Chefchouan Mellah, Chefchouan, Morocco

Chefchouan Mellah in Chefchouan (Chofchouan, Chefchaouen, الشاون, شفشاون), Morocco.

Nestled in the breathtaking Rif Mountains in the Northwest of Morocco, the city of Chefchaouen is remarkable for its picturesque blue buildings. The city was once home to a sizeable Jewish population credited with starting the tradition of painting the blue-hued structures which still line the narrow streets. In the 1990s, hoping to maximize the city’s tourism potential, residents outside of the mellah began to paint their buildings in similarly soothing shades of blue.[i]



The Chefchaouen Mellah :

In the 15th century, Chefchaouen was established by Jews and Moors fleeing the Spanish Reconquista.[ii] It is believed that the city’s trademark blue buildings are meant to be a reminder of the presence of God, reminiscent of tekhelet, an ancient blue dye used for weaved prayer shawls.[iii]

The term mellah represented the separate physical areas demarcated for the Jews in Moroccan cities and towns.[iv] Originally the word was used to describe a district in the city of Fes where Jews were forced to live in the 15th century, but it later took on broader applications for official and unofficial areas where Jews lived, surrounded by a spatial boundary separating them from Muslims.[v] Over the centuries the meaning of the word “mellah” expanded even further, coming to describe not only areas themselves but their residents and communities.[vi] For instance, in rural Berber villages the mellah could represent one or two dozen Jewish families occupying a block or street.[vii] For the reigning power, the construction of a mellah became a tool for asserting authority over the Moroccan people by signaling control over the non-Muslim population.[viii] Towards the end of the 16th century, the young Sa’di dynasty built a mellah in Marrakesh, asserting and displaying royal authority. Later, the Alaouites, who came to power in the 17th century and rule to present day, similarly built mellahs in which Jews were required to live, such as in the one-time capital city of Meknes and later in Tetouan, Salé, Rabat, and Essaouira.[ix]

The earliest buildings in Chefchaouen’s Mellah date to the 16th century and, with their courtyards, small balconies, and tiled roofs, strongly evoke the Andalusian architecture once familiar to many of the city’s Jews.[x][xi] However, most of the local Jews resided outside of the confines of the medina until the sultan’s command in the 18th century.[xii] Because of the Jews’ belated move into the mellah within the city walls, the area was known as Mellah el-Jedid, or “new mellah.”[xiii] The mellah was established in the space currently sitting between the Kasbah and Bab el Ain, a small arch serving as the main entrance to the medina at the intersection of Avenue Hassan II and Rue Moulay Ali Ben Rachid.[xiv]

Jews in Morocco:

Under Alouite rule, which began in 1631, Jews lived in over 250 different settlements throughout Morocco.[xv] They constituted the largest concentration of Jews of any country in the Islamic world.[xvi] Though in the last century most of Morocco’s Jews emigrated to Europe and Israel, some still remain. Today, the most significant remaining Jewish population is that of Casablanca, where over 5,000 Jews live and attend over 30 different synagogues.[xvii] And though the city’s Jews are long gone, Chefchaouen’s inhabitants continue to paint their buildings in the stunning blue shades which complement the whitewashed walls and reflect the beauty of the sky above.[xviii]


Chefchouan, Morocco

© Mapbox, © OpenStreetMap