Moroccan Jewish Heritage Tour: The Jewish community has always been of great value in both historical and contemporary Morocco. The presence of Jews in Morocco stretches back more than 2,000 years, and estimates put their number as high as approximately 275,000, to be considered the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. Today, after vast waves of departures over the years, only about 2,000 Jews remain primarily in Casablanca, with about 500 elsewhere in Morocco. Despite the diminished number, the Jewish presence is still alive in a variety of sights all over the country.
We invite you to join our Mint Tea Tours crew to experience more than 2,000 years of Judaism in Morocco with our 16-day Moroccan Jewish Heritage Tour!
Upon arrival at Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport, meet up with our team (private driver with an option of an additional private guide or host) and start your discovery of the Moroccan Jewish legacy. Cast aside any jet lag, for while Casablanca is the business capital and the beating heart of economy in Morocco, there is a lot of sightseeing to do! Currently, the largest number of Moroccan Jews live in Casablanca. It is for this reason that we consider the start from Casablanca to be strategic.
Start today’s agenda by visiting Temple Beth-El. While Casablanca boasts more than 30 synagogues, Beth-El is the largest and is considered the main Jewish site in Casablanca, with a rich history to which is added the culture of modern-day Moroccan Jews.
Next, visit the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca which is the only one of its type in Africa and the Muslim world. The museum, founded in 1997 with the support of the Foundation of Jewish-Moroccan Cultural Heritage, is believed to be a lively image of more than 2,000 years of Jewish religion, history, tradition and culture in Morocco. After, discover Casablanca’s Jewish cemetery which is located in a typical Jewish quarter, commonly known as the “mellah” by locals. Mellahs, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are found in most of the largest and important cities all over Morocco. However, it should be noted at this point that most of the Jewish communities in Morocco now live in the modern or “European” areas but still keep properties in the mellah. The tomb of the Jewish saint Eliahou in Casablanca’s cemetery is well-known in the city, at which the Jewish community of Casablanca gather to celebrate a hiloula, or prayer festival, once a year. Finally, one cannot leave Casablanca without catching a glimpse of the grand mosque of Hassan II. The largest mosque in Morocco, it also has the highest minaret in the world and has a capacity of more than 25,000 worshippers. Interestingly enough, the building cost nearly 1 billion U.S. dollars, raised entirely by public offerings, from all layers of Moroccans, including contributions from the Jewish and Christians communities, which makes it stand out as a symbol of harmony among the three main Abrahamic religions. At the end of the day, join the driver in your VIP van for the drive to Rabat, the administrative capital of Morocco, where you will spend the night.
An early start would be a good idea today, because there are many beautiful sites to see and discover. To start, visit Hassan Tower, built of beautiful reddish stone. The tower stands high above the esplanade and across from the mausoleum where members of the royal family are buried. The tower was supposed to have been the minaret to a huge mosque (the largest at its time) that was never completed. Next, visit the magnificent gardens of Udayas Kasbah. Then, visit Chellah, a site whose history dates back to the Roman Empire with its wonderfully preserved structures.
In afternoon, join your driver for approximately 3 hours of driving toward Tangier, known by locals as the “Bride of the North”. Tangier is located on the northern tip of Morocco, where Africa and Europe face each other. During its rich history, Tangier endured the rules of Vandals, Byzantine Empire, Arabs, Moroccan Berbers, Spanish and Portuguese. Interestingly enough, Paul Bowles, Barbara Hutton, Gavin Maxwell and Malcolm Forbes are some of the figures that once settled in Tangier for its beautiful architecture and atmosphere. Currently, Tangier has two official ports which link Africa, and specifically Morocco, to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar. The Jewish
community in Tangier is rather small compared to Casablanca, with approximately 150 members, but its Jewish heritage is very much diverse and still practiced. Upon arrival to the city, stop and discover the ancient Cave of Hercules and then head up towards Cape Spartel to witness the beautiful pageant of the Mediterranean Sea embracing the Atlantic Ocean during a romantic sunset.
Today is also considered an eventful day, because beautiful Tangier is rich with sites and Jewish heritage to explore before driving towards the Blue Pearl of Chefchaouen. For that, an early start in the morning may be our daily motto during the trip! As a start, explore the medina (old town) which, for many tourist, is a beautiful and charming maze of narrow streets on the hillside, whose atmosphere feels like the movie “Aladdin”. It is located above the city harbor and butts up against the modern part of Tangier. Within the medina you can find the 17th century kasbah which occupies the highest point and is considered an eye-opening insight into life in Tangier across the years. Next, visit the Jewish “mellah” along with the Nahon Synagogue, the latter having functioned for over a century as a holy place for worship. However, recently it has become a museum presenting objects of worship of the Moroccan Jewish community. The synagogue is considered of unique but traditional Moorish-Spanish style with big chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and stunning view of Tangier Harbor at the Jewish cemetery.
Relax in the van for the upcoming 2-hour drive through the stunning Rif Mountains toward Morocco’s “blue jewel”, Chefchaouen. Historically-speaking, the city was founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali Ben Rachid to function as a fortress to block the Spanish and Portuguese invasion coming from the north coasts, but later, the city became the new home for Muslims and Jews who escaped what would have been their dreadful fate, from the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Fernando and Isabela upon the fall of Granada. Granada was the last Muslim city in Andalusia where Muslims and Jews lived together in peace and prosperity. Jewish heritage in Chefchaouen is obvious in every tiny bit of streets, as the bright and almost shiny, blue hues. The city is believed to have inherited its traditional blue color from the Jews who once painted their front doors and walls with this same color for its divine significance. Today, local Muslims still celebrate centuries of religious tolerance with their Jewish neighbors by re-painting the streets in blue twice a year.
Today is a “chill” day. Indeed, Chefchaouen has plenty of stunning places to explore, but its small size makes it easy to do and in no rush. Start by reaching for the main square, “Place Outa Al Hammam”, through the beautiful Andalusian blue alleys where you will most likely be inspired to take dozens of photos. In the middle of Outa Al Hammam stands the main entrance to the reddish kasbah with its magnificent garden, museum, prison and towers. Later, visit Ras El Maa River, the main source of water in the city which supplies the entire city with fresh, natural and drinkable water. Have a walk down by the cool river, and along the way, discover water-mills on which locals relied to grind their wheat, which used to be their number one activity for living. At the bottom of the river is the Portuguese bridge which was built by Portuguese prisoners who tried to invade the city. Finally, visitors of Chefchaouen should not miss watching the sunset from near the Spanish mosque up on Bouzafar Hill. The spectacle is, to say the least, breathtaking. Make sure you watch the whole process of the sun peacefully sinking beyond the mountains in front of you, while listening to the melodic adhan (call to prayer) coming up from all the mosques together for a moment of spirituality and peace.
Today we dive deeper in history of Morocco and Judaism in Morocco, visiting important cities and sites which have a remarkable Jewish history and culture. The drive from Chefchaouen to Volubilis is approximately 3 hours so, again, it will be a good idea to start early. Make sure to keep your eyes open if you can, for the landscape is absolutely stunning along the way.
Our first stop today is in Asjen, near Ouezzane, where Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan lived and later died. His burial spot has become a popular pilgrimage destination for hiloula.
Then, we continue to Volubilis. It is an UNESCO World Heritage site and the former capital of the Roman province. Currently it is the most extensive and impressive Roman ruins in Morocco. Apart from just its significant history, photography lovers should not miss the “golden hour” here.
About 30 kilometers from Volubilis, we’ll visit Meknes, the city where Jews settled before the advent of Islam. Discover the old mellah, known for its historic Jewish street names, as well as the new mellah where up to eleven synagogues exist. Right next to the old mellah lies the old Jewish cemetery where several saints’ tombs are found, including Haim Messas, David Boussidan, and Raphael Berdugo. Meknes also offers numerous of historical sites to visit and discover during the day, among which are the Royal Stables and Agdal Reservoir, the Dar Jamaï Museum, Bou Inania Medersa (not to be confused with the medersa of the same name located in Fes), Bab El-Khemis and the 17th century kasbah.
Finally, reach Fes in the evening, where you spend your first night before an eventful day.
Fes is the number one destination for tourism in Morocco. Its long and rich history, the kindness of the local people, the remarkable traditions and ambiance make it the favorite destination for tourist and historically the favorite home for a large number of Jews who were among the first settlers of the town at the end of the 8th century. Fes contains the largest number of Jewish heritage sites in addition to Islamic ones such as synagogues, universities, mosques, cemeteries and the mellah, alongside gardens and palaces. Begin the day by walking through and discovering the first Jewish quarter “mellah” in Morocco, which was built in 1438 and is like an utter maze within its walls. After that, visit the Jewish cemetery of Fes. One of many Jewish cemeteries in Morocco, the Fes cemetery contains more tombs of Jewish saints than any of its peers. Within these tombs is found the tomb of saint Soulika (also known as Sol Hachuel) who was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam during the cruel reign of the Almohad Dynasty. A Moroccan Jewish heritage tour is never complete without visiting a synagogue! The Ibn Danan synagogue, which is the next stop of today’s tour, is recognized as a cultural treasure and an important piece of art of Moroccan Jewish history. Its design is believed to be one of the most magnificent in North Africa. The next site to visit today is the house of Maimonides, the famous Jewish physician and philosopher who was born in Cordoba in 1135. This was during what some scholars consider the end of the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain, and he later settled in Fes, where he studied at the Karaouine University before escaping east from the unfair Almohad rule which threatened the Jewish community with the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or exile.
Finally, your tour guide will offer a wonderfully presented connective link between Muslim and Jewish Morocco while visiting the rest of old medina and Muslim sites and local shops including the University of Al-Karaouine, the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II, Dar Batha, a Weavers Cooperative and the tanneries.
About less than one hour drive south of Fes, lies the beautiful Berber town of Sefrou. The city is contemporarily known as the Cherry Capital but was historically recognized as the perfect example of harmony between Jews and Muslims. Sefrou was once the home for the highest percentage of Jews in Morocco and boasts the largest mellah in the country, which covers more than 50% of the medina (old town). Politically speaking, after the Morocco’s independence from France, a local rabbi was elected for the Parliament, which makes the city a unique Jewish site historically and currently.
Return to Fes in the afternoon, have a relaxed visit of the beautiful and well-kept Andalusian gardens of Jnane Sbil as well as the nearby Batha Museum with its Andalusian-style garden.
Erfoud is the ultimate destination for today, but along the way, we will make some stops and explore the charm and beauty of Ifrane and Midelt. Ifrane was built by the French in the mid-1930s mainly for its strategic location in the mid-Atlas, which makes the atmosphere of the little town feels like an alpine resort. For this reason, Ifrane has earned the nickname “Little Switzerland”. Ifrane is also famous for its fresh and clean air, scrubbed and tree-lined streets, as well as the mountain peaks which are often well-adorned with snow in winter months. Next stop before reaching the final destination is Midelt, which is known for its fossils and rocks. Midelt is located between the Middle and the High Atlas Mountain ranges, where the landscape offers some breathtaking views.
Evening arrival in Erfoud – make sure to relax and refresh for your upcoming Moroccan Sahara Desert adventure in the morning.
Having already explored sea and mountains, now it is time to discover the golden sand dunes of the Moroccan Sahara. Erfoud, being the closest point to the Sahara desert, acquired the nickname “Gate of Sahara Desert”. Start your morning by discovering local arts and crafts which makes use of fossilized stone in a very impressive and elegant way.
Later in afternoon, meet a local 4×4 driver who will take you to Merzouga and into the Sahara desert where its magnificent orange and golden sand dunes can reach as high as 150 meters. There, you will have one of the most stunning experience in your life that will stay with you forever. Start by riding your own camel through the dunes, until you reach a stunning point of view where sunset makes you feel like you are in another world with all of its glory. Another no less remarkable experience is stargazing upon nightfall, where you are likely to be treated to millions of stars which make the sky look like a beautiful painting. This view will most likely make a tear stream unconsciously down your face.
Get an early start today so as to not miss the magical sunrise, and then, once ready, join your driver to start today’s adventure. Visit Todra Gorges, a natural oasis in the mountains where one of the most spectacular canyons is situated. Afterwards, explore Tinghir, the administrative center in the region. Tinghir once was the home for hundreds of converted Berber Jews and where is found to be believed to be one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Morocco. Visit also Tinghir’s Jewish quarter, where the houses form an interesting architecture and which narrates many stories, one of which is written by the French-Moroccan director, Kamal Hachkar, who has brought memories of its Jewish past back to life with his award-winning documentary “Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah”. Continue to the town of roses and home of Morocco’s annual Rose Festival, Kelaa M’Gouna, and its neighboring ancient city of the Jews of Dades, Tiliit. The latter has been the center of the Jewish region ruled by the Spanish-Jewish family of Perez from the end of the 15th century until the reign of Moulay Ismail in 1672. Finally, arrive in Ouarzazate for an overnight.
Start your day by exploring the UNESCO World Heritage center of Ait Benhaddou, which, along with its 11th century ksar, is considered one of the most iconic villages in Morocco. The region of Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou became famous as the “Hollywood of Africa” for being the backdrop of a number of worldwide movies such as “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Gladiator”, among many others. Next, visit Taliouine, the African center of “red gold” or saffron, the world’s most expensive spice. Finally, arrive at Taroudant, the first capital of the Saadian Dynasty in the 16th century and refuge of the rebellious princes. The city is beautifully concealed by magnificent red-mud walls, with the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas beckoning beyond. Taroudant is known as the “grandmother of Marrakesh” because of its exotic, busy and colorful little markets which you will explore today. The medina in general is a beautiful place to get lost in, strolling and lingering for a better opportunity to discover and learn more about local life.
Make sure you rest well tonight, because tomorrow you will start another chapter in our trip, where the Atlantic city of Essaouira will be awaiting for you.
In the morning, visit a nearby village called Arazan. The village is believed to have a synagogue unique of its kind in the world. The synagogue was discovered in the 1980s. It was taken care of by an Amazigh tribe who kept its key for decades. The interior of the synagogue contains some inscriptions in Hebrew and an ancient arch for the scrolls of the Torah alongside some Amazigh decoration. After the synagogue visit is over, join your driver for a splendid drive along the Atlantic Ocean towards Essaouira.
On the way, stop and visit the attractive soft-sanded beaches of Agadir. The city is relatively brand-new compared to other cities. However, it is a city that endured a tragic earthquake in 1960 which left about 15,000 people dead, but with the love and perseverance of its people, they managed re-build their city as the most beautiful resort in the area. Enjoy a walk along the bay and then continue your dive to Essaouira, passing through the famous and beautiful area beach, Taghazout.
Refresh and rest at your hotel in Essaouira, before you explore it in the morning.
Essaouira was established in the mid-eighteenth century and became a symbol of tolerance, with Jews and Muslims coexisting in peaceful community. The population of Essaouira back at that time consisted of more than 40% of Jews that had the mellah as their shelter under the personal protection of the sultan. In fact, drawing the Star of David above the doorway of homes is an on-going tradition in the Jewish area that even non-Jews sometimes practice. Interestingly enough, every year in September, religious Jews from around the globe come to Essaouira for their annual pilgrimage to visit the tomb of Rabbi Haim Pinto who passed away in 1845 and whose home is currently preserved as a historic and religious site. Also, if you are a fan of the popular series “Game of Thrones”, visit the filming site (the city of Astapor) from where the army of the Unsullied grouped up, trained and marched out.
Later in the afternoon, start a 3 hour drive towards Marrakech where you will spend the night.
Marrakech, known as the capital of the Great South, is considered to be the most popular city in Morocco and the gateway to the Moroccan golden Sahara. The city is rich with magnificent gardens, royal palaces and Jewish heritage sites which attract the largest number of tourists to Morocco every year.
Majorelle Garden in Marrakech is believed to be the most popular and attractive garden, not only in Morocco, but also in North Africa. Historically, the garden took its name from French artist, Jacques Majorelle, who toiled 40 years to fully create and open the garden in 1924. In its modern form, the garden is Marrakech’s little paradise which contains a psychedelic desert mirage of 300 plant species from five continents. After enjoying Majorelle Garden in the morning, wander through the different souks in the medina which are full of exotic handicraft items and then discover the Jewish mellah which was founded in 1558 by Moulay Abdullah. Being in the mellah, explore the Marrakech Lazama Synagogue, which is the main synagogue of the mellah of Marrakech which was built in 1558, the same year as the mellah, by Jews who had escaped ruthless Catholic Spain at that time. The synagogue is considered to be a tranquil haven with a priceless history. In the afternoon, visit El Bahia Palace which is a remarkable example for Eastern architecture in the 19th century. It is recognized to be a very photogenic site with amazing decoration, mixed with many varied handcrafted works, great colors and beautiful gardens.
This morning, explore the Mamounia Gardens, which is a famous historical landmark hotel with beautiful gardens in the center of Marrakech. Established in 1929, the gardens are well-kept and cared for by about 40 gardeners who plant 60,000 of different plants twice a year in order to enhance the grounds as well as maintain the immaculately mowed grass. Within the garden walls, you find a 200 year-old avenue of olive trees which leads to the garden pavilion where one can soak in a moment of peace and solitude, with a glass of Moroccan mint tea.
In afternoon, return to Casablanca, the starting and final point, where you will have some free time to stroll along the Atlantic coast.
Today is officially the end of the tour! We hope that you enjoyed every second of the trip, and we wish you a safe flight home!
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