Slat al-Azama Synagogue, Marrakesh. Morocco

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This is a menorah, a multibranched candelabra, used in the religious rituals of Judaism, that has been an important symbol in both ancient and modern Israel. The seven-branched menorah was originally found in the wilderness sanctuary and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem and was a popular motif of religious art in antiquity. Today sees the beginning of the festival of Pesach (Passover) Families hold a seder on the first and sometimes second night of Passover. It is fundamentally a religious service set around a dinner table, where the order in which participants eat, pray, drink wine, sing, discuss current social justice issues and tell stories is prescribed by a central book called the Haggadah. To those readers who celebrate, let me wish you and your families Chag Pesach Sameach.

 

 

 

My wife and I were determined to find the Slat al-Azama Synagogue that we had read about before we arrived in Marakesh.

We took a somewhat circuitous route before finding it. I have to say that the tourist police stationed on most streets helped get us to within two blocks of our final destination.

The final two store owners we asked pointed us in diametrically opposite directions which caused some consternation! A third vendor weighed in to contradict the information we were being given and it was due to his directions that enabled us to get to our destination.

The synagogue was less than one block from where this interaction took place, so we found it quickly and easily.

 

 

 

And the streets still bear Jewish names, such as this one, “Talmud Thora,” probably the name of the old synagogue.

The Mellah of Marrakesh was created by decree of the Sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib of the Saadian dynasty in 1558, outside of the walls of El Badi Palace. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mellah was one of the main commercial areas of the city, and it was a walled quarter, with its gates closed at night.

 

 

 

On September 8th, 2023, the synagogue and surrounding Jewish quarter were damaged by an earthquake. No casualties were reported in this area. However, the final tally was more than 2,900 people were killed and 5,500 people injured in the shallow magnitude-6.8 temblor and its aftershocks.

 

 

 

The rather unimposing entrance to the Slat al-Azama Synagogue or Lazama Synagogue that is one of the best-known synagogues in Marrakesh, Morocco.

As we were to discover, it is located in the historic Mellah (Jewish quarter) of the old city, which was created in 1557.

The synagogue was associated with Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 (known as the Megorashim). The synagogue’s foundation is likewise traditionally attributed to 1492, though one scholar has indicated that the exact year of establishment has not been verified. The current incarnation of the building dates from a more modern restoration.

As we were to discover, the building is still functioning as a synagogue today. W arrived on a Friday morning, after prayers, which meant that we were able to visit without disturbing the congregants.

 

 

 

Inside this decorative cover, called a mezuzah is a small folded or rolled parchment inscribed by a qualified calligraphist with scriptural verses (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21. Which reads, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.“) to remind Jews of their obligations toward God.

The synagogue itself has traditional Moroccan decorations such as zellij (mosaic tilework), which for a building that is normally undecorated, can be overwhelming as I discovered when I stepped inside.

There is a small gift shop where items like this can be purchased.

 

 

 

The east side was renovated after the 1950s, with the addition of a wing for women (ezrat nashim), which is unique in Morocco where tradition dictates that women stay in a separate room at the entrance of the synagogue.

The original wooden Torah ark has been replaced by a marble ark, which is located next to the eastern wall.

Drawings from the 1950s by architect Yaacov Finkerfeld demonstrate that the space mentioned above did not exist for women and that the interior was divided into two naves by four columns. On the upper floor there is a yeshiva.

 

 

 

The emotional reaction that I experienced was unexpected for someone who is agnostic and does not attend synagogue regularly any longer.

Perhaps it was a reaction to the sense of history of a people who had helped build a country and an economy and who are still ‘accepted’ today by the Muslim and Christian population of Morocco.

 

 

 

This is the bimah which is a raised platform with a reading desk from which, in the Ashkenazi (German) ritual, the Torah and Hafṭarah (a reading from the prophets) are read on the Sabbath and festivals.

I did not know that the word bimah is from the Arabic ‘al-minbar’, meaning a “platform.”

 

 

 

Another view of the entire synagogue which although compact, is complete in every detail.

 

 

 

Atop the inscription is the phrase “Keter Torah” (כתר תורה), meaning “Crown of Torah.” The keter, or crown, is a significant symbol within Judaism and is associated with scholarship, devotion to studying, and reverence toward the Torah.

 

 

 

When the Torah is read during a synagogue service, one of the congregation members will open the ark, which is also known as the Aron Hakodesh. The Torah scrolls are taken out from the Aron Hakodesh, and portions read in the synagogue three times each week.

 

 

 

A tallit is a fringed garment worn as a prayer shawl by religious Jews. The tallit has special twined and knotted fringes known as tzitzit attached to its four corners. The cloth part is known as the beged (“garment”) and is usually made from wool or cotton, although silk is sometimes used for a tallit gadol.

 

 

 

A couple of siddurim, prayer book, that contains the entire Jewish liturgy used on either ordinary sabbath or weekdays for domestic as well as synagogue rituals. It is different from the mahzor, which is the prayer book used for the High Holidays.

 

 

 

The synagogue as seen from the bimah…

 

 

 

Part of a library of books that was in a rear corner of the synagogue, behind the bimah.

 

 

 

I have no idea to whom this hat belonged, but it caught my attention.

 

 

 

The synagogue is integrated into a larger building which consists of a private house with a central courtyard (popularly referred to as a riad). This integration of a synagogue into a private home was typical of most synagogues in the Mellah of Marrakesh as well as in the Mellah of Fez.

 

 

 

After the Second World War and the establishment of the state of Israel, the Jewish Zionist organizations encouraged many Jewish families to leave Morocco and migrate to Israel legally, with the approval of the French rulers at the time
Today the largest Jewish community is in Casablanca, which is home to 1,000 Jews.
There are small Jewish communities in Rabat (400), Marrakesh (250), Meknes (250), Tangier (150), Fez (150), and Titian (100).

 

 

 

A visit to this synagogue is well worth the price of admission and is a must-visit if you are interested in the history of Morocco.

 

 

 

This was the company we utilized for our tour.

There were issues along the way, but nothing that could not be resolved on the spot. It did give value for money and if Morocco is a bucket list destination then the tour host, Linda, will give you that in spades.

As I have said many times before, if you go with no expectations then you cannot be disappointed. All my wife and I require is a comfortable bed, reasonable connectivity, hot water(most of the time) and a breakfast that sets us up for the day. On this trip, we almost had a full house of requirements. Those that were lacking, we accommodated and smiled. Making it all part of the overall experience and adventure.

 

 

Travel is the proud winner of this prestigious award from the digital British lifestyle magazine Luxlife. The award is in the category Best Travel & Experiences Blog 2024 – South Africa

 

 

 

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