Syn­a­gogue of the ex­iles Peru seeks to boost tourism with new me­dia cam­paign

His­toric Jewish quar­ter of Mar­rakesh sees tourism re­vival

Global Times - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

The once teem­ing Jewish area of Moroc­can tourist gem Mar­rakesh is see­ing its for­tunes re­vived as vis­i­tors in­clud­ing many from Is­rael flock to ex­pe­ri­ence its unique cul­ture and his­tory.

“You’re now en­ter­ing the last syn­a­gogue in the mel­lah,” the walled Jewish quar­ter in the heart of the ochre city, Isaac Ohayon says as he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally guides tourists through the court­yard of the Lazama syn­a­gogue.

“Many vis­i­tors come from Is­rael – you wouldn’t be­lieve the de­mand!” adds the jovial 63-yearold hard­ware shop owner.

This place of wor­ship and study was built orig­i­nally in 1492 dur­ing the In­qui­si­tion when the Jews were driven out of Spain.

Known as the “syn­a­gogue of the ex­iles,” it hosted gen­er­a­tions of young Ber­bers who con­verted to Ju­daism and were sent from vil­lages in the re­gion to learn the To­rah, be­fore fi­nally be­ing de­serted in the 1960s.

In class­rooms now trans­formed into a mu­seum, fad­ing color pho­tographs tell the story of a now-dis­persed com­mu­nity, with many hav­ing left for France, North Amer­ica and es­pe­cially Is­rael.

The cap­tion on one sepia shot of an old man sit­ting by a pile of trunks says it all: “They are trav­el­ing to­wards a dream they have prayed for for more than 2,000 years.”

Re­becca is now in her 50s and grew up in Paris, but she has “great nos­tal­gia” for Morocco and re­turns as of­ten as she can.

“The Jewish Agency be­gan re­cruit­ing the poor­est in the 1950s and then ev­ery­one left af­ter in­de­pen­dence [ from France], at the time of King Has­san II’s pol­icy of Ara­biza­tion,” she ex­plains.

The Jewish Agency of Is­rael is a semi-of­fi­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion that over­sees im­mi­gra­tion to the coun­try.

‘The last young Jew’

Be­fore the wave of de­par­tures, Morocco hosted North Africa’s largest Jewish com­mu­nity, es­ti­mated at be­tween 250,000 and 300,000 peo­ple.

There are fewer than 3,000 left.

Mar­rakesh at the foot of the At­las moun­tain range was home to more than 50,000 Jews, ac­cord­ing to a 1947 cen­sus.

Now, 70 years later, around 100 are thought to re­main, many of them ex­tremely el­derly.

Jewish-owned homes in­side the mel­lah were sold to Mus­lim fam­i­lies of mod­est means, and the walls of the district were eroded by time.

“Some­times we can’t get even 10 men to­gether for prayers,” says one woman wor­ship­per at the old syn­a­gogue, pre­fer­ring to re­main anony­mous.

But at cel­e­bra­tions mark­ing the end of the fes­ti­val of Sukkot, which com­mem­o­rates the Jewish jour­ney through the Si­nai af­ter their ex­o­dus from Egypt, and the Sim­chat To­rah hol­i­day, the place is buzzing with song, dance and tra­di­tional dishes.

The wor­ship­per says she has “never seen so many peo­ple” there.

Ja­cob As­sayag, 26, proudly calls him­self “the last young Jew in Mar­rakesh.”

“Since the quar­ter was re­stored, there have been more and more tourists,” says the restau­ra­teur and singer.

A restora­tion project be­gun just over two years ago has al­ready seen 17.5 mil­lion eu­ros ($20.5 mil­lion) spent.

Ferblantiers Square, a large pedes­trian area near the spice souk lined with benches and palm trees, also ben­e­fited from the re­vamp.

Twenty years ago, the quar­ter was re­named “Salaam (‘peace’ in Ara­bic),” but this year saw its orig­i­nal “El Mel­lah” name re­stored on the or­ders of King Mo­hamed VI “to pre­serve its his­toric mem­ory” and de­velop tourism.

A sen­si­tive topic

The streets with their ochre fa­cades once more bear their names on plaques in He­brew. The syn­a­gogue, for ex­am­ple, is on Tal­mud To­rah Street.

There is much to see in­side the mel­lah.

Cam­era-tot­ing tourists snap vig­or­ously at shopfronts and the carved wooden door­ways of houses in the quar­ter.

“Many peo­ple come ev­ery year from Is­rael for the [ Jewish] hol­i­days, and this year has seen even more, maybe 50,000,” says Is­raeli tourist guide David, lead­ing a group from Tel Aviv.

“I feel at home in Morocco be­cause I was born here,” adds the 56-year-old from the port of Ash­dod just north of the Pales­tinian-con­trolled Gaza Strip.

His par­ents left Mar­rakesh in the 1960s, when David was just 4 years old, “be­cause they were Zion­ists.”

Ohayon says vis­i­tors from the Jewish state are of­ten bowled over by Mar­rakesh.

“Moroc­can Jews can’t for­get their home­land and Is­raelis who come here for the first time find the spirit of tol­er­ance here al­most un­be­liev­able when they them­selves live un­der con­stant tension,” he says.

Of­fi­cially, Morocco has nei­ther diplo­matic nor eco­nomic ties with Is­rael, but in re­al­ity, there are few ob­sta­cles to both busi­ness and tourism.

Moroc­can me­dia re­ports say com­mer­cial ex­changes be­tween the two coun­tries this year have amounted to more than 4 mil­lion dol­lars a month.

The king­dom, seen as a safe des­ti­na­tion, recorded a more than 10 per­cent rise in tourist ar­rivals be­tween Jan­uary and Au­gust this year over 2016, with 8 mil­lion vis­i­tors.

From back­pack­ing in the An­des to lux­ury Ama­zon river cruises, Peru has po­si­tioned it­self as one of the most at­trac­tive tourist des­ti­na­tions in the world. Peru has en­joyed a grow­ing tourism in­dus­try with more and more peo­ple vis­it­ing the coun­try year on year.

Now, the Peru­vian gov­ern­ment in­tends to build on this in­crease by launch­ing a cam­paign to dou­ble the num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing the coun­try by 2021. The cam­paign fo­cuses on il­lus­trat­ing Peru’s cul­tural, nat­u­ral and culi­nary riches, re­volv­ing around the idea that “Peru is the rich­est coun­try in the world.”

The cam­paign was launched at this year’s World Travel Mar­ket event in Lon­don. “When you come to Peru, you will be­come more en­riched by ex­pe­ri­ences” says Elis­a­beth Hakim, PROMPERÚ’s UK and North Amer­i­can mar­kets co­or­di­na­tor.

PROMPERÚ is re­act­ing to a new and re­de­fined un­der­stand­ing of wealth, the focus is no longer purely on ma­te­rial wealth, but also on wealth of op­por­tu­ni­ties, con­nec­tions and cul­ture. Peru fully meets this new land­scape with a wealth of authen­tic and di­verse ex­pe­ri­ences. Not only can vis­i­tors en­joy the breath­tak­ing sights of one of the world’s seven won­ders in Machu Pic­chu, but the coun­try now of­fers a vast range of life en­rich­ing mo­ments for each and ev­ery vis­i­tor.

“Peru is blessed with a rich di­ver­sity of land­scapes, we have beaches, moun­tains, jun­gles and more” ex­plains Katty VilchezMichie of Se­tours, one of the tour op­er­a­tors sup­port­ing the cam­paign.

This nat­u­ral ad­van­tage al­lows Peru to offer a vast range of ex­pe­ri­ences from South Amer­ica’s first lux­ury sleeper train which winds through the An­des from Cusco to Lake Tit­i­caca, to trekking in the dense ama­zon rain­for­est and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the Gocta wa­ter­falls, the world’s third largest.

Fans of cul­ture and ar­chaeol- ogy can ex­plore the won­ders of Inca and Pre-Inca cul­tures like the Chachapoyas of Peru’s an­dean “Cloud Forests” whilst food lovers can delve into Peru’s rich culi­nary cul­ture.

There has also been a big focus on im­prov­ing in­fra­struc­ture for Peru’s tourism in­dus­try, this year saw the open­ing of a brand new ca­ble car to the 1,200 year old Kue­lap moun­tain ci­tadel and an in­crease in di­rect flights from Lima to Peru’s rich north­ern re­gion.

Along with the gov­ern­ment cam­paign, 30 com­pa­nies from Peru’s tourism in­dus­try have pledged to sup­port the cam­paign en­cour­ag­ing tourism in Peru.

“Peru­vians are re­ally friendly and wel­com­ing peo­ple and they want more peo­ple to come to Peru,” said Clau­dia Al­faro of Lima Tours.

This friendly na­ture is at the heart of Peru’s ap­peal, a place where vis­i­tors can relax and ex­plore to en­rich them­selves whilst mak­ing con­nec­tions with Peru­vians in some of South Amer­ica’s most breath­tak­ing back­drops.

PROMPERÚ hope to have 7 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors to Peru by 2021 by build­ing on the coun­try’s well known tourist sites and of­fer­ing and broad and di­verse se­lec­tion of life en­rich­ing mo­ments through Peru’s “myr­iad of op­por­tu­nity, bio­di­ver­sity, her­itage and cul­ture.”

Tourism is one of Peru’s most im­por­tant in­dus­tries, rep­re­sent­ing nearly 4 per­cent of the coun­try’s GDP and em­ploy­ing nearly one and a half mil­lion peo­ple mean­ing this is more than a cam­paign, it’s a na­tional move­ment to­wards wel­com­ing more and more peo­ple to Peru, cre­at­ing time­less get­aways, soul en­rich­ing breaks from the or­di­nary in what Peru­vians deem “the rich­est coun­try in the world.”

A multi-col­ored moun­tain in Vini­cunca Na­tional Park, in the Cusco district of Peru

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