Ibn Danan Synagogue in Fez, the Oldest Synagogue in Morocco

Ibn Danan Synagogue’s interior part with its beautifully ornamented Torah-Ark on the left

photography by: Omri Westmark

Centuries ago, the Mellah of Fez was one of Morocco's epicenters of Jewish life and culture. While nowadays, the city's Jewish community barely exceeds 100 members, it still prides itself on having the oldest synagogue anywhere in the country. The recently renovated Ibn Danan Synagogue is a vestige of the Jewry of Fez's days of glory. Awash with intricate ornaments and well-preserved furniture, the building provides a fascinating glimpse into the forgotten past of a rapidly disappearing community.

Encompassing the southern part of Fes El Jdid district, the Mellah of Fez has served for centuries as home to the city’s Jewish community. While the mass exodus of Jews from Fez during the mid-20th century has left the quarter empty of its original inhabitants, some historically significant places have managed to withstood the test of time.

 

Unassumingly hidden in one of the Mellah’s back alleyways, the Ibn Danan Synagogue is one of North Africa’s oldest synagogues, dating back to the 17th century. As its name probably implies, this place of worship was built by the Ibn Danan family, a wealthy Jewish family, whose members were among Fez’s most prominent merchants in the 1600’s.

 

The synagogue, which is one of the Mellah’s oldest surviving buildings, boasts a spectacular mosaic of ornaments, many of which are inspired by local Islamic art. Perhaps the single most impressive element of the whole temple is its Torah Ark, a pair of small niches with carved wooden doors. The ark’s surrounding wall is intricately decorated with Moroccan-style tiles and plaster work, a testimony to the strong affinity between the two communities.

 

The synagogue also has a Mikveh, a bath for ceremonial purposes, where the Anusim (Jews who were forced to leave their religion during the Inquisition) and their descendants were immersed as part of their reconversion to Judaism. A set of exceedingly narrow stairways leads to the women’s courtyard (a section designated for female worshipers) as well as the rooftop, from where one can have a glimpse of the Mellah and particularly the nearby Jewish Cemetery of Fez.

 

In stark contrast to its lavish interior part, the synagogue’s nondescript entrance door blends perfectly into the urban whereabouts, practically unnoticeable by unsuspecting passersby. As the local Jewish community dwindled in numbers over the last decades, Ibn Danan synagogue was abandoned and subsequently fell into a state of disrepair, so much so that the building was on the verge of a total collapse. It wasn’t until 1996, when this marvelous Jewish monument was thoroughly renovated and returned back to its former self.

 

As of today, the synagogue is rarely used for religious purposes. Instead, groups of Israeli tourists, many of whom of Moroccan origins, visit the place as part of their quest to explore their roots. A cordial Muslim caretaker constantly oversees the premises, eager to answer any question a curious visitor might have.

The entrance and the synagogue’s Muslim caretaker

photography by: Omri Westmark


The well-lit space is chockfull of wooden benches for Jewish worshipers

photography by: Omri Westmark


A tapestry honoring the restoration of the temple

photography by: Omri Westmark


A smattering of Jewish holy scripts

photography by: Omri Westmark


The synagogue’s main hall

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Torah-Ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Bimah, an elevated platform where the Torah is being read during communal gatherings

photography by: Omri Westmark


A stairway to the Mikveh on the basement floor

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Mikveh, a ceremonial pool where Jewish devotees were purified

photography by: Omri Westmark


A couple of hanging lamps, a mere fraction of the numerous lamps the synagogue once had

photography by: Omri Westmark


The court of women on the second floor, also known as "Ezrat Nashim"

photography by: Omri Westmark


The claustrophobia inducing staircase that leads to the second floor

photography by: Omri Westmark


The synagogue's rooftop

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Jewish Cemetery of Fez as seen from the roof

photography by: Omri Westmark