Situated on the dramatic sloping hillside of Mount Dersa overlooking the medina (old city), Tétouan’s Jewish cemetery (video here) was established 500 years ago. Aside from the remarkable vistas it commands, the cemetery (also known as the “Castilian Cemetery”) features many tombs with anthropomorphic engravings—a highly unusual feature for Jewish cemeteries. With an estimated 35,000 graves, the Jewish cemetery was among the largest in Morocco.
Roots: After Tétouan was destroyed around 1400 by Castilian monarch Henry III, the city and its Jewish community were only reconstituted in the late 1400s. In 1530, Rabbi Haim Bibas came from Fez to establish rabbinic academies and synagogues, which soon gained an international reputation. Bibas’s tomb in the cemetery features anthropomorphic imagery, a style that is traditionally shunned on Jewish tombs.
Stylings: Many graves are covered with designs of a round sun and flower or a design suggesting female breasts. Most are graves face west, toward Jerusalem. Tombstones in the older part of the cemetery often lack writing. Traditionally, a grave would include personal information only if the deceased had no descendants to carry on the family line.
Bengualid: Also buried in the cemetery (in an umarked grave) is the legendary Rabbi Yitzhak Bengualid, a 19th Century scholar who in 1862 allowed the Paris-based Alliance Israelite to establish a French language school in Tétouan. Bengualid’s hiloula (a celebration on the anniversary of his death) is marked four days before the holiday of Purim. Jews from around the world still return every year for the celebration. The cemetery is open to the public and Mohammad the caretaker happily gives tours.