From Mogador to Essaouira

The house and synagogue are now almost completely restored to their original beauty.

Sydney Corcos visits Mogador/Essaouira’s synagogue (photo credit: SYDNEY CORCOS)
Sydney Corcos visits Mogador/Essaouira’s synagogue
(photo credit: SYDNEY CORCOS)
Sydney Corcos was not sure what he was going to do upon retiring from his position as general manager of the Jerusalem Museum of Natural History, but he didn’t have to think about it for long. Even before his retirement date arrived, he was already engaged in an exciting project that took him overseas, back to the city of his childhood.
Following an invitation from Andre Azoulay, the special adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed V, Corcos agreed to oversee the renovation of a historic synagogue and the creation of a museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish community in the city of Mogador, today Essaouira.
Renowned for its beauty, hospitality and openness to different communities, Mogador/Essaouira had a strong Jewish community. Over the years, most of the Jews left, largely to the US, Canada, France or Israel, and today barely a dozen Jews still reside there. The Atia family, among the wealthiest in the community, built one of the most beautiful homes, which also included – in accordance with local custom – a synagogue. Both were luxuriously decorated.
The magnificent structure fell into disuse, however, after the death of the founder, Messaoud Atia, who had no descendants. Over time, the religious artifacts and the Torah scrolls were looted; the edifice deteriorated and was in danger of imminent collapse.
It was the initiative of Azoulay, who born in Essaouira, to rehabilitate the site and restore the home and synagogue to their original splendor.
Corcos, whose father was a historian of the community, and whose great-aunt, Stella Duran-Corcos, born in England, founded the British school for girls in the city, was tapped for the challenge. He began the work, assisted by local scholar Prof. Mina El-Merari.
The house and synagogue are now almost completely restored to their original beauty. Most of the Torah scrolls have been located and identified and will hopefully soon be brought back, yet the project has an even wider scope. A second story added to the original house will house a museum of the Jewish community of Essaouira.
“We will display jewels from the period of the height of this community, garments and traditional outfits, objects that depict the richness and the beauty of that community,” says Corcos. The museum will also be open for scholars from Morocco and around the world to research the community and the history of the city and its residents over the centuries.
For Corcos, who made aliya with his parents more than 50 years ago, the project provides a sort of closure, that after many years, he, a Jew born in Essaouira, is the person chosen by the king’s adviser to conduct this mission.
“There are so many places in the world where there are no traces of the history of the Jewish communities that were there, but now, in an Arab and Muslim country, there will be a museum dedicated to the history and the culture of this particular community – by the will of the king and thanks to his adviser,” says Corcos with more than a trace of emotion.
How does Corcos view these developments and what they mean to him? He says that he does not idealize the relationships between Moroccan Arabs and Jews, but that there is a degree of change.
“There were cases of hatred, attacks, even some pogroms here and there, although there is no comparison to what happened in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, today there is a king who is a pioneer in a trend of acknowledging the role of the Jewish community, as part of the history of Morocco and he is creating an honorable place for its legacy.”