Virtual Jewish World: Fez, Morocco
Fez is located in the northeast part of Morocco between the Riff and the Middle Atlas mountains on the two shores of the wadi (valley) Fez. The city is situated in a narrow valley and positioned on the old crossroads of caravan routes connecting the Saharan empires with the Atlantic and the Mediterranean shipping lanes. Fez remained a commercial center for much of its history. The estimated population in Fez is 300,000 with a tiny Jewish presence.
Fez was founded by Idriss I in the eighth century. His goal was to convert all his subjects to Islam, but his son and successor was more tolerant. Under Idriss II, the fledgling city expanded and Idriss surrounded the left bank with walls. After his death, further development was delayed until the 11th century when Prince Youseff Ibn Tachfine united both halves of the city and built a wall around Fez. This security inaugurated a prolonged period of prosperity that would peak in the 14th century under the reign of the Merinides Dynasty.
Jews played an important role in the commercial and cultural life of Morocco's capital city. Idriss II (808) admitted large numbers of Jews from Andalusia, whose commercial skills and wide regional contacts were instrumental in enriching his kingdom. They paid an annual tax of 30,000 dinars, an indication of their wealth. The influence they wielded and the respect they commanded are further demonstrated by a legendary tale that has been associated with the community. According to tradition, in 860, the ruler of Fez became infatuated with a young Jewish woman. He forced his way into a public bath in the Jewish quarter (al-Funduk al-Yahudi), where she was at the time. Though he was the most powerful person in the realm, his offense against the widely respected Jewish community caused a violent uprising throughout the town.
The golden age of the Jewish community in Fez lasted for nearly three hundred years. From the 9th to 11th centuries, its yeshivot (religious schools) attracted brilliant scholars, poets and grammarians. Sages such as Dunash Ibn Labrat, and Rabbi Isaac Alfasi spent most of their lives in Fez before they migrated to Spain. The invasions of the Almoravides and Almohades, fanatic Muslim sects, caused destruction and suffering to the Jewish community in Fez, just as it did throughout Andalusia. In fact, the most famous refugee from the Almohade terror in Fez was Moses Maimonides, who escaped with his family to Egypt in 1165. He had lived in Fez for five years after being uprooted from his home in Cordoba, Spain.
After these traumatic times, the welfare of the Jewish community was never certain. Depending on the ruling dynasty, Jewish life alternated between freedom and prosperity and merciless persecutions. During one such decline in 1438, the Jews were forced to live in a special Jewish quarter situated on the site referred to as the mellah in New Fez. Mellah is Arabic for salt, and the community got the name because the Jews were forced to salt the heads of executed prisoners prior to their public display. And yet, the sultan turned to the Jews of Fez to help straighten out the public finances. When he appointed a Jew as Prime Minister in 1465, the town rose up in anger, assassinated the sultan and his minister and massacred most of the Jewish community. In 1492, the influx of Spanish exiles reinvigorated the community and it managed to survive. Ironically, the Spanish exiles and the Jewish natives of Fez feuded often. Eventually, the Spanish newcomers gained the upper hand, and many of their customs became the minhag of the community and they held the office of nagid established at the beginning of the 16th century.
As Fez declined in political and economic importance in the late 16th century, many wealthy Jews left Fez. New Jewish arrivals to Fez from Dila brought diversity to the Jewish community, however much of its Spanish character was lost. During this period, Jews were involved in manufacturing gold thread, lace, embroidery and many were tailors or metalworkers.
In the 1800's, Jewish learning was reawakened and a number of Jewish schools opened, including 5 yeshivot.
A revolt broke out in 1912, two weeks after the French protectorate was founded. The Jewish community was ransacked and their property was burned. In 1925, most of the Jews left the old Jewish quarter and settled in the new sections of Fez. The Jewish population reached 22,000 in 1947. It decreased significantly during the 1950's and 1960's when many Jews emigrated to Israel, France, and Canada, and by the 1990s, fewer than 10,000 remained.
In 1997, Morocco had a Jewish population of 6,500; of that, 5,000 Jews lived in Casablanca and only 150 lived in Fez.
The mellah, along with the cemetary enclosed within, remains of the the most prominent Jewish features of the city today. There are no functioning synagogues in the Jewish quarter at the moment, but with UNESCO funds, several are being restored. One such building attached the cemetary is currently being used as a museum to house Jewish artifacts and memorabilia. In addition to the mellah, traces of Fez's Jewish past can also be seen in the heart of the old city (Fez I-bali), where one of the districts is named funduq I-yihud, which literally means "hostel/warehouse of the Jews."
Sources: Some of this material was originally published in Sparks! - an e-zine for Jewish families located on the Internet at http://www.sparksmag.com
The Material was supplemented by online database of Jewish communities at http://www.bh.org.il/Communities/Archive/Fez.htm
Dora Shampanier etching reprinted with permission from the collection “Synagogues In Glory & In Ruins”
Kosansky, Oren. Reading Jewish Fez: On the Cultural Identity of a Moroccan City. Ann Arbor, MI: International Institute, University of Michigan
vol. 8, no. 3, Spring/Summer 2001.