Jews in Africa Part IV - The Islamic Diaspora

Fact Paper

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

TOP: A seventeenth century Moroccan firearm. In North Africa smithing was considered too demeaning an occupation for a Moslem. Smithing was exclusively a Judaic trade. Jews produced metal weapons and tools in North Africa well into the twentieth century.
SECOND FROM TOP: A seventeenth century Silesian (Polish) firearm. For many centuries the smiths, as well as the glassmakers, were mainly Jews. In both North Africa and Silesia the Jews were also the minters of coins.
BOTTOM TWO HANDGUNS: English pistols, dated 1800 and 1801 respectively, by Samuel Brunn, gunmaker, and Moses Brent, silversmith.. Jews were excluded from England from 1290 to the latter part of the eighteenth century. Judaic artisans had to disguise their origins in order to enter into and work in England, and had to be circumspect about their religion long thereafter. Most descendants of these artisans are unaware of or have since forgotten their Judaic origins.
[See FACT PAPER 4-1; Iron Working, A Judaic Tradition]

Return of the Jews to the Barbary Coast

The massacres and conversions perpetrated by the Arabs upon their conquest of the Barbary coastal region (see Fact Paper 19-II) radically reduced its productive population, the artisans and entrepreneurs. They were among the estimated 50,000 obdurate Jews who refused to convert to Islam and were slaughtered. Artisans and tradesmen had likewise been a large segment of the thousands of convertees; many were, however, unable to continue their disciplines because, as Moslems, they could no longer engage in activities considered too demeaning for Moslem participation.

Inasmuch as Judaic artisans and traders proved to be indispensable to the economic stability of the region, they were invited back; thereafter Jews remained entrenched throughout North Africa.

One example of this process involves the foundation of Kairawan ("The Camp"), which became the capital of Afriqiya, the country known today as Tunisia. The Caliph ordered the governor of Egypt to send there a thousand Jewish and Coptic families. The Jews were to supply the productive and commercial backbone of the region, whereas the Copts were to displace the Byzantine Christians. Kairawan burgeoned to become largely a Judaic community and a notable center of Judaic learning.

The city was founded by Ukba Ibn Nafi in 673. "Jews were drawn to the flourishing capital early in its history. By the middle of the eighth century there was an organized community very much alive to spiritual interests. From the times of Jehudah Gaon (760-764) on, almost every Gaon of eminence, whether of Sura or Pumbeditha [The Persian/Babylonian cities in which great Judaic universities were established], was consulted by this African community... The Babylonian masters spoke of the men of Kairawan in which Torah and wisdom, Jewish and secular learning, was singularly combined."1

Intercontinental Judaic Trade and Technology

Kairawan also became one of the important stops for Jewish travelers.2 Just as merchants would stop off at Kairawan before continuing towards Spain or before transferring their goods to ships plying the narrow water-route which went to Sicily and southern Italy, so scholars and their cargo of knowledge used the city as the halfway house between Babylonia, Egypt and Palestine to the lands of western Europe."3

The age-old acquaintance of Arabs with the involvement of Jews in international trade is illustrated by the eloquent account of Synesius, a Greek savant, written in the year 404, two centuries before Mohammed appeared on the proscenium of world history. It relates that a ship owned by a Jew and crewed mainly by Jewish seamen was on its way from Alexandria to a small port on the North African coast. On board were Arabs serving in the Roman cavalry, and a number of very young and fair women. The writer whimsically notes that the captain separated the women from the men by means of a screen.

On a Friday, the ship encountered a fierce storm that persisted to sundown, at which time the skipper let the rudder go, lay down and began to read and chant from a scroll. The terrorized passengers remonstrated with the captain to no avail, even as the seas and the wind continued to escalate in fury. Desperately, one of the Arab cavalrymen drew his sword and threatened to behead the skipper if he did not did not immediately take control of the bobbing and weaving vessel, but the taciturn skipper, refusing to abominate the Sabbath, ignored him and read on.

Finally, nearly at midnight, as the ship appeared to be about to founder, the skipper resumed his duties, announcing that "Now we are clearly in danger of death, in which case it is permitted to work on the Sabbath." The announcement caused tumultuous consternation, but the ship finally landed safely - albeit not at the port of destination.4

The intercontinental spread of Judaic expertise in both crafts and commerce is well illustrated by documents recovered from the Geniza of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat (Cairo).

S.D. Goitein, in Letters of Medieval Traders notes that "the Jewish prominence in the metal trade probably went back to some ancient tradition. When the Arabs invaded the Island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean in 672 or 673, they destroyed the famous colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Its copper, weighing ‘880 camel loads,’ was bought by a Jewish merchant in Emesa, Syria, who certainly was no novice in the copper trade."

The copper may well have been destined for bronze production in Judaic smelters. For example, we find a Tunisian Jew operating a bronze factory in India. Goitein states that we can safely assume that this African Jew, proprietor of a vital manufactory in the Asian subcontinent, was only following the example of other Jews who preceded him.

Another of the letters cited by Goitein is by an Indian-Jewish buying agent of a North African merchant, who writes to his "master" about the various goods laded on board ships from India for delivery to North Africa. Spices (cardamom and pepper) and iron are the most prominent among the goods cited. In one letter the agent refers to two shiploads, the smaller of which contained pepper and iron, and arrived safely. The agent reported that the bigger ship arrived near Berbera (Berbera is the present Somaly - the ships were then routed around Africa) where it foundered. "The pepper was lost completely; God did not save any of it. As to the iron, mariners were brought in from Aden, who were engaged to dive for it and salvage it. They salvaged about half the iron, and, while I am writing this letter, they are bringing it out of [the custom house of Aden.... All the expenses incurred for the diving and for the transport will be deducted from whatever will be realized from that iron and the rest will be divided proportionately, each taking his proper share."

"I regret your losses much," the agent concludes, but the H(oly one be) b(lessed), will compensate you and me presently."5

Among the thousands of documents were other highly significant ones, quoted in another work by Goitein, such as one concerning the emigration of two Jewish silversmiths from North Africa to Ceylon about the year 1140!6

" We learn a good deal about Jewish craftsmen from the Geniza, the fact that some of them were employed in the imperial workshops of the Fatimids; or that around 1140 three Jewish silversmiths - two from North Africa - emigrated to Ceylon to pursue their livelihood; or that a Tunisian Jew ran a factory in India, in which other Jews bearing Arabic names, possibly from Yemen, made brass vessels which are described to us in detail primarily for the sake of beauty."

"... The Geniza documents, which often enable us to follow the movements and connections of a single man during periods of years, reveal how amazingly agile the Jews had become. We would find a man one year in India, the next in Aden (Yemen) and Egypt, and from there he would embark on two successive trips to Spain and Morocco; in between he would apologize to his business friend in Aden that, for special reasons, he was unable ‘this year’ to travel again to Yemen and India."7

Cecil Roth likewise emphasizes the dependance of Islam on Jewish trade and crafts: "The Jews were prominent in the great Indian trade of spices, aromatic, dyeing and medical herbs; in the textile and clothing business; in the metal trade, both in raw metals and ingredients for the metal industry, and in finished metal vessels of all descriptions. They exported iron and steel from India and brought there copper and lead; in addition, it seems that the Jews were active not only as gold- and silver-smiths (i.e., makers of ornaments) - as they were in all Muslim countries from pre-Islamic days down to the present day - but also as manufacturers of brass, and possibly also of silver and gold vessels."8

Judaic Literacy and Science

The Jews were likewise the only literate people of North Africa at the time of the Arab invasion. Everywhere, as in Kairawan, institutions of learning were established as soon as the community became a viable unit. The schools covered not only religious studies but delved deeply into the sciences. A curriculum of studies was described by the 12th century scholar, Joseph b. Judah Ibn, summarized by Norman Stillman in his work, The Jews of Arab Lands:9

After learning the Hebrew and Aramaic Aleph-bet. "At five years the age is reached for the study of the Scriptures, at ten for the study of the Mishnah."

Then teachers instructed pupils in poetry, and "at fifteen the age is reached for the study of Talmud... When they are eighteen years of age, [a teacher] should give them that type of instruction in which lays emphasis on deeper understanding, independent thinking, and investigation..."

These studies are composed of two parts: one concerns "philosophic observations on religion," The second supplies an intensive grounding in secular "sciences.":

"Logic: These sciences are preceded by logic which serves as a help and an instrument... Logic presents the rules which keep the mental powers in order..."

"Mathematics, Arithmetic: The teacher will then lecture to his students on mathematics, beginning with arithmetic or geometry..."

"Optics: Then the students are introduced into the third of the mathematical sciences, namely, optics."

"Astronomy: Then they pass on to astronomy. This includes two sciences. First astrology, that is, the science within which the stars point to future events as well as to many things that once were or now are existent. Astrology is no longer numbered among the real sciences. It belongs only to the forces and secret arts by means of which man can prophesy what will come to pass, like the interpretation of dreams, fortune-telling, auguries and similar arts. This science, however, is forbidden by God.... The second field of astronomy is mathematical. This field is to be included among mathematics and the real sciences."

[Note: Maimonides, also a late 12th century figure, likewise castigated those among the Jews who ascribed to astrologic beliefs. In 1172 he sent a lengthy Epistle to the Jews of Yemen, in which he admonished: "I see that you are inclined to accept astrology and the belief in the influence of planetary conjunctions, past and future. You should remove any thought of this from your mind, and cleanse your imagination as you would wash clothes stained with filth. For these are matters which are not accepted as true by genuine scholars, including those who are not religious, much less those who are]."

"Music:... Music embraces instruction in the elements of the melodies and that which is connected with them, how melodies are linked together, and what condition is required to make the influence of music most pervasive and effective."

"Mechanics: This includes two different things. For one thing it aims at the consideration of heavy bodies insofar as they are used for measurements... The second part includes the consideration of heavy bodies insofar as they may be moved or are used for moving. It treats, therefore, of the principles concerning instruments whereby heavy objects are raised and whereby they are moved from one place to another."

"Natural sciences, Medicine:...The first of this group that one ought to learn is medicine, that is, the art which keeps the human constitution in normal condition, and which brings back to its proper condition the constitution which has departed from the normal. This latter type of activity is called the healing and cure of sickness, while the former is called the care of the healthy. This art falls into two parts, science and practice."

"After the students have learned this art the teacher should lecture to them on the natural sciences as such. This science investigates natural bodies and all things whose existence is incidently dependant on those bodies. This science makes known those things out of which, by which, and because of which these bodies and their attendant phenomena come into being."9

The Judaic Roots of Arabic Science

In contrast to the age-old erudition of the masters among the Judaic population, the invading Arab army was composed of illiterate mercenaries. The Arabs among them came from a backward desert society in which literacy was exceptional. Thus the first North African savants among them were likely to have been Judaic proselytes. The process is clearly laid out in an autobiography by another 12th century scholar, al-Samaw’al al-Maghrib, who details having passed through a similar course of studies as described by Joseph b. Judah before converting to Islam.10

"My father was called Rav Judah b. Abn. He was from the city of Fez from Morocco... He was one of the most learned people of his time in the sciences of the Torah, and he was a great master, prolific in composition and unmatched extemporizer in Hebrew poetry and prose..."

"My father had me learn Hebrew calligraphy, then the sciences of the Torah and its exegesis until I had mastered this by the age of thirteen. He next set me to study Indian mathematic and the solution of astronomical calculations..."

Al-Samaw’al goes on to describe the studies of the natural sciences, surveying, astronomy with a number of outstanding teachers and then passing on to medical studies, from the practice of which he thereafter "prospered greatly."

The dearth of medical practitioners among the Moslems at the time provided Samaw’al with an opportunity to achieve this greater "prosperity," and was likely one of the prime motives for the conversion of Samaw’al to Islam. The descendants of Samaw’al (and we) would have lost all knowledge of their own origin and heritage were it not for the surviving autobiographical text in which his conversion to Islam was rationalized. Those other proselytes who passed through the Judaic institutions of learning to find conversion convenient or profitable, however, left no record of their origins. They and their descendants are known to us only as Moslems.

It should be noted that at the time the mathematical system in use was designated by Samaw’al as "Indian ." The use of the zero and the decimal system was employed by the intrepid world-girdling Persian/Judaic trader/scholars., the Rhadanites and appears to have been brought by them to North Africa.

"There is extant, however, a more circumstantial account, preserved in the writings of the mediaeval Jewish philosopher and exegete Abraham ibn Ezra... He writes: ‘In olden times there was neither science nor religion among the sons of Ishmael... till the great king, by name Es-Saffah (750-5) arose, who heard that there were many science to be found in India... And there came men saying that there was in India a very mighty book on the secrets of government in the form of a fable... and the name of the book was Kalilah and Dimnah... Thereupon he sent for a Jew who knew both languages and ordered him to translate this book... And when he (i.e., the King) saw that the contents of the book were extraordinary - as indeed they are - he desired to know the science of the Indians, and he sent accordingly the Jew to Arin, whence he brought back one who knew the Indian numerals, besides many other astronomical writings."11

The modern designation "Arabic numerals" camouflages the actual origin of the revolutionary Indian mathematical system.

"Even before this, mathematics had come under the influence of a very ancient Hebrew composition, The Treatise of Measures, ascribed to Rabbi Nehemiah. This remarkable little work - a handbook for surveying and dividing landed inheritances - was probably composed about 150 A.D. It has many an original approach to mathematical problems, and exercised considerable influence on Arabic - hence Medieval - science generally."12

The scientific movement flowered within western Islam between the tenth and twelfth centuries as a result of the conversions of such scholars as al-Samaw’al, and as a result of the absorption of scientific lore from Judaic scholars. For example, the works of Isaac ben Solomon Israeli (c. 855 - c.955), known also as "Isaac Judeaus," were translated into Arabic and Latin, and were seminal to the development of both Arabic and Christian science.

Isaac was one of the pupils of the Egyptian, (evidently Jewish) physician, Isaac Ibn Amram (d. 908)., who was invited to practice in Kairawan by the Sultan. Isaac Judaeus, was likewise born in Egypt, where he had practiced as an oculist and where he served the sovereign. This "able and saintly man" wrote many philosophical treatises. Latin scholastics adopted many of its favorite terms from his work On Definitions. Isaac wrote works in which he expounded on Aristotelian physics. In addition he wrote land-mark medical treatises: On Diet. On Urine, On the Pulse, On Simples, and above all, his greatest, most enduring work, On Fevers. This work, considered the best clinical treatise of the Middle ages, was employed widely into the seventeenth century.

Isaac’s pupil’s pupil was the renowned "Constantine the African," who began life in the Jewish quarter of Kairawan. Constantine spent the last ten years of his life as a monk at Monte Cassino, translating the writings of Isaac and of one of Isaac’s pupils into Latin. "They were the first Arabic medical works to be translated into Latin and introduce the long supremacy of Hebrew-Arabic medicine in Latin Europe."

Thus, in the early years of the Islamic hegemony of North Africa, through conversion of such scholars as el-Samaw’al and transmutation of the Judaic works of such

savants as Isaac Judaeus, Islamic science reached its Zenith in the twelfth century.

Judaic Craftsmanship: Backbone of the North African Economy

Literacy and science were but two of the progressive facets of the Judaic contribution to North African cultural development. No less important were craftsmanship and industrial technology, aspects of the Judaic contribution to Islamic civilization which remained in Judaic hands because they were considered demeaning occupations by the conquering Arabic overlords, and socially unsuitable for Moslems in general.

Haim Hillel Ben Sasson, in his monumental work A History of the Jewish People, summarizes "Jewish livelihoods in the Islamic Countries: "The diversified branches of the crafts and commerce were the main occupation of Jews in the cities. At the same time there were other Jews, in the border areas of the Caliphate and in Africa, who continued to engage in agriculture for a very long time."

"Jewish craftsmen were plentiful in the cities and made up a large part of the Jewish population. In fact, it appears that this economic class had existed as early as the end of the classical period. A hostile Moslem writer went so far as to claim that ‘among the Jews one finds only dyers, tanners blood-letters (i.e., barbers and surgeons), butchers and waterskin repairers.’ However, he was referring only to those occupations to which he wanted to draw attention [as being the most demeaning]. More objective sources mention also Jewish blacksmiths, gold and silversmiths, harness-makers and shoemakers, some of whom were itinerant craftsmen working in Moslem villages."13

So renowned were Judaic craftsmen that Frederick II brought Jews to Sicily "in order to introduce plants and crafts that the country had not known before." Some of these Jews came from the island of Jerba off the coast of North Africa.14

In 1492 the Jews were given three months to convert or depart from Spain; many opted to flee to North Africa, and were followed by a renewed influx of Jews from Portugal in 1497. The welcome they received in Islamic North Africa varied from one ruler to another; it was generally positive but often the sufferings of absorption were considerable.

Among the favorable climates into which the Sephardim immigrated was the city of Fez. "About 20,000 souls were absorbed in Fez, where the exiles rapidly began to succeed in their affairs and purchased property." The ruler of Fez was remembered with particular warmth. He was "one of the Godfearing ones among the nations of the world, who admitted the Jews expelled from Spain and treated Israel well until his death in 1505. For God established him over the Kingdom of Fez to enable us to live." 15

Documentation of a substantial and influential Judaic presence extends from such Moroccan metropoli on the Atlantic coast as Rabat and Fez, across the entire northern African littoral into Ethiopia.

In 1874, Richard Wood, a British diplomat in neighboring Algeria reported to his foreign office about "individuals appertaining to the Israelite community... whose ancestors, it is said, has been here for upwards of two hundred years." Wood noted that "There are thirty thousand Israelites in the Regency... Each tribe is divided into sections, each of which recognizes as its hereditary chief the head of the family or stock from which it descends... Besides this, there are thousands of Algerians who have expatriated themselves at the time of the conquest of their country."16

Jews of the Atlas Mountains

The remarkable renaissance of Judaic presence in the Atlas mountains of Morocco and Algeria after the fateful defeat by the Arabic invaders of the Judeo/Berber defenders of the region, is but a small but indicative portion of North African Judaic history. The persistence of well over a score of viable communities through the centuries in the rugged mountains separating the desert from the Mediterranean littoral was investigated by Mordechai Hakohen and recorded in his work, Haghid Mordechai. Unfortunately, only a portion of this fascinating work is extant. Nonetheless, the information given is revelatory of a little-known but significant Judaic enclave, and illuminates the pervasive technological and industrial role of the Jews throughout North Africa into the modern era.

Hakohen was born in Tripoli in 1856 to a family of Italian-Jewish descent. His inquisitiveness and intelligence led him to pursue many subjects, and he became adept at languages. He began his career as a humble teacher and peddler, and later worked as a clerk in the Rabbinic court. This position enabled him to exercise his avid interest in the Judaic history of the region by spending many hours in the court’s archives.

The Haghid Mordechai was written in Hebrew. The manuscript lay unnoticed for more than half a century after the author’s death before it was published in 1978. Regretfully, only portions of the 114 sections of the original manuscript were published in Hebrew and translated into English by its editor, Harvey Goldberg. The wealth of information revealed by the extant portions makes one wonder how many more revelations lay hidden in the missing text.

One of the surprising facts which emerges from this remarkable manuscript is the great number of substantial communities that remained solidly rooted from the ninth through the nineteenth century along the southern ridge of the Atlas mountains. The Judaic population of many of these villages numbered in the thousands!

Hakohen recorded that the Atlas mountain region was densely inhabited by the Jews even before the nomadic, desert-dwelling Berber tribes settled in the area: "In the Atlas mountains of Tripoli there is a broad region called Jebel (Mt.) Nefusa. The Berbers who reside there are called Nefusa. Formerly the land was occupied by Jews, who were in great number and powerful."

Hakohen documented the fact that virtually all crafts and commerce were in the hands of the Jews. It is significant that the artisans were referred to as peddlers, or traders, but they actually produced goods during most of the year and then peddled their products around the countryside during the off season. This process sheds a new light on the terms "peddler" and "trader" as they were anciently applied, and calls for their redefinition: "When the season is not right for commerce, they work as artisans. Some make combs for wool, others make bracelets, and still others are shoemakers or blacksmiths. The name for these craftsmen-peddlers in Tripolitanian Arabic was tawwaf, from a stem meaning to go around..."

"The Jews appear as a group, specializing in trading and crafts, which is ritually and socially separated from the Moslems, who specialize in agriculture... The Jews are non-combatants, not being allowed to carry arms. Yet in their role as smiths, they are responsible for making and repairing arms."

Thus we come to the realization that the ancient North African guns, knives and swords of exquisite workmanship, weapons whose hand-wrought and tooled metals were engraved with elaborate patterns or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the very weapons that now command high prices on the antiques market, are not of Arabic provenance at all but were produced by Judaic smiths! And that is not all!

"[Jewish] blacksmiths fan charcoal fires and create useful tools: hammers, axes, hatchets, scythes, plows, and all the other tools required by the people of the region. They also repair weapons. These artisan’s shops are in the entrances of their homes. The Berber who needs any tool will bring the metal and the charcoal to the Jew’s house."

Hakohen mentions many archaeological sites in which intriguing evidence of the ancient presence and activities of the Jews was still extant in his day:

"About five hour’s walk from Hrab-a-Sabbata is a village called Haraba, and close to it is a village called Serus. According to local tradition, all these villages once belonged to Jews. Even now, there are remnants of many silversmith shops, and tradition has it that they all belonged to Jews. Many Hebrew inscriptions, both engraved and in relief, but unadorned, can be found on tombstones and elsewhere."

How many of these sites, tombstones and inscriptions still exist? It would be assuredly worthwhile to pursue the leads provided us by Mordechai.

"In the mountains of that district there are many hills of different colors, containing precious, shiny stones. Perhaps lead, gold, and silver can be found in those hills. A Jewish silversmith named Haim Da’dush took a nugget from that district, refined it in a furnace and extracted a bit of silver. He found that his expenses were greater than his profit... Still he did not want to tell me where he had found the stone."

Jews were also prominently the musicians in North Africa! Berber and Arab music was strongly inspired by Judaic scales, rhythms and melodic systems (See Fact Paper 8: Jews and Music).

It was not until the twentieth century that a few "Berbers and other Moslems bean to engage in trade and crafts so that it was no longer a Jewish monopoly."

Even so, crafts remained essentially Judaic disciplines well into the twentieth century. The predominance of the Jews in the manual arts was still evident in the 1930's. Italian census data shows that about eighty-five per cent of the Moslems worked in agriculture, herding and related occupations.

"But in peddling and bartering with the women, no one can enter the Jew’s reserve; it is a Moslem rule that Arab or Berber men may not look upon their own women, for it may lead to evil thoughts, but Jewish men can look upon them freely."

Not all goods dealt with by the Atlas mountain Jews were of their production, but were imported and supplied through an international Judaic network:

"Merchandise is brought in from Tripoli on the backs of camels: pepper, cumi, coriander seeds, ginger, sweet calamus, and all sorts of spices - honey, sugar, tea, coffee and tobacco, the flower of the rose; the flower of the myrtle, spikenard, cassia, cinnamon, buds of perfume, powders, pure frankincense, incense and women’s cosmetics - antimony powder to darken their eyes, the bark of nut trees to paint their lips a scarlet thread, henna plants to redden their arms and legs, mirrors, hair combs, glass and coral beads, matches, threads and needles, and other kinds of merchandise too numerous to mention [!]."

Western trade in most of the Near- and Far-Eastern products was pioneered by Judaic trader-scholars such as the Persian Rhadanites (See Fact Paper 3, The Silk Route; a Judaic Odyssey)1. It was still being largely conducted by Judaic entrepreneurs in Hakohen’s time.

Hakohen’s manuscript deals with the cultural and religious and social aspects of the life of the Atlas mountain Jews as well as with the economy of the communities. It describes in graphic detail the difficult, subservient position of the Jews of the times, in which the Jews were the virtual slaves of their Arab and Berber overlords.

At the time, manual labor, that is artisanship, was looked upon as demeaning; all crafts were regarded as unworthy occupations of the dominant peoples. Until the Turkish occupation of the region, the Jews were termed al dhimmi (people of the protection). Mordechai Hakohen uses the surprising term eved, Hebrew for slave or servant, in describing the tie of a Jew to his Berber Lord. As such they were the property of the Arab overlord unless they purchased their freedom. Other scholars referred to by the editor, Goldberg, refer to the Jews as serfs, and still others describe the relationship as having been that of patron and client.

Hakohen also uses the Hebrew term adon for Master or Lord for the Berber protector to whom the eved was passed on as an inheritance; an heir could sell his share in the Jew that he had received from his father. Hakohen cites the existence of deeds of manumission certifying that a Jew has paid his Lord for his freedom, and therefore had gone free.

To see an enlargement of this map, click on either the left or right side. Little attention has been paid to the significant Judaic contribution to the flowering of Islamic culture and science in North Africa. Nor have historians noted the vital industrial and commercial input of Judaic craftsmen and entrepreneurs in the economy of the region. An example of this egregious oversight was supplied by Mordechai Hakohen in the mid-nineteenth century by documenting Judaic life and traditions in a score of villages in one tiny segment of the "Dark Continent" south of the Atlas Mountains.

Judaic Artisanship Under the Ottomans

Hakohen’s manuscript traces the history through the period of the Turkish occupation into his own times. Under the Turks the Jews were granted an improved social status, but not equality at first hand almost a century earlier by an English traveler. In 1791, William Lempriere authored a work on his tour of the region, in which he described the condition of the Jews in each district. "Every part of the empire," he wrote, "more or less abounds with Jews, who originally were expelled from Spain and Portugal, and who fled into Barbary as a place of refuge. These people are not confined to towns, but are spread over the whole face of the country. Mount Atlas itself not excepted..."

"... the whole country depends on their industry and ingenuity and could hardly subsist as a nation without their assistance. They are the only mechanics in this part of the world [and are] entrusted in the coinage of money, as I myself have witnessed."17


  1. Max L. Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People, Athenaeum, New York, 1927, p.277.
  2. For a fuller exposition of the role of Jews as intercontinental commercial entrepreneurs and as the pioneers of the silk and other trade routes see Chapters 8 and 9 of The Glassmakers; an Odyssey of the Jews.
  3. Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960, p.283.
  4. Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World, Cincinnati, 1938.
  5. S.D. Goitein, Letters of Medieval Traders, Princeton Un. Press, 1973
  6. Goitein, Jews and Arabs, Schocken Books, New York, 1974 ed. p. 115.
  7. Goitein, ibid., pp. 110, 209.
  8. S.D.Goitein, , ibid., pp. 116-17
  9. Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Phil., 1979, pp. 226- 8, quoting Joseph p. Judah Ibn cAqn_n, Tibb al-Nuf_s, trans. Jacob R. Marcus, in The Jew in the Medieval World, New York 1974, pp 374-77.
  10. Norman Stillman, ibid, pp. 229-32, quoting a;-Samaw’al al-Maghrib_, "Isl_m al-Samaw’al al-Maghrib_," Ifham al-Yah_d. Ar. Text ed. Moshe Perlmann, in PAAJR 32 (1964): 94-106.
  11. Cecil Roth, The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, University Press Aberdeen, 1956.
  12. Roth, ibid., p. 148
  13. Haim Hillel Ben Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, English trans., Harvard Un. Press, 1976, p 395.
  14. Sasson, ibid., p. 469
  15. Sasson, ibid., p. 631, quoting R. Abraham Terutiel, continuation of Sefer Hakabbalah in A. Neubauer, Oxford, 1887.
  16. Norman Stillman, ibid, pp. 413-4.
  17. William Lempriere, A Tour From Gibraltar to Tangier, Salee, Mogodore, Santa Cruz, Tarudent, and thence over Mount Atlas to Morocco..." London, 1991, pp. 188-92, as appears in Stillman above.