Jewish Quarter of Meknes
Jews settled in the region of Meknes before the advent of Islam. A Hebrew inscription has been found and the remains of a synagogue were uncovered in the excavations of Volubilis, which is near Meknes. A “kinah” of Abraham Ibn Ezra mentions Meknes among the communities which suffered at the hands of the Almohads. A chronological note testifies that such persecutions occurred in 1140, and adds that in 1247, during the wars of the Merinids, many Jews lost their lives or were forcibly converted to Islam, while in the earthquake of 1340 “several courtyards caved in, as well as the synagogue and the Bet Ha-Midrash of rabbi Jacob.”
According to traditions preserved in writing, the “Mahrit” synagogue, still existing in Meknes, was first built in the 13th century, destroyed in the earthquake of 1630 and rebuilt in 1646 by the Toledanos upon their arrival in Meknes. It is similarly stated that the “Tobi” synagogue was built in 1540. It would therefore seem that Jews already at that time lived in the present mellah areas as well as in the Medina in which an “Aaron Street” is, according to tradition, named after the then leader of the community.
The Sharif Mulay Ismail (1672-1727), the real founder of the Alawid dynasty, moved his capital to Meknes and granted the Jews additional land for construction of buildings. The “Nagid” Abraham Maymeran and other wealthy Jews then built luxurious houses. Christian emissaries from Europe who stayed in them were astonished by their beauty. Near the Mellah, Ismail built a beautiful quarter for his officials and servants.
From then until the 19th century the community of Meknes was one of the best developed and organized in Morocco. It was a city of Chakhamim and authors, as well as merchants and men of action who frequently visited Tetuan, Sale, Rabat, and Fez on their affairs. The community was organized and its institutions functioned accordingly.
As capital of the country and residence of the Sharifs (rulers) Meknes was also the center of Jewish activities at the court. The leaders of the Meknes community acted as Negidim of Moroccan Jewry and agents of the Sharifs. Among them were members of the Maymeran family (Joseph and his son Abraham), as well as the Toledanos, the Ibn Attars, the Ben Mamans, the Ben Quiquis, and others. The most prominent rabbinic scholars and dayyanim in Meknes during the 18th– 20th centuries come from the Berdugo and Toledano families, many of whom wrote responsa.
During the 19th century Meknes lost its importance as the capital and the Jewish community also declined.
The government allocated new areas near the mellah for the Jews to live in, and a new quarter, known as the “new Mellah,” was built. The construction was modern, being scattered and not surrounded by a wall. Many beautiful synagogues were also built, including the beautiful “Toledano” and Joseph Marijin synagogues, as well as a large Jewish school, Em Ha-Banim, in which all the children of the community studied.
The Jewish population of Meknes, which numbered 12,445 in the 1951 census report, dropped in 1960 to 10,894 (according to the census of that year), and in 1968, after the large-scale emigration of Moroccan Jewry, to about 2,000-3,000. In 1970 the Meknes community, although reduced, was one of the more vital of the Moroccan provincial communities. Only a few dozen Jews remain in the old Mellah, and most live in the modern Jewish neighborhood.