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Sefrou, the ‘Little Jerusalem’ of all times Part 1

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22.09.2021

A city of proverbial tolerance

North of Morocco, not far from the imperial city of Fez, lies the locality of Sefrou in the lap of the Atlas Mountains. It was in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, a haven of peace and togetherness where Muslims and Jews lived in total communion. It forged, then, the image of a place where cultures, creeds, languages, and traditions mixed freely without any bias or sense of hatred. In spite of its small size, the city of Sefrou reflected the spirit of a plural, multi-ethnic, and tolerant Morocco with Arabic language (Moroccan Darija) spoken alongside Tamazight/Berber dialects as well as Hebrew and French.

Indeed, because of its location at the foot of the central Middle Atlas on the former trans-Saharan trade route (Trik as-Sultane), Sefrou was, throughout its history, a transit point, a crossroads of diverse cultures and creeds and a human receptacle. These factors combined with the diversity of its resources have given it important opportunities for integration and human fulfilment. As a result, it has attracted people of various ethnic and tribal origins (Amazigh, Arabs) and confessional backgrounds (Muslims, Jews, and Christians). This has made it a home of exemplary cohabitation where a secular urban tradition based on openness, coexistence, and tolerance has developed and thrived for two centuries on end.

The name of the city comes from the name of the Amazigh/Berber tribe Ahl Sefrou, [i] who converted to Judaism around the second century AD. It occupied the Wad Aggay meaning « River of the Cheeks » in Tamazight and the river bore, also, the name of Wad Lihoudi, the « River of the Jew » past the Mellah, Jewish quarter, of the city.

Sefrou was born of the regrouping, for security reasons, of inhabitants who settled along the river in a walled settlement. The mellah, Jewish district, for the same security reasons, occupied a central position inside the Muslim neighborhoods of the medina and that shows quite clearly that the Muslim population cared so much about the safety of their Jewish brethren, so they placed them in the center of the city, for maximum security. Dominating the river, stands the suburb of al-Qal’a (meaning fortress in Arabic), a detachment from the city, as to remind visitors of its refractory past and rebellious nature.

Sefrou is surrounded by high crenelated ramparts pierced by seven gates dating from the 18th century when it was an important stage of the caravan trade as evidenced by the many fondouks (caravanserais) of the city. Its various zaouïas (religious lodges), mosques, hammams (public baths), and shops relate, in turn, to its great commercial influence in the region. Sefrou has always been a place of human confluence (from different regions of Morocco and Andalusia) and confessional brewing (Muslim, Jewish, and later on Christian) and ethnic communion (Arab and Amazigh/Berber).

Founded in 682, a century before the imperial city of Fez, Sefrou is located 28 kilometers south of this city and culminates at 850 meters above sea level; It has always been called the « oasis without a palm tree » or « the garden of the kingdom, » a garden that all the sovereigns of Morocco have carefully protected and praised. However, the late King Hassan II, in the 90s of the last century lamented, in one of his speeches, that the city because of avid and uncontrolled urban development, lost, alas, its garden specificity and became a jungle of concrete. He directly blamed the elected local government for the lack of ecology-mindedness and, indirectly, for corruption practices.

With its ramparts surrounding the city and protecting it from bellicose tribes of bled as-siba (land of dissidence) [ii] and its 7 imposing gates, a lucky number in Arab and Amazigh culture, and, also, in Moroccan Jewish cabal tradition. Sefrou was made famous for its waterfalls of about 10 meters high and the waters of Wad Aggay which make its land fertile, where many fruit trees grow, of which the best known is, undoubtedly, the cherry tree: habb lmellouk (the fruit of kings.)

The city became in the twelfth century a center of thriving commerce where the producers of the regions of northern Morocco and those of Tafilalet met to exchange crops, handicrafts, and hides. It was, also, the starting point of the famed Sub-Saharan caravan trade whereby Morocco exchanged salt and hides against the gold of the black African Ashanti mines, a commerce that is known, today, as the « unfair trade. » This trade, for centuries, was financed by Jews keeping small « banking shops » known as Hwanet tale’ in the medina of Sefrou and its caravans that traveled for 44 days to Timbuktu, in today’s Mali, led by Jewish guides respected for their leadership, fairness, patience, courage, and sense of leadership. They were known as azettat (because they carried long sticks bearing the azetta, woven cloth of each Amazigh tribe traversed in peace (aman,)) which in down-to-earth language means pre-paid free passage tithe.

Moulay Idris II in Sefrou

Sefrou is twelve centuries old. Moulay Idris II stayed there in 806 before the foundation of the city of Fez. He lived in a place called Habbouna (from Arabic ” they loved us ”) which is now a quarter of the city. During his stay in Sefrou, Moulay Idriss made some trips to Bahlil whose inhabitants he converted to Islam with much duress.

According to Rawd al-Qirtass (The Garden of Pages,) [iii], Bahlil did not oppose any resistance to the conversion, but it seems from oral tradition that the Chqounda tribe resigned itself only to constraint and forced action of Moulay Idris because it was probably still influenced by the ideas of the Second Roman Legion that dwelt the area during the Roman Empire colonization of Morocco (52 CE-5th century AD).

In any case, the people of this tribe reserved a very cold welcome to the Idrisid Sultan, and following his failure to convert peacefully the town of Bhalil, he reportedly returned to Sefrou and on his way, he named a nearby mountain Jbel Binna and said: “Had jbel binna or binhoum“, which means literally: this is a border mountain between us and them. Since then the name of “Binna” has referred to this mountain.

Without any drinking water in Bhalil, the people were obliged to go to get water supply from the Wad Aggaï of Sefrou, at the risk of dangers constantly increasing from animosity towards them shown by the Muslims of Sefrou. Tired of rejection, the Christian inhabitants of Bhalil submitted to the will of the sultan on the condition that he insured them access to the precious water supply.

Moulay Idris, on their conversion, fulfilled their desire by a miracle; he apparently visited anew their village and made the water spill from the ground after giving it a sword blow. This water would be since the source of Ain Rta which lies nowadays in the middle of the village. In admiration of this divine miracle, the last hostile Bahloulis (inhabitants of the village) rallied immediately to the will of the sultan, but not........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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