Jewish Traces in Southern Morocco

Synagogues and mellahs of southern Morocco: localization and documentation of Jewish adobe architecture in the Draa-Tafilalet region.

Village synagogues and Jewish quarters (mellahs) of southern Morocco are a unique cultural and architectural phenomenon. They are distinctive products of vernacular architectural engineering attesting the co-existence of various cultures, their dialogue and blending. Up to this date, there is no systematic research nor documentation on these buildings and urban units. Yet, these abandoned structures made of adobe are dilapidating and vanishing with each rain. The indigenous community of Moroccan Jews, originally 350,000 people, have already left their homeland. The positive diplomatic relations between the Czech Republic and Morocco allowed the students and staff of CUFA to start mapping and analysing these endangered landmarks. As the first to do so, they strive to familiarize the academia and general public with this internationally important topic.

In January 2019, the initial expedition laid down the foundation stone of the research: localization of the yet unknown structures and their basic documentation. We draw up architectural drawings of around ten synagogue sites, mapped the extent of Jewish quarter at around fifteen locations, and have acquired, on the basis of half-structured interviews, extensive information on the former Jewish communities, their image of thinking, and folklore of the contemporary Arabic and Berber population.

In a broader interdisciplinary team, including students and staff of the Department of Heritage Protection at Faculty of Architecture, Czech Technical University in Prague, we have visited the localities again in the beginning of the year 2020. We have used mobile and stationary 3D scenners for maping the buildings and whole quarters. Currently we work on the finalization of the selected buildings’ documentation and on the creation of their computer models.

We focus on the Draa-Tafilalet region, a settlement belt around the valley of the river Draa, Dades, and Ziz. In cooperation with the Jewish Museum in Casablanca and contemporary Israeli witnesses of Moroccan origin, we work on localization of areas that were occupied by Jews in the past.

We continue in the mapping of the situation in the selected architecturally related regions. We wish to gather documentation of other endangered buildings, outline the possibilities of their dating and prospects of their preservation or restoration. Selected sites will serve as a case study of the typological design of synagogues and Jewish quarters of the particular location, and as an evaluation of the Jewish historic buildings’ status in the context of contemporary southern Morocco.

On 17 October 2019, we have presented the previous results of Jewish Traces in the Moroccan Countryside project at a symposium on the subject of “Rural Heritage – Landscapes and Beyond” in Marrakesh organized by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). The abstract of our contribution was published in an e-publication of the conference.

More details about the project and its technical aspects can be found in our article „Earthen Jewish Architecture of Southern Morocco: Documentation of Unfired Brick Synagogues and Mellahs in the Drâa-Tafilalet Region“, published in Applied Sciences Journal in 2021.


The Research Team

Ing. arch. Daniel Ziss – specialist on synagogue architecture, native Hebrew speaker

Mgr. Adam Pospíšil – linguist, interpreting practice in Arabic and French

Mgr. Tobiáš Smolík – graduate student of Hebrew Studies and Ethnology

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