The Mellah (name given to the Fes Jewish quarter and subsequently to every Jewish quarter in Morocco) was built in the 14th century, as a part of the 'new town' (Fes el Djedid) hosting the administrative apparatus of the Merinid rule. Its name derives from the Arabic Al Mellah (salty), as the land it was built on was of a particularly saline composition. "Mellahs" , or salty towns, then sprang-up in other parts of the country- with no relation to any saline grounds! (ah, the ironies of etymology).
through the Mellah, one immediately notices the very different architectural
composition of the homes, many of which were built in the 16th century,
when numerous Jewish families fled Andalusia and Christian persecution.
noticeable features are balconies, and elevated external corridors to
enable passage from one house
Bonnie (whose Fulbright research focuses on the restoration of buildings in the Fes medina) led me through the Mellah, pointing to these architectural oddities (by Moroccan standards). As we stood gazing at the Mellah heights and wishing we had chosen a better day than Saturday to visit these quarters (only gentiles would chose the Sabbath to explore Jewish lands!), a 'fairy godmother' appeared from the depths of a sweat shop, bidding us to follow him. He was a peculiar fairy godmother: short, hairy and slightly balding- yet magical nonetheless. We followed him into the depths of the Mellah, and straight through to one of Fes's 40 or so Synagogues.
self appointed guide claimed to be one of the 500 or so remaining Jews
in Fes. These surviving families put much pride into safeguarding their
heritage, a mission they have been helped in by donors from Europe and
America. The above plaque commemorating the restoration effort of this
now spotless synagogue testifies to this joint effort.
afternoon in the Mellah, and our earlier experiences with Didier, the
leader of Fes' Jewish community, Bonnie and I started to get a sense
people's pride and heritage- a nostalgia of times past, and a constant
effort to remind visitors that Jews were NEVER mistreated in Morocco
(an assertion that doesn't really hold up to history, yet illustrates
the general mood of the remaining few). As proof of the peaceful cohabitation
between their people and the Moroccan Arabs, Jews always cite the Royal
Financial counselor, who has been Jewish as far back as anyone can recall.
at this Diaspora, at the choices people made to stay or go.