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As a student, Canadian photographer D.R. Cowles was deeply inspired by a number of lectures by filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, who awoke in him a great interest to study history and philosophy, and to "... see what is really there and to record it as it is--without dramatizing or striving for effect."

It was in 1992 that Cowles began researching a large work that would fuse his historical and photographic interests. A year later he made the first of numerous trips to North Africa to document remaining Jewish sites (synagogues, cemeteries and shrines) in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. Four portfolios, completed in 1997, have been made to represent this work. In the course of this project, he also photographed Islamic sites, traditional Moroccan architecture, Roman ruins, and North African landscapes.

In a recent catalogue for Exodus, the Canadian photographer wrote:
 I did not approach this work as a lament for the passing of these
 communities, or as a nostalgic recollection, but as a historical
 document. We ask questions about a photograph which we rarely ask
 about a painting, the six questions: who, what, where, when, why, and
 how. A photograph wants to be written about or spoken about. It is an
 implied literary event. In that spirit I have included shortened text
 with these images, so that they are not only viewed as architecture,
 but as pieces of recorded history.

Azemmour Mellah (1995), Morocco

A mellah is the Jewish section of a town, usually with a gate that would be closed by the gatekeeper at sunset and during the Sabbath. The wonderful aspect of a mellah is that it becomes a walled enclave preserving a Jewish way of life, especially on the Sabbath. The negative aspect is that in bad times the mellah boundaries were used as a physical restriction, turning the mellah into a kind of ghetto. This picture is on one level a metaphor for what a mellah is, in both its positive and negative aspects.


Moussa Dar'i (1994), Abassieh, Egypt

This is the main synagogue of the Caraite Jews in one of the Europeanized suburbs of Cairo. The Caraites are a minority Jewish sect that accepts only the written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), and does not acknowledge the subsequent interpretations and rulings on custom and law of the Rabbinate. Unlike other Jews, Caraites pray on the floor in the ancient Oriental custom. The rugs have been removed from this abandoned synagogue. The chair in the picture--the only chair in the building--comes from the office, and is used by the guardian to sit and read his newspaper when people like me bother him to unlock the synagogue.


Room in Ksar Ghirlane Mellah (1995), Erfoud, Morocco

A ksar is a walled agricultural village; there are many in the area around Erfoud. The Jews often had a passage in the ksar onto which all of the Jewish doorways would open. A heavy gate at each end would be shut at the beginning of the Sabbath, closing off the enclave from the world of commerce outside, and creating absolute peace and quiet for this religious period of rest. Jews were so involved in trade that on Jewish holidays the market would be effectively closed down. In 1995 I went to many ksar and asked the people if Jews had ever lived there; in this one, I was led to this room, up a shaky curving staircase--once the study of a prosperous Jew of the village. When he departed, he left behind his chest which has remained where it was.


Wash Basin at Elyahu Hanovi (1994), Alexandria, Egypt

The Elyahu Hanovi is a complex of Jewish community offices, a community school which is no longer used, and a large synagogue, parts of which predate Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. Jews wash their hands before praying, so synagogues normally provide a place to do this, either just outside the building or just inside the entrance.


Musee du Palais Jamai (2002), Meknes, Morocco

I became fascinated by the artisans' trades and their connection to the spiritual side of Islam. For instance, the intricate carving and painting of wood and plaster into geometric patterns is not considered a tedious menial labour, as we would see it in the West, but rather as a meditative and spiritual assertion of Islamic values--an aesthetic obedient to the injunction to make no graven images, expressing itself instead in pure decorative forms. I began to realize that the work of such artisans is one of the extraordinary disciplines that humans have evolved: it is life-affirming to the mind and spirit.


Bet Ha-Knesset El Fessaine (1999), Fes Mellah, Morocco

This was once one of the most eminent synagogues of the Fes Mellah, but it is now owned by a Muslim man and used as a gym, accessed by narrow passageways. When I first made the picture, I thought only that I was documenting the demise of a 2,000-year-old community, swept away like so many others by tides of change. Then I began to interpret it less on a historical plane and more on a metaphorical one: the boxing ring is exactly in the place where the Torah was read. The name Israel means "He who wrestles with God." And the Bima, the platform that would have been here, is where Jews have stood and wrestled with God for millennia.


Glaoui Kasbah, Window #2 (1999), Telouet, Morocco

Architecture is much more than just buildings in Morocco--a gate is not simply a gate; a wall is not simply a wall. These structures resonate with the tensions that exist between the public and private domains. While Morocco struggled to become an independent state, the Glaoui Clan collaborated with the French. When the French withdrew from the country, and Mohammed v returned, not only would the deposed Glaoui be punished, but also their buildings: the Glaoui signature on the physical landscape of Morocco would be left to slow ruin, to serve as an example. With some sadness, one watches these palaces decay as the rain and wind sweep through them. Today, the roof is leaking, and the richly ornate carved wooden ceilings are buckling and on the verge of collapse.


The Etz Haim (1994), Cairo, Egypt

Prior to the Second World War, the key cities of Egypt--Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said--were a melting pot of Jewish communities. In the relatively open economy of the British Mandate they prospered and built synagogues, like this one in the well-to-do suburbs of Cairo. The Six Day War with Israel, and the decisive defeat of Egyptian forces, was the death knell of the Jewish communities in Egypt. This synagogue has not been used since 1967. To photograph it, I had the shuttered windows opened and the dust-caked glass washed so that there would be adequate light. In 1992, a major earthquake had buckled the marble floors, but the central columns and structure are still sound.


Tomb of Ait Yacoub (1993), Ouarzazate, Morocco

The last Jew of Ouarzazate told me about this tomb. We drove there and eventually found the old woman with the keys, and I went in and made this photograph. There is a story about "Moulay Yacoub" that is never told in quite the same way, but all the versions involve the rabbi on his mule on the hill making a prophecy of war, being attacked, and entering a cleft in the rock face, never to be seen again. It is against this cleft in the stone that the tomb was built. The history of this tomb captures some of the complexity of the relationship between the Jews and the Berbers of Morocco.


Moulay Yacoub was a rabbi said to have lived some three to five generations before Mohammed's birth. His tomb for centuries has been associated with cures for physical and mental ailments. When the Jews left the village for good, in the early 1950s, they told the Berbers that if they would attend to the upkeep of the tomb, and continue the tradition of weekly pilgrimage, the rabbi would bless their lives. Thus what was a Jewish holy place has now become a Berber one.

The work of DAVID COWLES is represented in numerous collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Tel Aviv Museum, and the Jewish Museum of Casablanca. Cowles has a studio and gallery in Montreal, where he lives with his wife, poet and writer Robyn Sarah.
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Author:Cowles, David
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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