrated the 10th round of the Atlantic Andalusia Festival, which brings together musicians from around the world to mark the cultural and religious diversity of the region. The festival was organized by the Association Essaouira Mogador, led by Azoulay, “to stress the ties between the Arabic, Islamic and Hebrew heritage,” according to the group’s website.
Not far from Sebag’s bookstore stands Synagogue Rabbi Haim Pinto at 9 Impasse Tafilalet, which has been preserved as a historic site.
Pinto (1748-1845) was born into a distinguished rabbinic family in Essaouira, then called Mogador, and became the leading rabbi in the city. On the anniversary of his death (26 Elul, 5605, just before Rosh Hashana), large numbers of Moroccan Jews come from all over the world to pray at his tomb in the large Jewish cemetery here. Pinto is remembered as a man whose prayers were received in heaven, resulting in miracles.
Also near Sebag’s bookstore is the Synagogue Attias, a gutted house of worship. A project is being launched to restore this synagogue, as well as create a Jewish museum in the city and a think tank. The project will be named after Haim Zafrani, a Moroccan scholar and writer who was born in Essaouria; he is particularly noted for having collected and preserved much of the music and oral poetry of the Jews of Morocco.
Physically, the city has expanded to meet the demands of a growing tourist industry. Twenty years ago, there were perhaps six hotels in the city; today, the figure is about 200.
A fine place to stay, with a Moroccan atmosphere and excellent European service is the Palais Heure Bleue boutique hotel, centrally located on the edge of the Medina.
This fashionable Relais & Chateaux hotel was converted from a former customs house, and has a heated pool and spa facilities.
As I strolled around this city, which once had an interesting Jewish past, I realized that unlike Jews in neighboring Algeria, Jews have never completely departed from Morocco. On the contrary, there is still much nostalgia for the days when Moroccan Jews lived in what some call a “Golden Age” – when Jewish and Muslim children played side-by-side. In some cases in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was an easy life: slow, calm and simple.
Ben G. Frank is a journalist, travel writer and the author of the just-published
Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press), and
The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com; Twitter: @bengfrank