Cultural Preservation & Coexistence in Essaouira

 
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Aug 15, 2014

US Ambassador visits Interfaith cemeteries

Ambassador Bush
Ambassador Bush

On June 12, the day of the opening concert of the 17th edition of Essaouira’s Gnaoua World Music Festival, the High Atlas Foundation was proud to be alongside André Azoulay, Economic Adviser to HE King Mohammed VI, in welcoming US Ambassador Mr. Dwight L. Bush Senior to the sites of our cultural preservation project in the town.

The cemeteries of the three religions in Essaouira – like the world-famous Gnaoua Festival – showcase the long history of openness and intercultural coexistence in Essaouira and Morocco in general.

Thanks to the US Ambassadors’ Cultural Preservation Fund, over the course of one year, HAF and local partners worked with civil society members to restore the cemeteries of the three faiths.

Mr Azoulay first welcomed US Ambassador Bush to the new Jewish cemetery, where HAF Program Manager for Essaouira Province, Lynn Sheppard, outlined the achievements of the project. Over the course of one year, HAF and local partners worked with over 120 members of local civil society to train caretakers in good practices; to clean and plant in the cemeteries with local community members; to organize awareness-raising events with local people and to integrate over 400 individual students and schoolchildren into educational and practical activities around the cultural knowledge preserved by the cemeteries.

Following a visit to the mausoleum of Rabbi Haim Pinto in the older Jewish cemetery, the visit progressed to the adjacent Christian cemetery, where Christians of different denominations have been buried side-by-side for centuries. They include former consuls, priests, soldiers, surgeons and children. The Ambassador was also presented with a brochure compiled during the project by local members of civil society, explaining some of the key aspects and personalities of the cemeteries.

During the visit, the Ambassador and his delegation learned about the heritage and historical value of Essaouira’s cemeteries and the uniquely Moroccan blend of unity and diversity which they represent.

This visit also highlighted one of the objectives of this project: making cemeteries accessible and welcoming to visitors.

Click here to view the interview by Maghreb Arab Press, featuring an interview with HAF’s president, Yossef Ben-Meir, and the Ambassador. You can view the project’s blog here.

Lynn Sheppard with the Ambassador
Lynn Sheppard with the Ambassador
HAF and Azoulay
HAF and Azoulay
May 19, 2014

Expanding capacity-building activities around Intercultural Heritage in Essaouira

Essaouira Cemetery Restoration
Essaouira Cemetery Restoration

The cemetary project, HAF's first in Essaouira and its first in this urban intercultural sphere, achieved great visibility and penetration for HAF. In order to maintain momentum of HAF's intercultural agenda and our work with young people and civil society in Essaouira we submitted a proposal to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the BMW Group. This will expand our field of activity to include built heritage (often disappeared or fallen into disuse) which stands as a reminder of the rich multicultural past of this port city, where Arab, Amazigh and African Muslims, Jews and Christians shared a town, a life, work, a culture, and a language.

Although the medina of Essaouira has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, the restoration of historical sites and buildings has been slow to proceed. Our aim now is to support the creation of an interactive multi-player committee to intervene in the dialogue and eventually the protection of built heritage of Essaouira. The main activites of this project include the following:

  • Reflection and dialogue day - This will promote discussion among civil society of the value of built heritage.
  • Creation of a self-guided brochure - Expanding upon the inital brochure of historical cemetaries, this additional one will include a map of cultural heritage sites in the medina to be placed in the buildings and in community and tourist centers.
  • Weekly community meetings - These meetings will include training of local civic actors in participatory community planning with the intention of creating a multi- player heritage forum. 
  • Educational Program - Will support continued integration of local youth associations and schools.

Thanks to your support the cemetary project was a success and allows HAF to expand its activites and build on this success to train local actors to truly adopt this agenda as their own. Thank you for helping to support the cultural heritage of Morocco. 

Feb 19, 2014

A Jewish Perspective on HAF's Planting Event Jan16

Flowing naturally from its recently completed three cemeteries restoration project in Essaouira, the High Atlas Foundation plans to incorporate a Jewish strand into the One Million Tree Campaign celebrations scheduled for 16th January. On this day, HAF will plant its millionth tree simultaneously in eight provinces where currently participatory development projects are being implemented.

This decision reflects the longstanding Jewish heritage of Morocco and the recent involvement of the Jewish community of Marrakesh-Essaouira in the project by loaning land on which to build organic fruit tree nurseries. Accordingly, one of the many ceremonies planned across Morocco is set to take place at Akraich, a village just south of Marrakesh, where a High Atlas Foundation site adjoins a Jewish cemetery. While the event as a whole is planned as an inter-communal, international, inter-generational and yet essentially Moroccan occasion, the date coincides with Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees.

Two things are said to happen, one external and the other hidden. Outdoors, most of the winter rain should have fallen - the festival always occurs in this season in the northern hemisphere - and the ground should be in an ideal state for newly-planted saplings to take root. Deep within the tree, the sap – the lifeblood – starts to rise, bringing nutrition to the whole tree and initiating a new cycle of growth in the coming year.

On this day of transition, it is common to hold celebratory meals, plant saplings - involving children and youth in particular in this activity - and raise environmental awareness, while in former times a detailed inventory of fruit-bearing trees was carried out. The Jewish festival thus resonates exceptionally well with the objectives of the One Million Tree Campaign.

There is further significance in linking the two that reaches far beyond a particular faith tradition (which addresses itself mainly to the Jewish community while engaging with universal concerns). The broad theme of the day is one of positive connection leading to growth. It infuses the work of the High Atlas Foundation. It informs our success to date and my hope and belief as a new volunteer is that we shall continue along this path as we move forward to new goals after 16th January.

Places of Growth

HAF planting with school childrenThere are several reasons why it seems appropriate to hold an inter-communal ceremony at Akraich. The parcel of land has significance in being the first to be loaned to the High Atlas Foundation by the Jewish community of Marrakesh-Essaouira for the benefit of local Muslim farmers, with a total of 80,000 saplings set to be grown here. (Recently four further contracts were finalised and finances are currently being raised for their implementation).

Secondly, here, as in the Essaouira project, the aim of the High Atlas Foundation to promote inter-cultural understanding is shown in practice. The backdrop to all of this is the unique, multi-faceted culture of coexistence that flourishes until today within modern Morocco and further afield and that is often seen as an exemplary model. Adjoining the fruit tree nursery is a sacred site that includes the grave of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen, dating from around 700 years ago. It is the subject of veneration by both the Amazigh and Moroccan Jewish communities owing to a shared custom of visiting graves of scholars and others in order to obtain help and relief.

The moving story goes that the land was originally given to the Jewish community then living nearby, after another rabbi saved the life of the local pasha. Here then, next to an old-established symbol of belief in another world, life and hope is envisaged for modern-day Moroccans. Crucially, on land offered in friendship by one faith community to another, a project is taking place that illustrates how successfully diverse groups can work together. More generally, an important aspect of traditional Moroccan culture – a sense of connection to particular places – is being highlighted and respected by a modern, international organisation - the High Atlas Foundation. Overall, the choice reflects very well our role, demonstrated in innumerable activities, to connect the as-yet-unconnected to opportunities for growth and development: to economic and communal participation, to clean drinking water, to education – and to each other.

Author Katherine Pérès recently began to volunteer for the High Atlas Foundation. She moved from Britain to Morocco six years ago and is a member of the Marrakesh Jewish community.

Nov 18, 2013

Looking ahead to a new preservation project...

US Consul General Attends the Conference
US Consul General Attends the Conference

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:

  • The rehabilitation of three cemeteries; the Christian, new Jewish and Muslim Chouhadda cemeteries including clearing, planting, guardian training and restoration activities;
  • The integration of over 400 local young people in a program of educational presentations, visits to the cemeteries and participatory educational activities;
  • Capacity building of over 120 members of civil society organizations;
  • The cataloguing of the epitaphs, gathering of historical knowledge from the cemeteries and the creation of a self-guided brochure for visitors to the cemeteries;
  • The creation of sustainable partnerships for the development of further activities in the field of cultural preservation.

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. 

Students help clean the cemetery
Students help clean the cemetery

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Aug 22, 2013

US Students Visit Essaouira Cultural Sites

Students in Jewish Cemetery
Students in Jewish Cemetery

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 MuslimChristian 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.

cohen hands EssaouiraRegine, 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.

US students visit Essaouira Jewish cemetery with HAF

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. 

The Group with Guardians
The Group with Guardians

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Project Leader

Alex Stein

New York, New York United States

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