Slat Lkahal, Essaouira, Morocco

Slat Lkahal Synogogue (בית כנסת צלאת לקהל) in Essaouira (אסואירה ,الصويرة‎, ⵜⴰⵚⵚⵓⵔⵜ, Mogador), Morocco (מרוקו, المغرب‎).

 A short way down the street from the Haim Pinto Synagogue in Essaouira’s mellah, next to Moses street, a once abandoned centuries-old synagogue has had a new beginning, reopening in 2010.




Background on the Mellah of Essaouira

Essaouira was established by Alaouite Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdellah in 1764 on the site of a former Portuguese fortress. [1, 2] It quickly became a major domestic and international trading post, attracting many Jewish merchants, traders, and workers. [3, 4] In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Essaouira was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. At one point, Jews made up about 40 percent of Essaouira’s population, growing so much that an addition to the mellah had to be built to accommodate them. [5, 6] 

Mellahs, separate Jewish quarters, were established in multiple cities by an 1807 Sultan-issued dahir (decree). [7] Before then, Jews and Muslims lived together in the neighborhoods of Essaouira.  [8] The name, mellah, comes from the salt marsh area in Fez where the first mellah was created. [9] Following the decree, poorer Jews populated the mellah while  elite Jewish families resided in the casbah quarter outside the mellah walls. [10] The separation of casbah and mellah generated tensions between elite and lower-class Jews. [11] In Essaouira, “division was really a division of class and not of religion,” with intermarriage being widely acepted and places of worship were even shared amongst Muslims and Jews. [12] 

Today, only a handful of Jews remain in Essaouira. [13] One of the reasons for this is the impact of French Protectorate (1912-1956), during which the French  developed Casablanca and Agadir as seaports, limiting economic opportunities in Essaouira and incentivizing migration to larger hubs [14, 15]. Another, larger, exodus took place following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, after which only about 2 percent of the Jewish population remained. [ 16, 17] 

The Jewish quarter of Essaouira stands as a testament to the significant role of Jewry in the development of one of Morocco’s major port cities. Many sites of historical significance, including synagogues and old Jewish businesses, have been demolished or otherwise dilapidated over time. [18] Current Essaouira residents and others work to preserve remaining sites and redevelopment efforts are underway. [19, 20, 21] 

Slate Lkahal

“Synagogue of the Community”: Slat Lkahal used to be the synagogue of the whole community, meaning that it was not built on the initiative of a single economically well-off family, but rather that many members of the Jewish community contributed to covering the costs for building it and thus made it into a truly communal space. [22] It is unique in being the only synagogue in the town that was not built solely with private wealth, instead having its funds raised by community members who would ask for alms at funerals. [23] Among the donors were wealthy families from the Kasbah, including the Corcos family. It was built in a large space on top of an underpass on Rue Moise. The arches underneath the synagogue were used to provide housing for elderly people in need and the synagogue building housed a small school for poor children. [24] The synagogue opened its doors for the first time in the 1850’s. [25, 26] In 1972, the synagogue welcomed its last minyan before closing its doors. [27]

Connections to the Past and Present: Shlomo Haim Knafo was the Rabbi at Slat Lkahal. His great-grandson Asher Knafo lived in Essaouira until the age of 15 and still comes to visit to this day. [28] He is currently involved in transcribing and documenting tombstones of the Jewish cemeteries in Essaouira. Slat Lkahal has been restored by the Association Slat Lkahal Mogador with the help of donations and had its second inauguration in 2017. It is now opened to the public and features a small photo exhibition about the Mellah and its Jewish community. [29]

Essaouira, Morocco

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