Morocco’s seaside Essaouira blends old and new

Morocco’s seaside Essaouira blends old and new

A group of Israelis pray at the tomb of the Rabbi Pinto, a leading rabbi in Essaouira.  Photo by Ben G. Frank
A group of Israelis pray at the tomb of the Rabbi Pinto, a leading rabbi in Essaouira. Photo by Ben G. Frank

If when you think of Morocco, you conjure up Bob Hope and Bing Crosby crossing the desert on the hump of a camel, a few words of advice:

You don’t have to ride that way in this large country whose land area is about 173,000 square miles and is characterized by a rugged mountainous interior and swaths of desert.

There’s another part of Morocco: Its coastal area, which is certainly well worth a visit. Indeed, Morocco is one of only three nations (with Spain and France) to have both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines.

And it’s the seashore where I headed on my other road to Morocco.

Ah, Essaouira, Morocco’s most relaxed seaside resort town.

“A northeast wind, a cloudless sky, a glowing sun,” that’s what a British consul wrote about Essaouira 100 years ago. His description of this Moroccan city, formerly called Mogador, a Berber word meaning “safe anchorage,” is still valid.

This white-walled port city on the Atlantic coast has captured the hearts of tourists. Midway between Safi and Agadir, the area once was occupied by the Phoenicians and then Carthaginians.

Known for travelers wandering along its picturesque walls, Essaouria is thought to be derived from the Arabic word for “ramparts,” but translates as “little image.” The walls give the city its charm, as well as the blue and white medina, a “sweet retreat.”

Essaouira remains exotic. It is quiet and calming without the rush of the major cities, and it’s somewhat off the beaten track. Its market is not old and overcrowded with visitors, and its passageways are wider than in other markets.

I relaxed while walking the seashore and seeing the fishermen mending their nets.

I sat in one of the cafes on the Place Mouley Hassan and watched the world go by. I later dined on delicious grilled fish caught fresh that morning for lunch or dinner. I had walked with my guide to stalls and watched as he carefully examined each fish, choosing the best one to be grilled for our meal.

Here, the sky is blue or is it azure? The contrast is amazing, appealingly against the white buildings and sand-colored fortifications. Seagulls are continuously wheeling overhead, their cries occasionally silenced by the muezzin’s call.

Essaouira remains a difficult place to leave because it has more open spaces and wider streets than most cities in Morocco. A travel writer wrote in 1900 that it is the best planned and cleanest town in the empire, “and in consequence, it stands high as a health resort.” Still true today.

In 1760, Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah, founded the city and named the fortified port Essaouira to be a rival to Agadir.

Interestingly, “Encyclopedia Britannica” says “a colony of Moroccan Jews was installed to extend commerce.” Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah chose 10 important families and conferred upon them the title of “Merchant of the King.” They received luxury housing, and were entrusted with missions to the European courts. For a century and a half, they dominated Moroccan trade. The privileged personalities became the nucleus of a dynamic community which lasted until just after World War II and gave the town a distinctly Jewish character, says “Encyclopedia Judaica,” noting that everyone rested on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

But back in 1808, it was decided to confine the Jews within a mellah, a Jewish quarter. From then on, the only exceptions were families of the above-mentioned “Merchants of the King,” and some businessmen of European origin. The mellah became overcrowded with new arrivals, and during the 19th century, the Jewish population grew from 4,000 to 14,000.

Under the 1912 French protectorate, the city lost some of its economic importance and only a small community of 5,000 Jews remained. Many left in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970, most of its former Jewish citizens lived in Europe, America and Israel; only a few hundred Jews continued to live in Essaouira.

The medina (old city) here is smaller, hassle-free and is considered the cleanest in the country. It is a good place to shop.

Joseph Sebag operates a fine book store known as Galerie AIDA, 2 Rue de la Skala. I bought Paul Bowles’ book, “The Sheltering Sky,” from him.

Located in the city is a large international community, but very few Jews actually live here.

Still here in Essaouira are the tombs of famous rabbis.

Synagogue Rabbi Haim Pinto at 9 Impasse Tafilalet, Essaouira, has been preserved as a historic site of Rabbi Pinto (1748-1845) who was born into a distinguished rabbinic family in Essaouira, then called Mogador. He became the leading rabbi in the city. On the anniversary of his death (26 Elul, 5605 in the Hebrew calendar, just before Rosh Hashanah), large numbers of Moroccan Jews come from all over the world to pray at his tomb in the large, older Jewish cemetery here. Rabbi Pinto is remembered as a man whose prayers were received in heaven in such a way that miracles resulted.

Physically, the city has expanded to meet the demands of a growing tourist industry. Twenty years ago, there were perhaps six hotels in the city; today, the figure is about 200.

As I strolled around this city which has an interesting Jewish past, I realized that unlike Jews in neighboring Algeria, Jews have never completely departed from Morocco. On the contrary, there is still much nostalgia for the days when Moroccan Jews lived in what some call a “Golden Age” — when Jewish and Muslim children played side by side when in some cases, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was an easy life, slow, calm and simple.

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer on Jewish communities around the world, is the author of the recently published, “Klara’s Journey”; “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” and other Jewish travel guides. This article originally ran in Washington Jewish Week.