Magical Mogador

Step back in time in Essaouira to find a history of tolerance in the Moroccan port city


Fishing boats and city wall of old city(Medina) of Essaouira, Morocco

Rachid, my guide from Tours by Locals, is attempting to drag my attention away from a purring tabby cat and her two lovely kittens, which have taken up residency in a cart filled with a tangle of fishing nets in the busy Moroccan port of Essaouira.

Pronounced es weera in Arabic, it lies on the Atlantic coast, 108 miles from the beach resort of Agadir and 118 miles from Marrakesh.

He’s pointing up to an impressive stone gateway, etched with religious emblems — the Star of David alongside Islamic crescent moons and Christian roses — proof of how accepting a place Essaouira was in its heyday, when Jewish residents co-existed with their Arab neighbours so cordially that many lived outside the Jewish quarter or Mellah.

This name, historically given to Jewish areas in Moroccan cities, is believed to be derived from the Arabic word for salt, as many Jewish traders sold the mineral.

“This gateway, perhaps more than anywhere in Essaouira, illustrates that this has always been a place of understanding,” Rachid tells me. “This was the last stop for trans-Saharan caravans carrying, among the many varied produce, spices, almonds, and tiles bound for Europe. Muslims, Jews, and Christians worked comfortably side by side for more than a century.”

Essaouira, then known as Mogador, was established in the mid-18th century by Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah, who entrusted ten Jewish merchants with the task of turning it into Morocco’s most important international trading post — an easy journey on to Marrakesh, the Atlas Mountains, and the Sahara.

By the late 1880s, around 40 per cent of the population here was Jewish.

It ceased being a major trading post when Morocco came under the French protectorate set up in 1912, which forced many Jewish families to move to bigger cities such as Casablanca, but the fish market continued to thrive.

In the harbour I watch as baskets brimming with sardines, mackerel and bream are hoisted from bobbing blue fishing boats, and then packed on ice, ready to be haggled over.

Fascinating as this timeless scene is, my eyes are soon drawn back to the strays on the prowl for tasty, dropped morsels. You could argue that the city is a little overrun with these feline chancers, but the cats have, in their own way, become a 21st-century symbol for tolerance.

“We don’t just put up with them, we look after them here,” Rachid tells me. “They wander in and out of our homes, we feed them, provide care if they need it, and we co-exist very happily.”

I see this action as I wander through Souk Jdid, the main market thoroughfare, where local products such as argan nut oil (from the argan tree, so prevalent in this region), dates, almonds, and honey are sold and where kittens are curled asleep among baskets of soft cotton scarves, and cats lounge on expensive hand-woven Berber carpets.

The shopkeepers accept them to the point of putting out saucers of water and sharing their lunches with them.

I’m in search of “royal tea”, a blend of verbena, chamomile, rosemary, sage, thyme, rose, and mint, which I find at Chez Maki, a shop piled high with spices. From here, a stroll along Avenue Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah, packed with souvenir stalls, artisan workshops, and cafes, is a feast for the senses and I make a stop at L’amandine Souiri to buy a snack of figs cloaked in marzipan.

On the edge of the Mellah, Riad Baladin, consisting of three houses each with an interior courtyard filled with palms and fountains, is where I call home. My room is simple and elegant with a four-poster canopied bed, tasselled rugs, and swirls of woven raffia, instead of pictures, on the wall.

From here, I get happily lost within the Jewish Quarter’s warren of white-washed alleys. The buildings may be crumbling, and occasionally derelict, but the area is stirringly atmospheric and roughly triangular, located in a corner of the walled Medina and bounded on one side by a sea wall.

Further along the coast from here are two ocean-licked Jewish cemeteries, with inscriptions on tombs worn away by age and the salt carried on what the locals call the taros, or ocean breeze.

By the 1980s, most Moroccan Jews had emigrated to Israel and the Moorish and Art Deco residences, synagogues and schools lay abandoned. Although Unesco designated the medina a World Heritage Centre in 2001, restoration of its citadel and heritage buildings is still ongoing.

I poke my nose into the tiny Haim Pinto Synagogue, named for Rabbi Haim Pinto, a leading religious figure who died in 1845; each year in September, Moroccan Jews make a pilgrimage here to commemorate his life. Now lovingly restored with gleaming lamps, and walls painted in the colour of Morocco’s rich red clay soil, the ark is a brilliant sky blue.

What I don’t expect to find in the Mellah are the many artisans at work, tucked into tiny hole-in-the-wall studios, making clay tiles and fashioning metal-work lamps. “The area is changing fast. Artists are moving here, and galleries are opening.

It’s an exciting time for this neglected neighbourhood,” explains one, who invites me to look at the intricate replica of a historic boat he’s making, commissioned by Greenwich’s Maritime Museum.

Further on, I come across recently opened Ici Mogador, a stylish boutique that showcases the work of local homeware, jewellery, and clothes designers, further proof that this area is on the up.

Having come full circle, I pop out at the seafront ramparts with its citadel built in the 1770s, where scenes from Game of Thrones were recently filmed. Here, courting couples come to watch the sun set, tourists pose for photos leaning against 18th-century cannons, and the soundtrack to the scene is by Jimi Hendrix, whose music floats down from rooftop cafes.

The city’s claim to fame is that he visited and wrote several songs here, but for something more traditional, head to Salut Maroc and enjoy live gnawa folk music as the sun goes down.

Each day I rise early to watch the swifts swoop over the medina’s rooftops and to drink freshly squeezed orange juice on Riad Baladin’s rooftop garden, before heading out for a stroll along the mile long beach peppered with beach clubs. Essaouira, being Morocco’s windiest city, is a huge draw for surfers and kite-surfers.

Berber camel mahouts, or drivers, tout for business, offering brisk, bumpy jaunts along the beach on their dromedaries, but I chose instead to enjoy a fresh mint tea at M Beach and watch the surfers riding in on waves that curl like butter.

It’s best to visit newly opened Bayt Dakira (meaning “House of Memory” in Hebrew) before the day-trippers from Marrakesh arrive.

This beautiful museum, housed in what was once the home of a wealthy Jewish merchant, is dedicated to the history of the coexistence of Jewish and Muslim communities and was opened in 2020 by King Mohammed VI’s Economic Advisor, Andre Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew born here in Essaouira.

In 2018, the Mellah landed on the World Monuments Watch — the architectural equivalent of becoming an endangered species — and funds were given to record Essaouira’s Jewish history before it disappeared.

Among its many exhibits of traditional dress and Jewish artefacts, do watch the short film The Untold Stories of the Jewish Quarter of Essaouira, which recreates the sights and sounds of the Mellah in the late 1800s.

Perhaps the most inspiring sight in all Essaouira is the Torah and Qur’an placed side by side as an everlasting symbol of how the world could live in harmony.

As I’m leaving to catch my flight home, I’m introduced to Simba, a ginger tom sitting at the entrance to Riad Baladin, looking like the cat that got the cream. “He just kept coming back,” the manager tells me. “So, in the end we began to greet him with a ‘welcome home’.”

“I hope I get the same reception when I return,” I tell him.

“Always. Inshallah (God willing),” is the heart-warming reply.

Getting There

Direct flights from London Stansted to Essaouira start from £63.98 with Ryanair

Double rooms at Riad Baladin cost from £69

A four-hour tour with Rachid costs from around £80 for up to ten people via Tours by Locals.

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