About those salted, decapitated heads ….

The Mellah or Jewish quarter in Fez: the name comes from ‘salt’

For Sylvia

Should we take stories of Jews salting decapitated heads in Morocco with a pinch of salt? Not likely, say two experts.

Further to my post on the parallels between humiliated black maids and humiliated Jews, here is some more detail on that most horrible of Moroccan Jewish chores, salting the decapitated heads of executed rebels for public exposition.

Andrew Bostom in his book The Legacy of Islamic antisemitism(p.46) says that this humiliating practice – which could be enforced even on the Jewish Sabbath – persisted through the late nineteenth century.

Here is one episode, as described by Eliezer Bashan: “In 1872 the sultan succeeded in quelling a Berber revolt and 48 captives were condemned to death. In October 1872 on the order of the Sultan, they were dispatched to Rabat for beheading. Their decapitated heads were to be exposed on the gates of the town for three days. since the heads were to be sent to Fez, Jewish ritual slaughterers (Shohetim) were forced to salt them and hang them for exposure on the Sabbath. Despite threats by the governor of Rabat the Jews refused to do so. He then ordered soldiers to enter the homes of those who refused and drag them outside. After they were flogged, the Jews complied and performed the task and the heads of the rebels were exposed to the public.”

In his book Il etait une fois le Maroc David Bensoussan (p.90)confirms that the term Mellah originated from the salting by Jews of heads decapitated by Muslims. Bensoussan quotes Rabbi Youssef Ben Naim as his source. ” If I had to list all the abuses against the Jews of Morocco, I wouldn’t find enough parchment,” the rabbi wrote.

“The hanging of the heads on spikes was a task reserved for the Jews in order to humiliate the dead, since they were being hung by abject persons (the Jews). It was also customary for the Jews to drag the corpses off for burial, because they thought it would dishonour the Gentiles if the beast were buried by their own hands. May G-d put an end to the degradation of Israel.”

NB In her book Islam and dhimmitude: where civilisations collide, Bat Ye’or writes that Jews had to carry out the mutilation of thieves in Tunisia, while Christians served as hangmen. In Yemen and Morocco, the salting of enemies’ heads included removal of the brains. (p102)


  • What I am saying is that it is an appropriation of negative stereotypes originating in the dominant society. This is a very marked characteristic of the dhimmi. Many of our customs which we cherish as ours, originated as prohibitions. ex: "you can't wear green because it's not our custom" (that was my mother speaking when for my 12th I wanted a green dress:)

  • Norman Stillman "The Jews of Arab Lands", p.81.
    "The later legendary etymology of the word mellah as a place where Jews originally salted the heads of executed criminals for public display emphasizes the outcast connotation that was attached to it".

  • 'comes' in.
    How much this was a blood libel, I'm not sure – the beheaded rebels were not killed by the Jews and to associate the Mellah with this activity casts the Jews as cursed victims more than anything else, perhaps?

  • Sylvia, I see what you mean.
    No doubt the Mellah (Persian: Mallaleh) started off as rather a comforting place of protection, but then the word acquired a derogatory meaning, and that's where the association with the salted heads come in.

  • But are the beheadings the reason "Mellah" got its name? No, this is a malicious legend that I believe made it into print only in the early 20th century.

    First – To say that Mellah got its name because of the beheadings is to ignore the historical background. The Jews of Morocco remembered in their history books the Merinid Sultan who moved them to their new quarters outside the city of Fes as "Abdel Haq the compassionate". They were aware that the intention was to protect them from fanatics even though they didn't like the idea. he was reputed to have been to the Jews. In fact he was assassinated on the pretext that he had a Jewish Vizir (who was assassinated as well).

    – Second every Jewish quarter – and this seems particular to Morocco – was named Mellah – even in those areas where, until the French protectorate, were tribal areas where the Sultans had no jurisdiction.

    – Three, the grammatically correct translation of Mellah in the North African dialects is "the salter". Just like "to the Baker" means a Bakery and the Butcher is a butcher-shop so "Salter" means salt station. A place where they received salt and salted the meats not only for themselves (Kashrut) but for the rest of the population.
    Salt was a precious commodity until the appearance of the ice-box.

    To adopt this as if it was the regular occupation of Jews and attach it to an etymology is tantamount to Jews adopting the blood libel.


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