Thank you to all of our supporters who enabled us to make such great progress with our Cemetery Preservation initiative! As this project comes to a close, we are happy to report that we achieved our goals for 2013 and are excited to start work on new cultural preservation projects in Essaouira.
On Tuesday 1 October, 2013 the High Atlas Foundation held a closing conference to present the results of its one-year long cemetery preservation and education program in this small port town on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast.
HAF was honored that the US Consul General, Mr. Brian Shukan, visited Essaouira to deliver the keynote speech at the conference. He described the project as "a testament to the cooperation between the United States and Morocco."
Thanks to our generous donors, this project resulted in:
As this cemetery preservation project comes to an end, we now turn to new cultural preservation projects in Essaouira. Maintaining our focus on the long history of interreligious and multicultural peace and prosperity in the region, we are working with local partners to identify 3 religious sites, 1 Muslim, 1 Christian, and 1 Jewish for renovation and rehabilitation, as we usher in the next phase of our cultural preservation initiative.
On 14 July, HAF was pleased to welcome a group of US high school students, in Morocco to study Arabic to the site of our cultural heritage project in Essaouira. Over the last months, HAF and partners have been working to rehabilitate the Muslim, Christian and Jewishcemeteries of Essaouira. The group of 35 teenage students and their leaders, including Ms. Melissa Topiacio Long, visited the new Jewish cemetery and the Rabbi Haim Pinto synagogue. They were accompanied by HAF Project and Development Manager, Lynn Sheppard, and Ms. Regine Knafo, a former member of the Mogador Jewish community.
At the cemetery, the students were given a copy of the brochure which HAF and our project partners have developed for tourists about the cemeteries of the three faiths in Essaouira. Lynn gave them an introduction to the history of Essaouira and explained how such a significant Jewish community came to be living in what was known as Mogador.
In 1764 Sultan Sidi Mohamed invited ten Jewish families to settle in Mogador to help him in his aim to make Mogador the most important port of Morocco. Among them, the Corcos family was the most well-known of “Sultan’s merchants”. The Jewish community very quickly represented about half of the population estimated at 25,000 around the turn of the century and remained important until 1960. These wealthier families settled in the Kasbah, or ‘King’s Quarter’ but later two Jewish mellahs were built in the northern suburbs of the town. As trade developed, Consuls and trading agents came to Mogador. Many of these were of Christian faith and are buried in the Christian or Consular cemetery close to the two Jewish cemeteries.
Regine, whose brother, Asher, has been working with HAF on this project, explained some of the practices and traditions of Jewish cemeteries. She highlighted the graves of the cohens (or kohenim) near the cemetery gate. Kohenim were priests who performed their priestly service in the portable Tabernacle until the Holy Temple was built in Jerusalem. Their duties involved offering the daily and Jewish holiday sacrifices, and blessing the people in a Priestly Blessing, known as "Raising of the hands". For this reason, the graves of the kohenim carry the image of open palms. Having a particular status in the Jewish religion, kohenim are not permitted to enter into the interior of a cemetery and even those who do not have this vocation, but who carry the name Cohen should abide by the same practice and remain near the gate.
The students were interested to learn about the multicultural history of Essaouira and the traces of that tolerance and coexistence today. they learned that Muslims and Jews frequently celebrated religious festivals together. They also learned about Jewish religious practices and were keen to understand similarities and differences between religious practices. They asked why the Jews had left Mogador (in the 1950s and 60s) and how many remained. Only one Jewish family lives permanently in Essaouira today, although many diaspora visit regularly on religious or cultural occasions. Regine explained that although there was no animosity between Muslims and Jews in Mogador, following the fall of the French Protectorate in 1956, many Jewish families (who were often Francophone and allied with the French rulers) feared a resurgent nationalism and felt their future in Morocco was uncertain. Many migrated to the newly created state of Israel, but many left for other countries such as France, Canada (Quebec) and the US.
Following a visit also to the renovated Rabbi Haim Pinto synagogue and an explanation of the renovation of the Slat Lkhal synagogue, Regine guided the students through the mellah into the Kasbah, where they thanked their guides and expressed their appreciation of their multi-cultural introduction to Essaouira where they would spend one week as part of their studies.
It is an honor for HAF to invite guests into the cemeteries that have been renovated through the support of individuals like you and the AFCP. We hope to continue improving the sites and sharing the cultural knowledge with new groups. It is thanks to your support that we will be able to sustain this project that protects a priceless history, and a model of co-existence for our modern world.
To celebrate the UNESCO International Day for Monuments and Sites on 18 April, the High Atlas Foundation organised a day of activities with 40 young Souiris (Essaouira residents) in the historic medina of Essaouira.
The HAF-hosted event was entitled: “La Patrimoine comme temoin de l’unité et diversité” – ‘cultural heritage as the witness of unity and diversity’. The event began at the Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah Museum and consisted of a treasure hunt and art workshop.
Despite the event being in the school holidays, at 9am there were already a number of young people aged 12-18 years waiting at the door of the Sidi Mohammed Ben Adbullah Museum, the starting point for the day. The Museum is named after the sultan who established Essaouira and who was responsible for developing its port and inviting foreign traders to develop commerce from the city.
Inside, the participants were split into 8 groups of 3-4, ensuring a mix between the participating associations, Bayti and Argania. Both associations work with young people from difficult or under-privileged backgrounds and were pleased to be involved in a project which provided a fun but educational activity for children who had not been able to travel during the vacation.
Each group was provided with a pad and pen and a ‘heritage passport’, on which they would have to collect a photo sticker from each of 9 historical sites relevant to Essaouira’s multicultural past. They were instructed to listen carefully to a lively presentation given by museum curator, Ms Ghita Rabouli and teacher Ms Khadija Beihaqui. As they visited the museum, they were able to see many artifacts of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim inhabitants of this seaside town.
Following the presentation, the groups set off on their ‘treasure hunt.’ At each location, they had to answer a question relevant to the site and the site ‘animateur’ gave them a clue to lead them to the next location. Once they had visited 9 sites, they had to return to the Bastion Bab Marrakech, an example of a well-used and sympathetically renovated historical site integrated into the medina walls and close to the position of the first Muslim cemetery of Essaouira.
After lunch, the participants received an inspirational and informative presentation by art teacher, Mr. Ouaskar el Houssine. He showed them old black and white photos of the places they had seen during the morning, as well as paintings of Essaouira monuments and other heritage sites in a number of artistic styles. This presentation served to provoke reflection among the groups and encourage them to express their impressions of the day by painting a group picture.
At the end of the day, each group was invited to present its painting and explain its message. One group drew Dar Damana, an important zawiya – a place where a particular Muslim sect learns and practices their religious rituals.
The message of the image below is “Hands off our heritage!” It is inspired by the hands of Fatima seen on both Muslim and Jewish doors and ornaments and believed to ward off the evil eye or bad luck.
The winning groups for the treasure hunt (judged on completion, accuracy, group discipline and timing) and the top three painting were awarded prizes and everyone received a certificate of participation.
The objectives of the day were to bring alive Essaouira’s rich cultural heritage and its multi-cultural past to local youngsters. When we heard comments such as “I wish we could do this once a month” or “I didn’t know Essaouira had a museum” and “I didn’t know there was a synagogue here, ” we were sure we had achieved our goals!
Please help to support this rich cultural education for youth and members of the Essaouira community. Let's work together to make the program sustainable as our grant closes.
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