Simon Attias Synagogue and Bayt Dakira, Essaouira, Morocco

The Simon Attia Synagogue (בית כנסת שמעון עטייה) and Bayt Dakira (בית דכ'ירה), Essaouira (אסואירה ,الصويرة‎, ⵜⴰⵚⵚⵓⵔⵜ, Mogador), Morocco (מרוקו, المغرب‎). One of the remaining Jewish sites in Essaouira, the small family synagogue today forms part of the Bayt Dakira Museum. 




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] 


Simon Attia Synagogue and Bayt Dakira 

Simon Attia Synagogue: According to Sidney Corcos, a former resident who left Essaouira with his Jewish family to Israel at the age of ten, Simon Attia at first used to be a family synagogue -- the Affriat family would come here to pray, since they were linked to the Attia family by marriage and more people would join later. [22] The Attia family lived in the building until the 1920s, they traded tea with Manchester. During the late 19th century connections were strong between Morocco and England and the family lived between Essaouira, London and Manchester. [23] After the sudden death of Simon Attia, the head of the family, in 1892, his wife, Nima,  named the synagogue after him. [24] It is based on the model of the Sephardi synagogue in Manchester, the woodwork was imported in the late 19th century. The synagogue complex included shops and the private home of Nima Attia on the first floor, a prayer room on the second floor, and the community court on the third. [25] Only the prayer room survived after the decline of the Jewish community in Essaouira. [26] Later, the family gave the building to the community and it became the Rabbinical Court of Essaouira in the 20th century.

Restoring the Synagogue: Sidney Corcos was involved in the restoration of the synagogue with the local team. [27] They tried to restore the original state of the synagogue as much as possible, only adding new things when necessary. The oil lamps hanging in the synagogue, which had once been donated by different people and families, have been placed in the same locations as before with the help of an old photograph. Sidney estimates how there were around 33 synagogues in Essaouira, 10 of them in the Kasbah and the rest in the Mellah. Many synagogues like this one were small and, according to Sidney, few had a special place for women. His grandmother from his father’s side, who attended this very same synagogue, was one of the few women who knew how to read Hebrew in Essaouira, if not the only one. She had studied it in England. The Rabbi was not actually from the family, his name was Joseph Malka and was well-known in Essaouira for his voice. According to Sidney, he died in the 1950s.

Bayt Dakira and the Memory of Essaouira’s Jewish Community: The exhibition space and research center of Bayt Dakira (“House of Memory”)- initiated by André Azoulay, the King’s adviser - intends to highlight the connections between Muslim and Jewish communities in Morocco, and is located in the now restored building of the Simon Attia Synagogue and former Rabbinical Court of Essaouira. The exhibition areas take one through the life of the Jewish community in Essaouira and have many archival materials on display, such as books and ceremonial outfits. [28] Today, the first floor houses the Haim Zafrani research center, which “focuses its work on the relationship between Islam and Judaism”. [29] A conference room on the second floor welcomes researchers and visiting experts who participate in exciting work on the rich inter-religious history of Essaouira. [30].

The space was not officially open in July 2019 when Sidney talked about the project. He tells us how it was again André Azoulay who initiated the project and the building had been in a bad shape when they started the work. After the Attia family had left, the building served as the rabbinical court of Essaouira and took care of all disputes linked to religious rules. The place is supposed to keep the memory of the community, but also to build a bridge between Jews and Muslims, showing how often when life was hard for one community it was also hard for the other, all of them depending on their rulers and external conditions like the climate or nearby conflicts. Entering the building you are greeted by a banner welcoming visitors in Hebrew and Arabic and, according to Sidney, who has been involved in the project and restoration of the building, there will be a Koran and a Bible at the entrance - to highlight the connection between the Jews and the Muslims of Morocco. Sidney hopes that visiting Bayt Dakira will hopefully change the way that Moroccan Jews will be perceived by fellow Moroccans, Israelis, and anybody who visits. Bayt Dakira officially opened to the public in January 2020 in the presence of the King Mohammed VI. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2umeaLVaD8 Link to “Bayt Dakira, un musée judéo-marocain à Essaouira”



Essaouira, Morocco

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