One of the things I love doing when I travel is specifically learning about any minority cultures of a place I visit. Sometimes, to do so, it takes some research ahead of time in order to know where to look. My trip to Marrakesh was no exception. One of the sites I visited in this city, a place I learned about in my research, was the Lazama Synagogue and the nearby Jewish cemetery. I definitely suggest adding both of these places to your itinerary on your own visit to Marrakesh!
Finding Lazama Synagogue
Lazama Synagogue is the last synagogue in the Mellah area of Marrakesh. In fact, I believe it is one of two remaining in the city! Lazama Synagogue isn’t an easy place to find. I tried using GPS on my phone to get to it but that definitely didn’t work too well (in fact, using GPS anywhere in the old part of Marrakesh never worked well). However, it got me close to the synagogue but after back tracking a number of times, likely to the amusement of several loitering young men, I was about to give up on this place. But then I saw a group of older English-speaking tourists who looked like they were heading somewhere in particular. I followed them. And sure enough, after walking down a narrow nondescript street (allegedly called Talmud Torah Street but I didn’t find any signs), we ended up at the synagogue!
The History of Lazama Synagogue
Lazama Synagogue was originally built in 1492 but the current building dates to the 20th century. It was apparently known as the “synagogue of exiles” because it had been built during the Inquisition when Jewish people were driven out of Spain. The synagogue was also home to Berber people who had converted to Judaism. They came to this synagogue from their regional villages to study the Torah. Though Morocco once had North Africa’s largest Jewish population (as many as 300,000 people, 50,000 in Marrakesh alone), numbers drastically fell primarily due to people moving to Israel after its creation. Unofficial figures state that there are less than 3,000 Jewish people left in Morocco today, less than 100 in Marrakesh.
Visiting Lazama Synagogue
Lazama Synagogue is quite small. It feels more like a museum, but it is still an active place of worship. It is set up with a courtyard in the middle of the building and a series of small rooms all around. The courtyard is lovely with greenery, a fountain, and pretty blue and white tiles. Keep your eye out for tiles arranged in a Star of David pattern. The surrounding rooms all hold something different. Some display fading photographs of the Berber Jewish population while others exhibit various tattered documents and books. Of course, there is also the main room, one for prayers.
At the time of writing, the entrance fee to Lazama Synagogue was 10 dirham per person
A Brief Wander through the Mellah Area
There are signs that the Mellah neighbourhood is slowly being gentrified. Despite the various signs of construction and a small market, I found the area to be fairly quiet. Especially in comparison to the souks near Jemaa el Fna! As you wander, keep your eye out for some of the street signs as some are in Hebrew. While I felt safe walking through the area, I got the distinct impression that photography would not at all be appreciated. I kept my camera mostly put away during my brief wander.
A Jewish Cemetery
Not far from the Lazama Synagogue is a Jewish cemetery, the largest in Morocco. If the synagogue is open to visitors when you go, then the cemetery should also be open. Best to do both during the same visit. The cemetery lies behind high walls and orange metal doors – again, there is no real signage in English to indicate it as such. But it is relatively easy to find and lies only about ten minutes from Lazama Synagogue. It is worth checking out.
A visit to the Jewish cemetery is technically free but a donation is strongly suggested (about 10dh). It took me about 45 minutes to wander around the whole cemetery. I have never before visited a Jewish cemetery, so it was a unique experience for me to see a different style of burial. Things that caught my eye were the bright white stone of the tombs, the surrounding walls made orange by the strong sun, and the custom of leaving small rocks on the graves. As I left the cemetery, I noticed a fountain – there is apparently a tradition of washing ones’ hands before departing.