A city of proverbial tolerance
North of Morocco, not far from the imperial city of Fez, lies the locality of Sefrou in the lap of the Atlas Mountains. It was in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, a haven of peace and togetherness where Muslims and Jews lived in total communion. It forged, then, the image of a place where cultures, creeds, languages, and traditions mixed freely without any bias or sense of hatred. In spite of its small size, the city of Sefrou reflected the spirit of a plural, multi-ethnic, and tolerant Morocco with Arabic language (Moroccan Darija) spoken alongside Tamazight/Berber dialects as well as Hebrew and French.
Indeed, because of its location at the foot of the central Middle Atlas on the former trans-Saharan trade route (Trik as-Sultane), Sefrou was, throughout its history, a transit point, a crossroads of diverse cultures and creeds and a human receptacle. These factors combined with the diversity of its resources have given it important opportunities for integration and human fulfilment. As a result, it has attracted people of various ethnic and tribal origins (Amazigh, Arabs) and confessional backgrounds (Muslims, Jews, and Christians). This has made it a home of exemplary cohabitation where a secular urban tradition based on openness, coexistence, and tolerance has developed and thrived for two centuries on end.
The name of the city comes from the name of the Amazigh/Berber tribe Ahl Sefrou,[i] who converted to Judaism around the second century AD. It occupied the Wad Aggay meaning « River of the Cheeks » in Tamazight and the river bore, also, the name of Wad Lihoudi, the « River of the Jew » past the Mellah, Jewish quarter, of the city.
Sefrou was born of the regrouping, for security reasons, of inhabitants who settled along the river in a walled settlement. The mellah, Jewish district, for the same security reasons, occupied a central position inside the Muslim neighborhoods of the medina and that shows quite clearly that the Muslim population cared so much about the safety of their Jewish brethren, so they placed them in the center of the city, for maximum security. Dominating the river, stands the suburb of al-Qal’a (meaning fortress in Arabic), a detachment from the city, as to remind visitors of its refractory past and rebellious nature.
Sefrou is surrounded by high crenelated ramparts pierced by seven gates dating from the 18th century when it was an important stage of the caravan trade as evidenced by the many fondouks (caravanserais) of the city. Its various zaouïas (religious lodges), mosques, hammams (public baths), and shops relate, in turn, to its great commercial influence in the region. Sefrou has always been a place of human confluence (from different regions of Morocco and Andalusia) and confessional brewing (Muslim, Jewish, and later on Christian) and ethnic communion (Arab and Amazigh/Berber).
Founded in 682, a century before the imperial city of Fez, Sefrou is located 28 kilometers south of this city and culminates at 850 meters above sea level; It has always been called the « oasis without a palm tree » or « the garden of the kingdom, » a garden that all the sovereigns of Morocco have carefully protected and praised. However, the late King Hassan II, in the 90s of the last century lamented, in one of his speeches, that the city because of avid and uncontrolled urban development, lost, alas, its garden specificity and became a jungle of concrete. He directly blamed the elected local government for the lack of ecology-mindedness and, indirectly, for corruption practices.
With its ramparts surrounding the city and protecting it from bellicose tribes of bled as-siba (land of dissidence)[ii] and its 7 imposing gates, a lucky number in Arab and Amazigh culture, and, also, in Moroccan Jewish cabal tradition. Sefrou was made famous for its waterfalls of about 10 meters high and the waters of Wad Aggay which make its land fertile, where many fruit trees grow, of which the best known is, undoubtedly, the cherry tree: habb lmellouk (the fruit of kings.)
The city became in the twelfth century a center of thriving commerce where the producers of the regions of northern Morocco and those of Tafilalet met to exchange crops, handicrafts, and hides. It was, also, the starting point of the famed Sub-Saharan caravan trade whereby Morocco exchanged salt and hides against the gold of the black African Ashanti mines, a commerce that is known, today, as the « unfair trade. » This trade, for centuries, was financed by Jews keeping small « banking shops » known as Hwanet tale’ in the medina of Sefrou and its caravans that traveled for 44 days to Timbuktu, in today’s Mali, led by Jewish guides respected for their leadership, fairness, patience, courage, and sense of leadership. They were known as azettat (because they carried long sticks bearing the azetta, woven cloth of each Amazigh tribe traversed in peace (aman,)) which in down-to-earth language means pre-paid free passage tithe.
Moulay Idris II in Sefrou
Sefrou is twelve centuries old. Moulay Idris II stayed there in 806 before the foundation of the city of Fez. He lived in a place called Habbouna (from Arabic ” they loved us ”) which is now a quarter of the city. During his stay in Sefrou, Moulay Idriss made some trips to Bahlil whose inhabitants he converted to Islam with much duress.
According to Rawd al-Qirtass (The Garden of Pages,) [iii], Bahlil did not oppose any resistance to the conversion, but it seems from oral tradition that the Chqounda tribe resigned itself only to constraint and forced action of Moulay Idris because it was probably still influenced by the ideas of the Second Roman Legion that dwelt the area during the Roman Empire colonization of Morocco (52 CE-5th century AD).
In any case, the people of this tribe reserved a very cold welcome to the Idrisid Sultan, and following his failure to convert peacefully the town of Bhalil, he reportedly returned to Sefrou and on his way, he named a nearby mountain Jbel Binna and said: “Had jbel binna or binhoum“, which means literally: this is a border mountain between us and them. Since then the name of “Binna” has referred to this mountain.
Without any drinking water in Bhalil, the people were obliged to go to get water supply from the Wad Aggaï of Sefrou, at the risk of dangers constantly increasing from animosity towards them shown by the Muslims of Sefrou. Tired of rejection, the Christian inhabitants of Bhalil submitted to the will of the sultan on the condition that he insured them access to the precious water supply.
Moulay Idris, on their conversion, fulfilled their desire by a miracle; he apparently visited anew their village and made the water spill from the ground after giving it a sword blow. This water would be since the source of Ain Rta which lies nowadays in the middle of the village. In admiration of this divine miracle, the last hostile Bahloulis (inhabitants of the village) rallied immediately to the will of the sultan, but not without having earned, since, the nickname of Bahlil originating in the Arabic word “bahloul” meaning “stupid and ignorant person verging on idiocy,” which was granted to them by their Sefrou neighbors who laughed at them at having hesitated so long to embrace Islam.
Today, however, the inhabitants reject this story and say that the name Bhalil comes from the Arabic word « baha’ al-lil » which means in Arabic the « beauty of the night » of this unique troglodyte village. Many centuries later, the inhabitants of Bhalil would, in return, doubt of the true Islamic identity of the Muslims of Sefrou because of their proverbial coexistence with the Jews, by referring to them in Jewish Moroccan Arabic dialect, obviously distinct from Muslim Arabic dialect: « msalmin di safrou » (Muslims of Sefrou.)
Sefrou, the « Little Jerusalem »
In 1967, Sefrou this quiet beautiful city situated in the piedmont of the Middle Atlas was losing its last Jewish inhabitants in the wake of the six-day war in the Middle East.[iv] The Jews have lived in Sefrou since their arrival in Morocco in the year 70 AD, after the destruction of their second temple of Jerusalem by the Romans and it was for centuries the capital of Moroccan coexistence and tolerance. It had the highest concentration of Jews by square meter anywhere in the world, a fact that owned it the sobriquet: « Little Jerusalem. »
In the limits of the small city lived Amazigh, Arabs, and Jews in total harmony. The Amazigh practiced agriculture and cattle-raising, the Arabs some agriculture, menial jobs and petty trade and the Jews banking services and Saharan caravan trade, whereby the « Sitting Jew » was a banker and shopkeeper and the « Walking Jew, » itinerant peddler and caravan guide known as « azettat. »
The cherry of Sefrou, known throughout the kingdom, is distinguished by its black color, a very sweet taste, and a weight of more than 14g. Attached to this fruit, the Sefriouis devote to it every year a festival which sees the election of Miss Cerisette, a girl chosen from the most beautiful maidens of the kingdom, whatever her creed might be, and daily processions and celebrations that attract people from all over the country.
Every year, on the early days of the Cherry Festival (moussem hab l-mlouk), from 1920 to 1956, the locals organized a procession to the grotto of Kaf al-Moumen which, supposedly, houses the tomb of the prophet Daniel and where, also, according to a local legend, Muslims believe that (sab’atu rijal,) the seven pious men and their dog have fallen asleep for centuries. Muslims and Jews organized this procession to ask their respective spirits to grace and bless with baraka their yearly celebration. Fantasias, dances, and songs punctuate this important agricultural event.
At the edge of the city, there is a miraculous source, called Lalla Rqya, near the tomb of a rare woman saint (marabout) by the same name, reputed to have the power to cure madness, epilepsy, and nervous disorders. During this moussem (yearly celebration), the blood of sacrificed animals is poured into this spring, after accomplishing the sacrifice at the shrine of the patron saint Sidi Ali Bousserghine, overlooking the city from the height of a hill and protecting it from evil, for the success of the festival and the benediction of this well-known religious figure to the city and all its inhabitants.
Sefrou has, also, been known, for centuries, for its grace, tolerance and harmonious cohabitation of the three Abrahamic religions, as evidenced by these verses of the venerable Sufi Sheikh Abdelkader Timouri, in tribute to the oldest Festival of Morocco, celebrated every mid-June since 1920:
« O you visitor,
Have you been informed about the beauty of this city?
Its gardens, waterfalls, and sites that
Give you the joy of the eyes and the happiness of living.
Its climate, its water and its cherries
Are for you the cure of all evils.
That you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim,
The inhabitants of this city welcome you with open arms.
And, at dawn, take you to the highest point of the hill
To collect the baraka of venerated Saint Sidi Ali Bousserghine. »
According to Leo Africanus,[v] Sefrou would have been built well before Fez: “We went from the city of Sefrou to village of Fez” said the local legend, attributed to Rawd al-Qirtas. Apparently, by the time he had started the construction site in Fez, Idris I had come to settle for two years in this piedmont town (807). He would have resided at a village called “Habouna”, the village of “those who loved us,” a name that would have been given by Idris II to this place, now located south of the medina and this in recognition of the warm welcome that the inhabitants of the place had given him during his campaign of the Islamization of the region.
According to several European writers, who visited Sefrou in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the French protectorate of 1912, the city was described as one of the most prosperous and most orderly in Morocco. In spite of its small size, the small community of Sefrou reflected, in the nineteenth century, the spirit of a plural, multi-ethnic, and tolerant Morocco. Inhabitants spoke Arabic, Tamazight/Berber dialects as well as Hebrew. It was a great center of Moroccan Jewish culture from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
During a presentation made by Si Mbarek Bekkai,[vi] mayor of Sefrou to the association Amis de Fes (Friends of Fez) on April 30, 1950, he put the population of the city at :
- Europeans: 650 ;
- Jews: 6100; and
- Muslims: 12100.
In the nineteenth century in Sefrou, Jews outnumbered Arabs and Berbers
The Jewish population of Sefrou comes from Tafilalet region and Debdou area. A mellah was built for them under the reign of the Marinid Sultan Yacoub ben Abdelhaq (Marinid dynasty, 13th–15th century.) The Jews of Sefrou were artisans who specialized in copper, silver, gold and leather, but, also, practiced weaving, carpentry, trade of wood and coal.
In addition to their commercial role, Sefrou Jews insured communication services from the city of Fez in the North to the region of Tafilalt in the south. The Jewish population accounted for almost half of the population before the French colonialization, it became diminished after the independence of Morocco, their neighborhoods, today, remain unmaintained, degrading and sheltering prostitutes and outlaws.
In 1890, the flood of the river caused the death of many of the inhabitants of the city, including several members of the Jewish community; such a catastrophe was repeated in 1950 and further reduced the Jewish community which then comprised 5,000 people.
In the nineteenth century in Sefrou, Jews outnumbered Muslims: Arabs and Berbers. Peaceful and inviting, this city dazzled travelers, to the point that Colette speaks of it as a “paradise.” The Jews who resided in the city are indigenous Berbers from Tafilat, Arabic-speaking Jews of Fassi origin (of Fez) as well as descendants of the Spanish exiles of 1492, the Famous Megorashim (Hebrew: מגורשים “expelled”). They were highly integrated in their city and were masters of their destiny and prospered as small craftsmen, successful traders, religious scholars or Hebrew teachers. One of the most prominent members of the community is the Rabbi and Judge Shaul Yehoshuaah Abitbol (1740-1809,) who is known for his collection of legal decisions Avné chèch (Marble blocks).
For Collette,[vii] who visited Sefrou in 1920, the city was dazzling with beauty :
“Sefrou: The earthly paradise, more or less as we imagine it if we imagine it oriental and populated, and restricted. Sefrou is a puddle of fertile, juicy earth, all quivering with the laughter of the water. The pomegranate grove flames, the cherry swells, the fig tree smells of milk, the grass delivers its juice as soon as it is crumpled. The Bengal rose masters the vine, a playful wind whitens the enclosures, showing the reverse side of all the leaves at once. Such a gentle place makes mankind: the boys are beautiful, the young Jewish girls smooth, sparkling with eyes and teeth, and the water leaps under the bridges between rocks and wheat terraces where the grain, shovelled by children, flows like a blonde strike.”
On the account of the local representative of the state authority, the pasha, she says :
“A rustic pasha reigns over this small Eden of eighty hectares. He is gray and has a bellicose nose between soft eyes. Faithful, he fought well, loving as much the gun as the grafting knife. Another one who wants to reduce Abd-el-Krim to his exact dimensions: let him be entrusted with two thousand horsemen, and the matter is settled… His house is cold, clean, simple except for the parade beds, and when he leads us through the streets, everyone kisses him on the shoulder. The rose garden that enchants the square does not belong to him, but he forces the lock a little to enter, white and confident as a marauding archangel, and pick us roses.”
She further marvels at the beauty of the city in the following terms:
“We leave, in the noise of the springs that fall from the slopes, pass under the road, reappear, fill a green basin, cross the road again on our heads in a hollow trunk that lets trembling threads of water hang down, watering each layon of the vine, each furrow of barley. Happy land, where fat children roll, where big snakes, round themselves, softly girdle the foot of the olive trees! ”
With the arrival of the French, the decadence of the city of Sefrou went hand in hand with the general economic crisis in Morocco. The French Universal Alliance (Alliance Israélite Universelle –AIU-) [viii]opened francophone schools and permanently disrupted the educational model of the hedarim (Jewish traditional elementary schools specialized in the teachings of the Torah). In the early 1980s, Norman Stillman[ix] reports that there were only four elderly people of Jewish descent left in the Mellah of the city.
Charles de Foucauld visits Sefrou[x]
On the advice of Mac Carthy, curator of the library of Algiers, Charles de Foucauld following his intention to visit Morocco (Reconnaissance au Maroc : 1883-1884) met Rabbi Mardochée Abi Serour who offered him to become his guide and told him to pretend to be a Jew to better go unnoticed in Morocco, a country forbidden to Christians. Charles de Foucauld then decided to adopt the Israelite costume and, thus, became the Rabbi Joseph Aleman, born in Muscovy, of the Russian Empire, from which he was forced out because of recent revolutions and political problems.
In this fashion, he thought he could travel within Morocco without attracting attention, bearing in mind that the Jew is considered a useful person though of inferior rank because of his dhimmi status.[xi] He, also, hoped that if discovered by his hosts they will be more discreet and will not reveal his true identity to Moroccan Muslims. His alleged origin – of Muscovy – can also explain and excuse his bad accent.
Rabbi Mardochée Abi Serour, whose role was to swear everywhere that Charles de Foucauld is a rabbi, was responsible for finding accommodation where the latter can calmly make observations and write his results, to protect him. Neither his black cap, nor his traditional cadenettes (pigtails worn on both sides of the head) prevented a certain number of Jews from recognizing him as a false brother but gladly without much consequence.[xii]
His stay in Fez, longer than originally hoped, due to the impossibility of finding a guide to go to Boujad during the month of Ramadan, allowed de Foucauld to go in recognition to Sefrou and Taza, he called; “the most miserable city of Morocco.”
Si Mbarek Bekkai, Pasha of Sefrou, during a conference at the “Friends of Fes” in 1950 evoked the passage to the city of the future missionary de Foucauld :[xiii]
“During his journey in Morocco Charles de Foucauld settled for a few days in Sefrou, in August 1883. He came from Fez, via Bhalil, disguised as a rabbi with his companion Rabbi Mordecai. He was received in a house in the now-famous Mellah by a man named David Lhalyel; the Chief Rabbi of Sefrou, Chaloum Azoulay, was appointed by the Jewish Community of the city to keep company to the two visiting rabbis. David’s wife surprised Foucauld one day while he was drawing in his room, where he thought he was safe from prying eyes, and she concluded that he was a false rabbi. When she was informed, Chaloum questioned Mordecai, pressed him with questions, and he finally confessed the truth, explained the purpose of his journey and made his host promise to keep it a secret for ten years. The latter kept his promise and, indeed, did not speak of this adventure until long afterward.
In Sefrou, Charles de Foucauld worked. He wrote a magnificent page on this oasis which inspired him. I would take the liberty of quoting it to you in full, if you will, when we come to the chapter on tourism, because I think that this quotation deserves to be known, it is the best propaganda that can be made about Sefrou. About two years ago, the passage from Charles de Foucauld to Sefrou was filmed by a troop of filmmakers led by Léon Poirier. This episode of Charles de Foucauld in Sefrou will appear in the “Gateway to the Desert” when this film is delivered to the public. »
During his journey in Morocco Charles de Foucauld stayed for a few days in Sefrou, in August 1883. He came from Fes, by the way of Bahlil, disguised as a rabbi with his companion and guide Rabbi Mordecai. He was received in a house in the mellah by a man named David Lhalyel; the chief rabbi of Sefrou, Chaloum Azoulay, was appointed by the Israelite Community of the city, to keep the two visiting rabbis company.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
[i] Sefrou, in Amazigh, it is Assefrou : As = place and efrou = hiding place. So this is the hiding place from dangers of aggression, animosity, and violence.
[ii] Bled es-Siba or Bled Siba (Arabic: بلاد السيبة), is a historical term in pre-colonial Moroccan history that refers to a lawless area that was out of the control of the Moroccan Sultans in the early 20th century. The relation between the central power of Makhzen and the region of Bled as-Siba was more complex than a simple territorial separation. Even though the tribes in Bled as-Siba were not submissive to the central power, the spiritual authority of the Sultan was always accepted which maintained the existence of the central authority.
Cf. Hoffman, Bernard G. (1967). The Structure of Traditional Moroccan Rural Society. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.
[iii] Rawḍ al-Qirṭās (Arabic: روض القرطاس) short for Kitāb al-ānīs al-muṭrib bi-rawḍ al-qirṭās fī ākhbār mulūk al-maghrab wa tārīkh madīnah Fās (الأنيس المطرب بروض القرطاس في أخبار ملوك المغرب وتاريخ مدينة فاس, (The Entertaining Companion Book in the Garden of Pages from the Chronicle of the Kings of Morocco and the History of the City of Fes) is a history of Morocco written in Arabic in the 1326 C.E. It includes many details about the wider Moroccan empire in Iberian Peninsula and Algeria. The work is usually known by its short title Rawd al-Qirtas meaning The Garden of Pages. It is said that this has a double meaning in that there was a public garden in Fes called The Garden of al-Qirtas, the latter name being a nickname of Ziri ibn Atiyya. The work has always been very popular in Morocco and continues so to the present day. In the days before printing, this popularity led to a large number of variant manuscripts. A consequence of this is some uncertainty about the author, who is given in some versions as Ibn Abi Zar of Fes, and by some as Salih ibn Abd al-Halim of Granada. The consensus of modern opinion is that the original author is Ibn Abi Zar as stated by Ibn Khaldun and that Abd al-Halim is merely a summarizer at best. The double meaning of the title, the detailed history of Fes, and numerous mistakes in the geography of Iberia, are cited as evidence that the author was a native of Fes. The scope of the history is from the advent of Idris I in 788 to the Marinid Dynasty up to 1326.
French translation: A. Beaumier, Rawd al Kirtas. Histoire des Souverains du Maghreb et Annales de la Ville de Fes. Editions La Porte, Rabat, 1999.
Spanish Translation : A. Huici Miranda, Rawd el-Qirtas. 2nd edition, Anubar Ediciones, Valencia, 1964. Vol. 1 ISBN 84-7013-007-2, vol. 2 ISBN 84-7013-013-7.
English translation of sections on the Almoravids: N. Levtzion & J.F.P. Hopkins, Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history, Cambridge University Press, 1981, ISBN 0-521-22422-5 (reprint: Markus Wiener, Princeton, 2000, ISBN 1-55876-241-8)
[iv] Cf. Chtatou, M. « Emigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel in the 20th Century » in Eurasia Review
[v] Leo Africanus, Italian Giovanni Leone, original Arabic al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Wazzān al-Zayyātī or al-Fāsī, (born c. 1485, Granada, Kingdom of Granada [Spain]—died c. 1554, Tunis [now in Tunisia]), traveler whose writings remained for some 400 years one of Europe’s principal sources of information about Islam. Around 1526 he completed his greatest work, Descrittione dell’Africa (1550; A Geographical Historie of Africa, 1600). He eventually returned to North Africa, where he is believed to have died a Muslim.
[vii] Cf. Colette. 1920. Notes marocaines. Text written in 1920 and published in 1958. Éditions Mermod Genève.
[ix] Cf. Stillman, N. A. 1988. The Language and Culture of the Jews of Sefrou: An Ethnolinguistic Study. Manchester : University of Manchester.
[x] Cf. Foucauld, Vicomte C. 1888. Reconnaissance au Maroc : 1883-1884. Paris : Challamet et Cie, Editeurs, Librairie Orientale.
[xi] Dhimmī (Arabic : ذمي ḏimmī, IPA : [ˈðɪmmiː], collectively أهل الذمة ahl ul-ḏimmah/dhimmah “the people of the dhimma”) is a historical term referring to non-Muslims living in an Islamic state with legal protection. The word literally means “protected person”, referring to the state’s obligation under sharia to protect the individual’s life, property, and freedom of religion, in exchange for loyalty to the state and payment of the jizya tax, which complemented the zakat, or obligatory alms, paid by the Muslim subjects. Dhimmis were exempt from certain duties assigned specifically to Muslims, and did not enjoy certain privileges and freedoms reserved for Muslims, but were otherwise equal under the laws of property, contract, and obligation.
Cf. Mark. R. Cohen: Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 1994.
[xii] Cf. Bazin, R. 1921. Charles de Foucauld : Explorateur du Maroc, Ermite au Sahara. Paris : Plon. P. 25.
[xiii] Si Mbarek Bekkai, Pasha of Sefrou, during a conference at the “Friends of Fes” in 1950 evoked the passage to Sefrou of the future missionary :
« Au cours de son périple au Maroc Charles de Foucauld s’installa pendant quelques jours à Sefrou, en août 1883. Il y vint de Fès, par Bhalil, déguisé en rabbin avec son compagnon le rabbin Mardochée. Il fut reçu dans une maison au Mellah devenue célèbre, par un dénommé David Lhalyel ; le grand rabbin de Sefrou, Chaloum Azoulay, fut désigné par la Communauté israélite de la ville, pour tenir compagnie aux deux rabbins visiteurs. La femme de David surprit un jour de Foucauld en train de dessiner dans sa chambre, où il se croyait à l’abri des regards indiscrets, elle en conclut que c’était un faux rabbin. Averti, Chaloum interrogea Mardochée, le pressa de questions, celui-ci finit par avouer la vérité, expliqua les buts de son voyage et fit promettre à son hôte de lui garder le secret pendant dix ans. Ce dernier tint promesse et, en effet, ne parla de cette aventure que longtemps après.
À Sefrou, Charles de Foucauld a travaillé. Il a écrit une magnifique page sur cette oasis qui l’a inspiré. Je me permettrais de vous la citer intégralement, si vous le voulez bien, lorsque nous aborderons le chapitre du tourisme car j’estime que cette citation mérite d’être connue, elle constitue la meilleure propagande que l’on puisse faire sur Sefrou. Il y a deux ans environ, le passage de Charles de Foucauld à Sefrou, a été filmé par une troupe de cinéastes dirigée par Léon Poirier. Cet épisode de Charles de Foucauld à Sefrou paraîtra dans la « Porte du désert » lorsque ce film sera livré au public. »