The Jewish cemetery of Fez, a symbol of cultural harmony
15 January 2023 Culture and Education
The Moroccan city of Fez, which recently hosted the Global Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, has long been a melting pot of religions and cultures. Its 200-year-old Jewish cemetery symbolizes the centuries-long coexistence of diverse communities in the city.
Before he died, Johanna Devico Ohana’s father asked her to promise him one thing: “if I ever die when I’m in France”, he insisted, “bring me to Fez”.
He also asked her to take care of the Jewish cemetery, a role that was his responsibility before he passed away. His daughter agreed to both requests, and her father is laid to rest in the cemetery she now maintains.
‘We lived in harmony’ “My father was a lover of Morocco and a lover of Fez”, says Ms. Ohana, who was born and raised in the city. “We lived in harmony. There was no tension. We all knew we were Jews, Muslims, or Catholics, and we never had any problems on that side”.
Located in northern Morocco, on the Wadi Fez, the city was founded in the ninth century, and was the ancient capital of Morocco for hundreds of years. In the year 809, King Idris II encouraged Jews to move to Fez, so the city could benefit from their skills.
Today, Fez is known for its religion, art, sciences, craftwork, and trade activities. The Fez Medina, often described as Morocco’s cultural and spiritual centre, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It also retains a mix of cultures and identity, and a Jewish neighbourhood, named ‘Mellah’. The word literally means ‘salt’ or ‘saline area’, in reference to either a saline water source in the area or to the former presence of a salt warehouse, but ‘Mellah’ is now used as the name for Jewish quarters in other Moroccan cities, including Rabat and Marrakech.
The Jewish cemetery, nestled in the Mellah, is distinguished by its semi-cylindrical tombs, which capture the history of Morocco’s flourishing Jewry.
A ‘convergence of confluents’ The age-old intermingling of peoples made Fez an appropriate location for the ninth Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), which took place in November 2022.
Opening the event, Andre Azoulay, the senior adviser to King Mohammed VI of Morocco – and father of UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay – who is himself Jewish, declared that Morocco “is built around a model of openness, harmony and synergy that has seen the convergence of Arab-Islamic, Amazigh and Saharan-Hassanian confluents, and that has, at the same time, been enriched by African, Andalusian, Hebrew and Mediterranean tributaries”.
When asked about how she felt when she learnt that Fez was chosen to host the UNAOC ninth Forum, Ms. Ohana said she felt proud that Fez was chosen: “for Morocco, it reflects exactly the reality of our image, our culture”.
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(The credit for all the inputs for this story goes to United Nations.)