Mohamed Chtatou

Jewish-Muslim Conviviality in Morocco (4/4)

Sefrou, the ‘’Little Jerusalem of Morocco’’

From the XVth to the mid-XXth Sefrou had the highest concentration of Jews per square meter in any Moroccan city but it was also the city of Rabbis, saints, and Jewish learned men, a fact that earned it the nickname of the ‘’ ‘’Little Jerusalem of Morocco’’. [i]

But the city was not only a famed place of religious knowledge but also a financial platform that financed caravan trade to and from Timbuktu (in today’s Mali) and happily engaged in a form of unfair trade, by obviously, today’s standards, whereby merchants exchanged salt against gold, among many other things. [ii]

In the suk of Sefrou,  [iii] Geertz and his team studied in great detail the bazaar economy of the city where the Jews prior to their arrival played a major economic role in the prosperity of the city.  The analysis indicates several ethnological orientations, observes the obligations related to the transactions, the social identity, the merchants, the population frequenting the places, the uses established for each trade, and the suk as an economic place

There were, indeed, two types of Jews in the suk of Sefrou: the Sitting Jew يهودي د الجلاس and the Walking Jew يهودي د لمشي . The Sitting Jew was the equivalent of today’s banker. He held a tiny shop in the suk/bazaar and provided necessary funds for the trade caravans that left the city on and off to Timbuktu. The Sitting Jew was also the ‘’banker’’ who provided the necessary loans, on easy terms, to Berber farmers coming from the neighboring areas and Arab inhabitants of the city, in return for a fixed interest rate known as tâlec طالع   meaning the ’’ascending’’. Given that usury الربا was strictly forbidden by Islamic sharica, for centuries Jews were the bankers of Morocco on internal and external levels. They arranged loans for the makhzen المخزن (traditional government) as well as small and big traders and also individuals such as Berber peasants who paid back the money in the summer after the harvest.

In Sefrou, the Walking Jew was the trusted  and able caravan guide who conducted this perilous enterprise to and back safely. He was known as azettat ازطاط  [iv]. He would lead the caravan through the territories of different tribes exhibiting their colors on entering their territory to ask for amânامان  (peace and security) on payment of some sort of a tithe. Jews were the only accepted guides because they were trustworthy and diplomatic and had the flair to solve any problem that the caravan could encounter on it way.

The suk/bazar of Sefrou was not any given marketplace, it was a commercial place where loans were contracted, the caravan’s mission was negotiated, and gold was bought and exchanged for land or other goods. This market was the gate for trade with sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of Morocco and Jews played a major role in its success.

Having said that, the Jews of Sefrou were not only successful traders and played a key role in the development of the Moroccan economy but they were also key actors in social harmony and religious dialogue.

In Sefrou, Both Muslims and Jews shared in saint veneration. [v] In the northern quarter of the city, outside the walls there was the tomb of a female Jewish saint known as Setti Messcuda and somewhat related to another female Jewish saint, Setti Fadma, buried in the valley of Ourika, near Marrakesh. It seems, according to oral history, her shrine was destroyed around 1920 by the French to make a place for urban sprawl, however, there is no written document attesting to the veracity of this. According to oral literature, both Jews and Muslims visited her shrine for physical ailments and mental maladies.

Another important shared saint is situated in Jbal Bina, outside of the city, on the way to Fez. This is the famous Kâf al-Moumen كاف المومن  ‘’The cave of the believer’’, the shrine of a saint venerated by both Muslims and Jews. According to oral history, this unknown saint is in both Jewish and Muslim hagiography and religious history.

All in all, like all the saints shared by both Muslims and Jews all over Morocco, Kâf al-Moumen is a stark example of religious communion, social Intimacy, and cultural conviviality.

The Jews of Sefrou were then and now very attached to their Moroccan identity and their Moroccanness, a strong feeling known as Tamaghrabitتمغرابيت . [vi] On this particular point, Clifford Geertz writes: [vii]

“from many points of view it looks exactly like the Muslim community; from as many others, totally different […] Moroccan to the core and Jewish to the same core, they were heritors of a tradition double and indivisible and in no way marginal.”

This point of view is shared by Daniel J. Schroeter who says: [viii]

‘’Moroccan Jews have been the subject of numerous studies, most of which would agree with Geertz’s assessment. Yet what are the characteristics of this “Moroccan” Jewish core that so many scholars have assumed to be embedded in Moroccan society and culture? While scholars debate the similarities and differences between Muslim and Jews of Morocco and whether Muslim-Jewish relations were either relatively harmonious or fraught with tensions, very few question the essential Moroccanness of the Jews. Many contemporary Jews whose origins are from Morocco and who understand their Moroccanness as an identity deeply rooted in Moroccan soil share this general perception. Of all the Jews from the Islamic world, the tenacity of Moroccan Jews’ sense of attachment to their country of origins is perhaps unparalleled.’’

The Jews expelled after the Reconquista are well-received in Morocco

In the fifteenth century, Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal were welcomed by the Moroccan authorities, but these newcomers (megorashim), arrogating to themselves communal power in the south, were viewed with great suspicion by the native Jews (toshavim). [ix] There is also a fear of their expertise and the economic competition that might result. The refugees havd their own synagogues, and cemeteries, and lived according to their own customs. Particularly in the north, in cities such as Tangier and Tetouan, [x] they assimilated local communities and turned these cities into hotbeds of Iberian Judaism, treating local Jews as forasteros (foreigners). Until recently, members of these communities spoke their own language, Haketiya, a form of Judeo-Spanish, while others spoke Judeo-Arabic. [xi]

Later, Morocco served as a haven for many Marranos (Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly practiced Judaism: Crypto-Jews) [xii] who arrived from the Iberian Peninsula and the surrounding islands. Jews practiced virtually all professions, including farming and ranching, but were mainly peddlers, artisans, small businessmen, and moneylenders.

Speaking of the influx of the megorashim to Morocco and how well they were received by the population and the authorities, Haim Zafrani writes: [xiii]

[“the number [of these Jewish emigrants] … is a matter of vague approximations, even imaginary and fantastical. However, one could retain, with the greatest caution, some of the figures collected in various documents: about forty thousand arrived in the ports of Arzila [present-day Asila], Salé, Badis and elsewhere on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, with about twenty thousand of them finding refuge in Fez or in the interior of the country. But we must take into account the number of emigrants leaving from the Spanish and Portuguese ports and of which little is known precisely, the hazards of the crossing, the number of victims at sea, (…) the populations that other plagues (popular riots, fires, famines and epidemics) have decimated, the families in transit continuing their journey to the East after a more or less long stay in Fez and in other metropolises. (…) We must add here (…) those among the Megorashim, landed on the peaceful beaches of southern Morocco, arrived in more welcoming places and established themselves there (Azemmour, Safi, old Essaouira, Agadir), or those who went deep into the country to the interior of the country to settle there, acquire land and integrate into the local economic and socio-cultural landscape (Marrakech and its region, the valleys of Todgha in the High Atlas).’’]

‘’Le nombre [de ces émigrés juifs] … relève de vagues approximations, voire de l’imaginaire et du fantasme. On pourrait cependant retenir, avec la plus grande prudence, quelques-uns des chiffres recueillis dans divers documents : une quarantaine de mille arrivés dans les ports d’Arzila [l’actuelle Asila], Salé, Badis et ailleurs sur les côtes méditerranéennes et atlantiques, une vingtaine de mille d’entre eux allant trouver refuge à Fès, ou à l’intérieur du pays. Mais il faut prendre en compte le nombre des émigrés en partance des ports espagnols et portugais et dont on sait peu de chose de façon précise, les aléas de la traversée, le nombre des victimes en mer, (…) les populations que d’autres fléaux (émeutes populaires, incendies, famines et épidémies) ont décimées, les familles en transit poursuivant leur voyage vers l’Orient après un séjour plus au moins long à Fès et dans d’autres métropoles. (…) Il faut ajouter ici (…) ceux qui parmi les Megorashim, ont débarqué sur les plages paisibles du Maroc méridional, sont arrivés dans des lieux plus accueillants et y ont fait souche (Azemmour, Safi, la vielle Essaouira, Agadir), ou ceux qui se sont enfoncés à l’intérieur du pays pour s’y établir, y acquérir des terres et s’intégrer dans le paysage économique et socioculturel local (Marrakech et sa région, les vallées de Todgha dans le Haut-Atlas).’’

Among the few testimonies about the settlement of expelled Jews in Morocco is that of Abraham Ben Salomon de Torrutiel, born in Spain in the province of Valencia in 1482. In his work Sefer ha-Kabbalah (‘’Book of Tradition’’), which dates from 1511, he writes that Abraham Ben David le Cordouan, after having described the tribulations on the way to North Africa and the misfortunes encountered at sea and in the cities of the coast at the hands of the Christian Spanish or Portuguese authorities, praises, on the other hand, the Sultan of Morocco, Muhammad ash-Shaykh al-Wattâsî (1472-1505) for his hospitable attitude towards the refugees, receiving them everywhere in his kingdom, especially in Fez, where he himself was established. This is what he says: [xiv]

“I will evoke the memory of the just king Moulay Mohammed, son of the great king Moulay AlChaykh, a just (hasid) among the just of the nations, who received the Jews expelled from Spain, who, until his death, behaved with kindness towards the people of Israel, for it was God [who] invested him with the sovereignty over the kingdom of Fez”.

This testimony reflects the sympathy that the Wattasid Sultans of Fez reserved for the Jewish exiles from Spain, after 1492, by welcoming them in the best conditions, despite some difficulties linked to the social and political unrest that marked this unstable period: lack of a central power over the entire Moroccan map, marked by years of violent struggles and violent wars between the Wattasids and the Saadians, drought, famines and cholera; elements illustrated particularly and perfectly by the testimony of Abraham Ben David le Cordouan.

Another testimony by Salomon Ibn Warga, [xv] also expresses himself in the same terms concerning the welcome given to the Jews in question by the Moroccan sovereign.

According to Rabbi Abraham Azoulay, one of the members of the group that was shipwrecked upon arrival in Salé, the landing of the survivors was a miracle: [xvi]

” The people who arrived in Fez had no money and few clothes to cover themselves; they didn’t know where to stay. Sultan Muhammad ash-Shaykh al-Wattâsî welcomed them with compassion, seeking to alleviate their misery. The community of Fez organized itself to provide them with first aid “.

From these testimonies, we have been able to reconstruct some of the trajectories of the Jews expelled from Spain and who found refuge in Morocco, in very difficult conditions linked to the unstable context, socially, politically and economically in Morocco during the period 1492- 1497.

The Jews concerned arrived in successive waves and settled, temporarily or permanently, depending on the case, in the Mediterranean or Atlantic ports,  under Portuguese control at the time, such as Tangier, Ceuta, Arsila, Safi, Azemmour, Mazagan; and  in the metropolises of the interior of Morocco, under Moroccan -Muslim- control, such as Taza, Meknes, Debdou, Marrakesh, Sefrou and Fez.

In the east of Morocco, there was an important Jewish community, notably in Debdou, where Jews who had fled persecution in Spain at the end of the XIIIth century had taken refuge. After 1492, there was a massive arrival of several thousand Jews in the welcoming city of Debdou, so much so that it was the only Moroccan city, at the time, where the number of Jews greatly exceeded that of Muslims. [xvii]

Conclusion: vivre-ensemble

The cities of Sefrou, Essaouira, Debdou, Fez, Marrakesh, Tetouan, etc. with their millenary history, their civilizational wealth, and their soul full of spirituality, have always served as a true standard-bearer in its most universal scope, of the values of openness, peaceful coexistence and living together between Muslims, Jews and Christians.

This spirit of tolerance, peace, and communion that forms the DNA of these ancient cities, has earned them the originality to be “fortresses” of resistance and resilience to all “amnesia” and attempts to promote division, fracture and denial of others, offering, thus, through long centuries of history, the example of a peaceful Morocco, a singular space of freedom and humanism, where unity flourishes more in pluralism and diversity, making the Kingdom an unprecedented exception on a global scale.

Throughout the long existence of the Jewish minority in Morocco, the Jews thanks to their great sense of adaptability and dialogue have cultivated an intimacy with Muslims both Arabs and Amazigh/Berbers over the centuries and that is why they feel their departure to Israel, Europe, and the Americas as an open wound that would not heal, or as the French Moroccan politician and documentary-maker David Assouline, [xviii] originally from Sefrou, said: ‘’a sweet wound’’. His documentary film on the departure of Moroccan Jews entitled: ’’Entre Paradis Perdu et Terre Promise’’ was introduced by the French daily newspaper Libération  in the following terms: [xix]

‘’Que reste-t-il de Sefrou, la petite Jérusalem du Maroc, paradis terrestre oriental adoré de Colette? Une mémoire, une douce blessure pour les enfants de ces milliers de juifs qui vécurent autrefois dans cette petite ville marocaine proche de Fès. «La terre d’Israel était ici» dit Moshe, un des derniers Juifs à avoir quitté Sefrou pour Israël. Ils sont partis les uns après les autres, chassés par l’indépendance marocaine, les guerres du Moyen Orient et cette peur diffuse qui a eu raison de la douceur de vivre ensemble, Juifs et Arabes, sans histoires. Il faut voir le docu de David Assouline pour les belles images de ce passé paisible dans la medina et découvrir, une fois de plus, que le drame de l’intégration ne se joue pas forcément là où on l’attend. Pour les anciens de Sefrou, la terre promise a eu un goût amer. «J’étais maître, je suis devenu serviteur», dit l’un d’eux qui raconte les humiliations, la morgue des juifs d’Europe et les jeunes filles qui tournent le dos quand on dit qu’on est Marocain. Pour finir par s’en accomoder, «Mes fils, au moins n’ont pas été traités de sales juifs».’’

[‘’What remains of Sefrou, the little Jerusalem of Morocco, the oriental earthly paradise adored by Colette? A memory, a sweet wound for the children of the thousands of Jews who once lived in this small Moroccan town near Fez. “The land of Israel was here” says Moshe, one of the last Jews to leave Sefrou for Israel. They left one after the other, driven out by Moroccan independence, the wars in the Middle East and the widespread fear that overcame the sweetness of living together, Jews and Arabs, without fuss. David Assouline’s documentary should be seen for the beautiful images of this peaceful past in the medina and to discover, once again, that the drama of integration is not necessarily played out where we expect it to be. For the elders of Sefrou, the promised land had a bitter taste. “I was a master, I became a servant”, says one of them who tells of the humiliations, the morgue of the European Jews and the young girls who turn their backs when they say they are Moroccan. In the end, he came to terms with the fact that “at least my sons were not called dirty Jews”.’’]


You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu


End notes:

[i] Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’Sefrou: Moroccan City Of Religious Symbiosis Between Islam And Judaism – Analysis’’, Eurasia Review, March 28, 2020.

[ii] Crapanzano, Vincent. Economic Development and Cultural Change, vol. 29, no. 4, 1981, pp. 849–60. JSTOR,

[iii] The suk/bazar of Sefrou was the focus of a study carried by Geertz and his associates in the sixties of the last century:

Clifford Geertz, ‘’Suq : The Bazaar Economy in Sefrou’’, in Clifford Geertz, L. Geertz, H. Rosen, Meaning and Order in Maroccan Society : Three Essays in Cultural Analysis, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979.

[iv] The word azettat comes from the Tamazight lexeme azetta meaning woven carpet or piece of carpet which exhibits the motifs and the wool material of each Berber tribe. It is in a way the emblem of a given tribe. In today’s Moroccan Arabic azettat means the person who can get render a given person services making use, sometimes, of illegal means such as corruption money. It also means an influential person in the administration or government who can get you a job or render you any service using his position, known also as piston in French.

[v] Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’The Shared Beliefs Of Muslims And Jews In Morocco – Analysis’’, Eurasia Review, March 8, 2020.

[vi] Tozy, Mohamed. ‘’Tamaghrabit, mode d’emploi’’, Zamane, September 4, 2019.

[vii] Geertz, Clifford. “Suq: The Bazaar Economy in Sefrou,” in Meaning and Order in Moroccan
Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis
, eds., Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz and Lawrence
Rosen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 164.

[viii] Schroeter, Daniel J. ‘’Chapter 12 How Jews Became “Moroccan”’’, in From Catalonia to the Caribbean: The Sephardic Orbit from Medieval to Modern Times. Leiden: Brill, 2018, pp. 218-240.

[ix] Malka, Victor. Les Juifs Sépharades. Paris : PUF, coll. « Que sais-je ? », 1986.

[x] Leibovici, Sarah. « La communauté juive de Tétouan et l’Espagne dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle », Institut d’études africaines éd., Les relations intercommunautaires juives en méditerranée occidentale. XIIIe-XXe siècles. CNRS Éditions, 1984, pp. 119-128.

[xi] Abitbol, Michel. ‘’Juifs d’Afrique du Nord et expulsés d’Espagne après 1492’’, Revue de l’histoire des religions, tome 210, n°1, 1993. pp. 49-90,

[xii] Jacobs, J. Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews.Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2002.

[xiii] Zafrani, Haim. Le Judaïsme maghrébin. Le Maroc terre des rencontres, des cultures et des civilisations. Rabat : Éd. Marsan, 2003, p. 58.

[xiv] Ibid., pp. 56-57.

[xv] Ibid., p. 57.

[xvi] Abbou, Isaac D. Musulmans andalous et Judéo-Espagnols. Casablanca : Éd. A. Antar, 1953, pp. 238-240.

[xvii] Chahlan, Ahmed. ‘’Moudunun marhribiyatun fi kitabatin a’ibriyatin’’, in l’ouvrage collectif : Moutanawwi’at Mohammed Hajji (Variétés Mohammed Hajji). Casablanca : Ed. Dar Al Rarb Al Islami, 1998, pp. 259-280, and Abbou, Isaac D. Musulmans andalous et Judéo-Espagnols, op. cit., pp. 288-289.

[xviii] David Assouline, born June 16, 1959 in Sefrou (Morocco), is a French politician and historian, member of the Socialist Party. He has been a senator for Paris since September 26, 2004.



About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.