Mellah and Jewish Cemetery of Fes
A stroll through a Cemetery doesn’t sound like the usual way to get to know a place…
This is how I started my article about the Cemetery at Enna. Initially I was very convinced of this statement. Well, you know what? After many years of travelling in many different parts of the world, I’ve reached the conclusion that this is not totally true. Cemeteries are filled with history and are truly architectural gems. This is why I have started to make a run to cemeteries whenever possible, while respecting the privacy and the holiness of the place. And this is how I discovered the Jewish Cemetery of Fes.
Who would have thought that Fes has the largest and one of the oldest Jewish communities in Morocco? The Jewish Cemetery in Fes is in total contrast with the city around it. It’s a quiet oasis away from the hustle of the medina that you should definitely add to your list of things to do in Fes.
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Jewish history in Fes.
Jews in Fes were already present in the 8th Century when the city was founded by Idrīs I. At that time they lived in many parts of the city alongside the Muslim population.
A Jewish quarter, known as Mellah (Arabic word for “salt marsh or salt spring), was later established in 1438 as a means to safeguard and separate the growing Jewish community from the rest of the city’s residents.
In 1465, when the ruling dynasty of Fes was attacked, the majority of the Jewish people residing in the Mellah were killed. Historical records suggest that this left only 11 survivors out of a population of thousands.
So, it looked dead for years but started to repopulate in the time following by absorbing Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who fled as a result of the Inquisition. According to a Belgian scholar who visited the Mellah in the mid-16th century, the Jewish quarter had an estimated population of 4000 at that time.
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It endured a series of hardships over the centuries. Among the most important hardships the Jews of Fes suffered were that many synagogues were damaged, or even destroyed, the Jewish community was moved next to the Kasbah Cherarda on the other side of Fes el-Jdid during 1790, and during the the rule of the French many buildings of the Mellah were demolished in order to build boutiques and a wide road for vehicles, the Jewish cemetery and its contents were moved and even the size of the Mellah was reduced.
Today it is estimated that only 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, most in Casablanca with only 150 still in Fes. The Mellah of Fes is today a UNESCO Heritage site and among the Mellah’s points of interest, there is the Jewish cemetery.
Jewish Cemetery of Fes.
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The highlight of the Fes Mellah is the very well-preserved Jewish cemetery which occupies the southwest corner of the Mellah. It’s been there since the early 19th century but was only filled to its current extent in the 20th century. This has been the main cemetery of the Mellah since the old cemetery, situated to the northwest at the base of the Royal Palace’s walls, was forced to move.
According to some historians it was moved in 1894 by order of the ruling sultan but according to some others was moved by order of the French after 1912. The cemetery was managed by the local Hebra Qadisha, an organization that take care that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition.
There are thousands of blindingly white tombs at the Jewish Cemetery of Fes and the majority of them are half-cylindrical. Today a small former synagogue at the north-eastern end of the cemetery is used as a small museum.
Jewish Cemetery of Fes, location.
Address: 3225+G4W, Fes 30050, Morocco
Jewish Cemetery is located in “Fes El Jdid” neighbourhood meaning in the area of Fes where the Royal Palace is. It is on the edge of the Jewish District called Fundunk al Yahudi or Mellah.
Upon arrival to the main entrance, you will find a sign in Hebrew and French saying Israeli Cemetery of Fes.
Tourist scam at the Jewish Cemetery of Fes.
Like every place frequented by tourists in Morocco, the Jewish cemetery is a place where scams are a daily occurrence. So, get ready and prepare yourself.
The main fact you should know about the Jewish Cemetery of Fes is that to date this place is free. And that means that you don’t have to pay any admission fee.
I’m making this point because at the entrance you will find many who make you believe that you need to pay to get in. Those people are actually fake guides who just want to take you through the cemetery in exchange for a little money. If you are not interested, just keep on walking through the door. They will come after you for a few meters but when they understand that you don’t want to fall in their trap, they will let you go. Anyone can enter the cemetery and wander around and explore the old tombs.
They also say you must buy a yarmulke from them to enter. If you want you can buy it, but it’s not required.
Keep your eyes open also on your way out.
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5 facts about Mellah and the Jewish Cemetery of Fes.
- Unlike Muslim cemeteries where graves face Mecca, at the Jewish cemeteries in Morocco, graves can face any direction.
- The Jewish quarter of Fes is one of Morocco’s oldest Jewish communities in the country.
- The first Jewish quarter of Morocco was established in Fes and it was called Mellah. Because of this, every Jewish quarter in Morocco is now called a Mellah.
- Fes Mellah is a poor district. Watch out for your valuables while wandering around the beautiful narrow alleys.
- There is a tradition of washing your hands before leaving the cemetery, and this can be done at a small fountain at the entryway.
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Are Mellah and the Jewish cemetery worth visiting?
The Fes Mellah and its cemetery are described as an impressive site of imposing architecture. The houses of the Mellah today are notable for their marked difference from the traditional Muslim houses in the rest of the city. While the Muslim houses have no exterior features in order to safeguard the privacy of the family, the Jewish houses in the Mellah often have open balconies facing the street and a greater number of windows.
If you are going to visit Fes, then you can’t miss this place because there is a long history of Jewish tradition in Morocco here. In a country where Islam is the predominant religion, it is surprising to see such a different context with such a distinct architecture.
Though no or very few Jewish still live in the Jewish Quarter of Fes and it looks a bit run down, there are several reminders of their prior significant presence. It offers historical and cultural insight into a non-Muslim and non-Moroccan segment of Fes. So for me, it’s worth it.
If you can, hire a knowledgeable guide at your riad. It’ll make your visit much more meaningful.