The group of Hasidic Jews from New York congregated around the mausoleum of Rabbi Vidal Haserfatty, a large tomb which looked down over the extended white blanket of graves of Beit HaChaim, the restored Jewish cemetery at the edge of the ancient mellah in Fes.  After completing a number of rituals inside the little room they climbed back down the steps and threaded their way through smaller tombs to a blue shrine in the  middle of the white expanse. There they quietly began again the rituals of veneration for a saint significant to both Judaic and Muslim faiths. Of even greater significance and rarity the saint was female.

This cemetery is home to more Jewish saints and famous rabbis than any other cemetery in Morocco. Rows of white arched tombstones, some with small chambers for burning candles, slope gently down a hill. Occasional larger tombs announce the burial spot for rabbis. Although initially blinded by the whitewashed expanse of tombs, at the bottom of the slope the frequency of graves thins out, visual definition returns and areas of greenery can be enjoyed. Here fruit trees and vines bring some welcome colour into an otherwise stark environment and some shadow brings respite from the heat of the afternoon. A mausoleum or two sit quietly out of sight. At the top of the slope walls from the houses and buildings of the mellah form the main boundary to the cemetery; here balconies look out beyond the cemetery to green hills, washing lines hang limply in the still hot air and the gleaming minarets of mosques ascend, their klaxons temporarily muted.

The Hasids were bowing backwards and forwards in front of the coloured shrine. Regarded as conservative and pious, Hassidic Jews give great creed to God’s immanence in the universe ( the need to be with Him at all times ). Prayer and rituals are undertaken with great concentration and diligence, ignoring all other stimulus around them.

Their devotional object, the blue shrine of Solika Hatchuel, although small, stood out in the overwhelming white of the graves around it. Known to Jews as Hachuel “Sol HaTzaddikah” (The Righteous Sol), she is alternatively known as Lalla Suleika (Holy lady Suleika) to Arabs.

Born in 1817 in Tangier to Jewish parents Solika was beheaded in a public square in 1834 in Fez, aged just 17, at the hands of a muslim executioner. The details of her short years and the reasons for her death vary slightly between the Jewish and Arab accounts of her life but both agree a number of commonalities. These include her unusual beauty,  interest from a number of high status muslim suitors, attempts to gain her unwilling conversion to Islam to facilitate marriages, subsequent imprisonment and torture following claims that she had converted to Islam but then recanted, and finally the strength of her conviction in her Jewish faith to invite her own death rather than accept conversion to another faith. Falsely accused of apostasy she was killed because she refused to convert to Islam.

The recounting of the legend dwells mostly on Solika’s physical beauty.  Historical descriptions such as  “in all of Fez, and some say, even from one end of the Maghreb to the other, there was no beauty to match Zuleika Chatwil”, and “never had the sun of Africa shone on more perfect beauty” celebrate this.  Solika was also well regarded for her ‘wisdom, goodness, piousness, modesty, kind heart (hesed), goodwill, and her graceful, Jewish charisma’.

Over time, and in the creation of a sainthood, truths inevitably become distorted and opinions polarised. Solika Hatchuel’s story is probably no different. The overwhelming salient question of the events refers to freedom of faith and conscience; how can someone be legally killed for allegedly forfeiting a faith?

Abandoning the Islamic faith, or acting in ways which discredit the faith or go against its basic tenets, is known as ridda.  It has been suggested that Islam regards the question of faith as something which is of greater collective relevance than an individual making their own personal decisions about matters of conscience, or about leaving or staying. It has long been established upon the belief that the community of Islamic people are a single group which shares common religious beliefs themselves a divine plan of salvation. This Islamic community is called ‘ummah’, and has strict universal rules which regulate behaviour within it. Historically followers of Islam who decide to commit ridda, and abandon the ummah, were considered to have committed a public act of political secession from the Muslim community ie a political act of treason. The common penalty for which was death.

Some Islamic courts today can theoretically still dispense the death penalty for someone committing ridda. Even without the death penalty considerable consequences and pressure, including imprisonment, rejection by shamed family members and negative social pressure, may be applied to encourage people to reconsider decisions and to not commit ridda. In some countries marriages can be dissolved, children taken into care and inheritances forfeited as further consequences. 

Following apparently false allegations that she had joined the Islamic faith and then changed her mind, Solika was imprisoned in Fez and tried in a Sharia court. Found guilty of ridda she was extensively humiliated and tortured in efforts to try to encourage her re-convert to Islam but without success. She was finally given the death penalty in Fez at the command of Sultan Moulay Abderrahman, previously a protector of the Jewish community. Her head was displayed on a high wall in Fez for all to see. The following paragraphs detailing events after her death are taken almost en block from the website of the Hatchuel family; I see little point in my rewriting this information. ( see below for link ).

“Declared a martyr, her body was carried through the Mellah by Jews who formed two lines. A public burial was held so that all the Jewish men, women, and children of the Mellah could participate. That night, some Jews snuck out of the gates to the area where soldiers were guarding Solika’s head on the city wall. They threw gold coins left and right before the soldiers. As the soldiers scrambled to grab the coins, the Jews stole Solika’s head and scurried back into the Mellah. They buried her head, body, and the blood-soaked earth in the grave of Rabbi Eliayu Hassarfati who had died not long before. When the soldiers came looking for the head in the Mellah, they could not find it.

“Veneration and the status of sainthood for women are unique to Morocco. Women tend to acquire their sainthood by virtue of their own good deeds and special qualities, rather than for being scholars and sages. Solika became venerated as a symbol of inspiration and sanctity for the Jews of Morocco. She was originally buried in the family plot of Rabbi Eliayu Hassarfati (1715-1805) in the ancient Jewish cemetery just outside the gates of the Mellah. When that cemetery was decommissioned in 1884, the remains of Rabbi Eliyahu and of Solica Hachuel were transferred with pomp and ceremony by the Jews of Fez to the current Jewish cemetery. It is said that when Solica’s remains were transported from the Old Cemetary to her final resting place, an aroma of myrrh emanated from her grave. Legend also has it that when her grave was to be exhumed and moved to the other cemetery, the men doing it became paralyzed and they thought they heard Solika telling them that only women can move her body so they had to get the women to do it. Solica is still buried in the Sarfaty family plot between two other venerated Jewish Moroccans: Rabbi Avner-Israel HaTsarfati (1827-1884), Rabbi Eliayu’s great great grandson, who requested to be buried next to Solica, and Rabbi Yehuda Ben-‘Attar (1656-1733). They rest together under a modest mausoleum in the middle of the Jewish cemetery of Fez.

“Jews and Muslims alike venerate Solica for her purported healing powers. Lalla Sol HaTzaddiqah is revered nationally – not only by the Jews of Morocco, but by Jews abroad as well; not only by women, but also by men who recognize her power and greatness. She is the most famous female saint among Jews as well as Muslims in Morocco. Contrary to the tradition for male saints, hillulot (pilgrimages or festival events) are seldom celebrated in honor of holy women. This is not true for Solica. Because the exact date of her execution is unknown, Solica’s annual hilloula is held in May or June, coinciding with the hilloula of another sainted resident of the Fez Jewish cemetery, Rabbi Chaim haCohen. Once a year, for her hilloula, thousands of pilgrims converge at the tomb. In addition, pilgrims, particularly women pilgrims, visit her grave year-round to pray to her, make petitions, light candles and place them in a small enclosure on the part of the tomb’s structure closest to the ground. They sing Psalms and other religious songs. Lalla Solica is especially known for being able to effect cures and for bringing solace to families who have suffered a death. Stories of how Solica’s sainted intervention helped save lives and perform miracles are numerous. For example, according to Issachar Ben-Ami, a scholar of Jewish saint worship in Morocco, Solica’s intervention from beyond the grave is believed to have saved sick children from death, especially if they are baby girls named in her honor. She brings solace to bereaving women and is also purported to cure barren women.”

“In 1853, the French painter, Alfred Dehodencq became the first foreign artist to live in Morocco for an extended number of years. Over a ten-year period, he produced many of his most famous paintings depicting Jewish life in Morocco. His most famous piece, painted between 1860-1862, is a dramatic interpretation of Solica’s beheading (“Execution d’une juive au Maroc” – Execution of a Jewess in Morocco ). This is the painting that has inspired articles and books throughout the years. It now resides in the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.”

The New York hasids completed their rituals at Solika’s shrine and returned to the main path. They told me they were here on a cultural/spiritual tour for 1 week and left Fez later that day for I forget where. It was then late afternoon and the gardien of the cemetery intervened, arriving on his old bicycle; he was closing the cemetery and we had to leave. We all paid him some dirhams and departed. Strangely I met the group of Hasids again some 20 minutes later laughing and joking in the warm evening sun at the huge golden doors of the nearby King’s Palace. I offered to take their photograph which I promised to email them later.

I made my way back into the impoverished mellah before returning on foot to Fez-el-Bali.

There is far more information about Solika on the family’s official website here.

A full gallery of images can be found here.