The Jewish Cemetery in the Mellah of Fez, Morocco

The Jewish Cemetery of Fez

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Prior to World War II and the establishment of Israel, Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community across the Arab-speaking world. Despite the mass exodos of Jews who number less than 2,500 as of 2022, many of the community’s historic sites still exist and draw pilgrims to these days. Nestled in the former Jewish quarter of Fez, the Jewish cemetery, known for its semi-cylindrical tombs, encapsulates the tumultuous past of the country’s prosperous Jewry.

Popularly known as the Mellah, the Jewish quarter of Fez is one of Morocco’s oldest vestiges of the once thriving community in the country. Originally established in 1438 as a mean to insulate and protect the Jews of Fez from outside influence and threats, the quarter endured a series of hardships over the centuries. As part of a local uprising against the ruling Marinid dynasty, the Mellah was stormed by a local mob, leaving only 11 survivors out of a population of thousands.

 

In the years that followed, the local Jewish community managed to recover and repopulate much of the district, absorbing Jews who fled from the Iberian Peninsula as a result of the Inquisition. Following Sultan Moulay Hassan’s decision to expand his royal palace during the late 19th century, the Jewish cemetery was forcefully relocated overnight from its previous location next to the palace’s outer walls, to the southwestern corner of the Mellah, where it still stands today.

 

Interestingly, this Jewish necropolis is overwhelmingly dominated by nondescript whitewashed tombs that were repainted in 2019. While the vast majority of the blank graves are half-cylindrical, some feature a shape of extruded pentagonal house. Standing out amid the recently painted white graves are several elaborate tombs that belong to martyrs and late prominent members of the local Jewish community.


With its conspicuous blue color, it’s nearly impossible to miss the tomb of Sol Hachuel, better-known as Solica. Born in 1817 at her hometown of Tangier, this Jewish girl was locally revered for her immense beauty, which at a certain point caught the attention of the regional governor. Mesmerized by Solica’s sheer attractiveness, he implored her to convert to Islam in return for a large share of his wealth. After refusing his offer, Solica was tortured and eventually brought to Fez, where she was decapitated at the age of 17, making her a martyr among Muslim and Jewish women alike.

 

Another prominent tomb which features white and black tiles as well as a big niche for candles and a chimney, is where Rabbi Yehuda Ben Attar (Born in 1655) was buried. Legend has it that this well-renowned rabbi was thrown in prison by the then sultan as a measure to compel him to use his great influence among his fellow members in the Jewish community in order to extract ransom money. However, since the Jewry of Fez didn’t have the resources to fulfil the sultan’s demand, Ben Attar was sent to a lion infested cage. Undaunted by the fierce predators, he started praying for salvation, which came shortly after when the lions refrain from doing anything but resting. As a result of this miracle, the rabbi was pardoned by the sultan, who also expressed remorse for his deeds.