It is a fairly well-known fact (perhaps due to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice) that Jews in many European cities were forced to reside in ghettos. The first of these areas of restricted residence was in Venice – hence, the Italian name.
Alas, Europe was not the only place where Jews were forced to live separately from the general population. The terms for these “Jewish Quarters” varied from location to location. In cities controlled by Spain, they were often referred to as Juderia. However, the Jewish Quarters most often compared to the ghettos of Europe were the Mellahs of Morocco.
It has been speculated that the term “Mellah” comes from the salty nature of the soil where the Fez Jewish Quarter was established. Mellah is also the Arabic word for salt. This first Mellah was not created in an effort to restrict the Jews, but rather to protect them from Arab rioters.
The Mellah in “Fez” was created in the fifteenth century. Over the next two hundred years, a few other cities such as Marrakesh and Meknes followed suit. These Mellahs were still seen as quarters of privilege and protection. The 19th century, however, saw a change in nature of the Mellah. By decree of the sultan, Jews were forced to live in these restricted quarters in all of the coastal towns. The stately gates that once suggested the protected status of the Jewish population became symbols of restriction. The Mellahs were transformed into zones of confinement that were often described by travelers as being poverty-ridden and over-crowded.
Beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, the more affluent Jews were able to leave the Mellah and settle into new neighborhoods. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, a large portion of the Jewish population of Morocco moved to Israel. Many of these former “Jewish Quarters” are now popular sites for Jewish tourists.