30 October 2018

Looking for a church but
finding two synagogues
in the streets of Tangier

A sign points to two surviving synagogues on Rue Synagogue in the heart of the old city in Tangier (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Tangier last week, I tried to find my way into the Spanish mission church in the Soukh, but instead ended up finding two of the hidden synagogues in this Moroccan coastal city and learning about the story of the Jews of Tangier.

Earlier in the day, some former Jewish homes were pointed out as we strolled through the narrow streets Kasbah, but I had noticed no synagogues or churches, and attracted unwelcome responses at the few mosques I tried to visit.

After lunch in the Mamounia Palace, I went strolling through the old Medina and the Rue Es-Siaghinie, lined with cafés and bazaars, jewellers’ shops and an arts centre with displays depicting Tangier’s social history.

A view of Rue Es-Siaghinie towards the port of Tangier from the balcony of the Mamounia Palace … the Rue Synagogue and the Spanish Mission Church are to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Spanish Mission Church, with its domes and large windows, is a Franciscan mission church dating from the 1870s. The doors were closed, and at first I thought directions at a side door were sending me on a wild goose chase. But as I turned the corner I found I was on ‘Rue Sinaguogue’ and with sign pointing to two synagogues on this colourful back street.

Unlike Morocco’s other imperial cities in the past, Tangier did not have a walled Jewish Mellah or ghetto. Instead, Tangier had an unprotected Jewish quarter.

Tangier was first inhabited by the Phoenicians and then by the Carthaginians. Archaeologists have found ceramic objects marked with menorahs that date the Jewish presence in Tangier, then called Tingis, to the period immediately after the destruction of the First Temple.

Jewish refugees from Spain fleeing the Visigoth persecutions arrived in Tangier in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, bringing with them their culture, industry and commerce. Several Berber tribes converted to Judaism and Jews lived in peace in Tangier for the next several centuries.

Abraham Ibn Daud and Joseph Ha-Kohen record how the Jewish community in Tangier was destroyed by the Almohades in the year 1148.

A Star of David above the door of an old Jewish house in the heart of the old city in Tangier (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Jewish refugees expelled from Spain in 1391 brought new life to the community, and the Jewish population of Tangier grew again with the arrival of refugees expelled from Seville, Cadiz and other parts of Spain by the Inquisition in 1492. These new immigrants brought with them their Andalusian Sephardic liturgy, creating a Moroccan Jewish culture with a distinctive Sephardic identity.

Small numbers from the Jewish communities of Azemmour and Safi settled in Tangier in 1541 when it was ruled by the Portuguese. However, the community eventually came to the attention of the Portuguese Inquisition, which tried to outlaw Jews living in the city.

When the Portuguese ceded Tangier to England in 1661, another wave of Jews and Muslims arrived in the city, particularly from the neighbouring towns of Larache and Ksar El-Kabir, along with a small number of Jews from the Netherlands.

In 1675, tensions boiled up between the Moroccan-born Jews and those from abroad who had arrived in Tangier, and the rabbis of Tetuan issued an excommunication or cherem against the new arrivals. The Jews were expelled from Tangier in 1677 and did not return until 1680.

Although the Jewish community of Tangier was generally poor, a number of notable figures lived in the city, including Solomon Pariente, an adviser and interpreter to four successive governors; Samuel de Paz, a British diplomat; and Jacob Falcon, who played an important role in building relationships between the English and the Muslims.

However, the English withdrawal in 1684 ushered in a new phase of economic decline, and most Jews left the town. By 1725, only one Jewish merchant, Abraham Benamor from Meknes, remained in the city. With the support of Moses Maman, the sultan’s treasurer, he began to organise a new community as Maman encouraged Jewish merchants from Tetuan and Rabat to move to Tangier with the promise of some tax exemptions.

A sign at the entrance to Rue Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The new community soon numbered about 150 people, and Rabbi Judah Hadida, the first dayan or rabbinical court judge of Tangier, became its leader in 1744.

When Christians were excluded from Tetuan in 1772, many European consulates moved to Tangier and the consuls were followed by their Jewish interpreters. However, the majority of the Jewish community in tangier continued to live in poverty.

Unlike Jewish communities in Europe, the Jews of Morocco suffered little or no government-sponsored violence. But all this changed under Sultan Mulay Yazid. In a brief reign of terror, many prominent court Jews were executed, including Jacob Attal who was executed in Tangier in 1783. Jewish houses were pillaged, people were killed, and women were raped.

The Jewish community of Tangier recovered in the early 19th century. There were fewer than 800 Jews living in Tangier in 1808, but by 1835 they had grown in numbers to 2,000. The community, however, was still poor, despite the presence of the Nahon family, who were successful wax traders, Joseph Chriqui of Mogador, and the Abensur, Sicsu, Anzancot, and Benchimol families.

Life was difficult for the Jewish community in Tangier during the Franco-Moroccan War of 1844. But the community escaped the French bombardment and celebrated a special Purim known as Purim de las Bombas (‘Purim of the Bombs’).

Wandering through the streets of the former Jewish quarter of Tangiers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

By 1856, Tangier was the largest port in Morocco. Life improved with the arrival of a new group of Jews from Tetuan, and numbers rose to 2,600. By 1867, there was a community of 3,500 people, and the French school, Alliance Israelite Universelle, opened in 1869.

Many Jews were involved in a new Moroccan press based in Tangier, founding and editing news newspapers, published in English, Spanish, French and Arabic, and calling for the Europeanisation of Morocco.

Jewish authors and poets, many writing in Spanish, also flourished in Tangier. The Jewish middle class founded hospitals and numerous welfare institutions in Tangier. The Jewish intelligentsia, including the historian Jose Benoliel, the kabbalist Sanuel Toldedano, and Abraham Laredo, were involved in reviving Jewish culture.

When the French Protectorate was established in 1912, Jews were given equality and religious autonomy. By the time Tangier became an international zone in 1923 administered by France, Spain and Britain, over 10,000 Jews were living in the city. But many more emigrated to South America or settled in Casablanca.

With the outbreak of World War II and the beginning of the Holocaust, many Jews fleeing Eastern Europe sought refuge in Tangier from 1939 on. By the 1940s, there were 22,000 Jews in Tangier and Morocco’s Jewish population reached its peak at 250,000 in 1948. About 12,000 Jews were living in the international zone that year, and by 1950 they were joined by 2,000 Spanish Moroccan Jews, so that the community in Tangier numbered about 15,000 people in 1951.

The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

After Moroccan independence in 1956 and the annexation of Tangier, several Jews, including Solomon M Pinto, tried to preserve the community of 17,000. But emigration had begun; Jews from Tangier helped to build a new Jewish community in Madrid, others settled in Geneva, Canada or the US, and a few hundred emigrated to Israel. By 1968, the number of Jews in Tangier had fallen to about 4,000. By 1970, only about 250 Jews were left in Tangier.

Today, the synagogues, cemeteries, monuments and communal institutions of Tangier show how important Jewish life has been in the city over the centuries.

At one time Tangier had over 20 synagogues. On Rue des Synagogues, many of the synagogues are now closed, but I found signs pointing to two of them.

The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century. It was restored by Rabbi Moshe Laredo in1902, and was rebuilt in 1912. More recently it has been converted into a museum of Tangier’s Jewish community, but it was closed when I visited on Thursday afternoon.

At the very end of this twisting and turning street, behind a nondescript door, I found myself outside the Moshe Nahon Synagogue, the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city. From the street, appearances are deceptive, but inside this is a monumental and lavish building, and one of the most beautiful synagogues in Morocco.

This synagogue was built in 1878 and was a working synagogue until it fell into despair in the late 20th century. But it was renovated in 1994, revealing intricately covered carvings that are illuminated by hanging lamps and many Jewish artefacts.

The Moshe Nahon Synagogue, the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city, was built in 1878 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Chaar Rafael on 27 Boulevard Pasteur is another surviving synagogue in Tangier. This Jewish-owned villa was built in 1919, and was converted into a synagogue in 1954, when the owner Raphaël Bendriahm died.

The Jewish Cemetery in Tangier, known as the ‘old cemetery,’ has more than 1,000 graves, some dating back to the 16th century, with tombstones in Hebrew, Portuguese and French.

Today, there is a vibrant Jewish community in Morocco numbering about 2,000 to 2,500 people. Moroccan Jews make up the second largest community in Israel, and Moroccan Jews and their descendants can be found in France, Canada, Spain, the US and Venezuela.

I never found my way into the Spanish Mission Church, nor did I find Saint Andrew’s Anglican Church before I left Tangier on Thursday evening and returned to Seville. But I found evidence of an openness and tolerance that many people do not expect in islamic-majority and Arab-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

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