Moroccan diplomats #17 : Moses Ben Attar, Sultan Ismail’s unfortunate plenipotentiary

Entrusted by Sultan Moulay Ismail with the assignment of conducting a peace treaty with Britain, Moses Ben Attar was a Jewish merchant from Salé. Although he was named Naguid in 1724, he was constantly fined by the King.

The city of Meknes./Ph. DR
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In the 18th century, Moses Ben Attar served as Sultan Moulay Ismail’s diplomat. The Jewish merchant was entrusted by the Alaouite court with the mission of concluding a peace treaty with the British.

But before holding such a prestigious position, Ben Attar had to prove that he deserves the trust of the King of Morocco. Historical accounts, suggest that the man was mistreated for years and was subjected to many fines.

In his book «A history of the Jews in North Africa: From the Ottoman conquests to the present time» (Brill, 1981) Haim Zeev Hirschberg wrote that Moses ben Shem Tob ben Attar was born in Salé to a family «noted for rabbinic learning and business acumen».

Tortured by Moulay Zaidan and saved by Lalla Zaidana

«His father spent the latter part of his life in Meknes where he died in 1701», recalled the historian. But before settling down in Moulay Ismail’s capital, Moses Ben Attar lived for years in Taroudant, where he served Moulay Zaidan, the King’s son.

Sultan Moulay Ismail of Morocco./Ph. DRSultan Moulay Ismail of Morocco./Ph. DR

«Moses ben Attar was Nagid over (the local Jews)», but he was often «chastised, tortured and mulcted» heavily by Moulay Zaidan. Upon the death of Ismail’s son who was serving as the city’s governor, Moses sought the help of his mother, Lalla Zaidana, known for her strong personality and influence on the King.

According to Hirschberg, Zaidana helped Ben Attar and «made him great, elevated him, and gave him much money to handle». She later mentioned his name to Moulay Ismail.

«He (Moses ben Attar) would bring him precious stones and pearls and diverse royal vessels, until he became an important man with the King and all the great dignitaries and they were all more acquainted and familiar with him than with Abraham Maimran (the King’s advisor)», pointed out the same account.

Constantly fined by the Sultan

But quickly the reputation Ben Attar was building himself got smashed after he was denounced to the Sultan. In 1717, the King imposed on him a heavy fine, as a punishment. The Jewish merchant had to pay «fifty talents of silver, and he and his partner Reuben ben Quiqui, sold everything they had to pay the said fine», wrote Hirschberg.

Things did not stop there as Moses Ben Attar was denounced once again to Sultan Ismail, who this time fined him twenty-five talents.

A painting of King George I of England./Ph. DRA painting of King George I of England./Ph. DR

Although he was firmly fined and punished, Moses Ben Attar was trusted by the Sultan who allowed him to negotiate a treaty with British. For the same historian, at one stage the Moulay Ismail «entrusted him with a difficult assignment: The conduct of peace talks with Britain».

Concluding a peace treaty with Britain

He was even known as one of «Ismail’s plenipotentiaries who concluded the peace treaty with George I of England in 1721», stated other Jewish historical sources, cited by Hirschberg.

Indeed, Ben Attar’s diplomatic efforts were confirmed by a long letter he sent to British representatives. While in a Ceuta Camp, the diplomat wrote a letter on November, 1718, to denounce the behavior of the British diplomat sent to meet Sultan Ismail in Meknes.

A map of Ceuta./Ph. DRA map of Ceuta./Ph. DR

And thanks to «his diplomatic talents and with the help of Reuben ben Quiqui, Ben Attar, after several years of efforts, succeeded in drawing the 1721 treaty between Britain and Morocco».

After his diplomatic victory, Moses Ben Attar was appointed by the Ismail’s court as a Nagid of all Jews in the Kingdom. The decision came as the former Nagid Abraham Maimran died in 1724.

An almost burned Raguib

Unfortunately, becoming a Nagid and a diplomat did not save Ben Attar from the sultan's uncontrolled anger. Reportedly, on the same year, and exactly in March, «the King ordered the said Moses Ben Attar to be burnt».

Sources in hand do not mention why he was about to receive such a serious verdict but they clarify that «after Moses had been led naked to the place of burning, the Holy One (Moulay Ismail), blessed be he, saved him and fined him twenty talents of silver».

Surviving death, the Nagid did not held office for long and died a few years later. However, his name was mentioned in diplomatic correspondence, where he was presented as a merchant engaged in trade with European countries.

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