Jemaa el-Fna. The Square of the Dead, Giving Joy
The heart of Marrakech can transform itself into a circus arena, a giant restaurant, an open-air cinema – and always remain itself. Photo above: Juan Manuel Castro Prieto
The famous American writer and composer of the 20th century Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco for a long time, once said that the magnificent Marrakech without its famous Djemaa el-Fna Square would be an ordinary city. One could certainly argue with such a categorical statement, but the fact remains that the spacious square has been the hallmark and one of the most popular corners of the kingdom for centuries.
But there were times when this place had far from the best of fame. The name Jemaa el-Fna means “square of the dead” in Arabic: until the 19th century, this was where criminals were executed. But even then, the social and cultural significance of the square was considerable. Being almost the same age as Marrakech, founded in 1062 by Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin of the Almoravid dynasty, Jemaa el-Fna from the very beginning challenged the role of the city’s architectural ensemble center. It was surrounded in the 12th century by the Qutubiyah Mosque with its 69-metre minaret, recognized as a model of religious architecture in the Maghreb. It is separated from the square by an alley planted on either side with slender palm trees, near which carriages and pleasure carriages are on duty.
Snake taming was and still is the hallmark of the folk circus at Jemaa el-Fna
Sometimes it seems that the quiet hour of Jemaa el-Fna’s daily routine does not last long at all. As the sun rises, painting the walls of the city red and ochre, life begins to boil on the square. The first to show up are the vendors of fresh juice from the famous Moroccan oranges. The sight of the colorful stalls on wheels, with piles of orange fruits neatly strewn on them and in charge of the skillful salespeople, awakens a visitor’s genuine interest. The carts next to it carry piles of dried apricots, prunes, almonds, various sorts of nuts and delicious Moroccan dates.
Gradually the square is being overgrown with large green umbrellas, under which the protagonists of the Marrakech folk show are arranged – snake charmers, magicians, fakirs, fire breathers, henna painters, fortune tellers, sellers of medicinal potions and strange creatures… Each of them comes to Djemaa el-Fna not only to surprise the guests of Marrakech who are thirsty for unusual experiences with their creative and artistic skills or rare goods, but also, of course, to earn money. The inhabitants of the square are sophisticated in their ways of attracting attention, including to each other, day in and day out. Not surprisingly, most of the experienced merchants in Jemaa el-Fna have an uncanny ability to beautifully and engagingly extol the contents of their small travelling shop.
At the height of the day, the square is filled with water peddlers in colorful clothes, fortune-tellers, fakirs, and storytellers. Fruit, sweets, and souvenir vendors crowd the square at this time of day, when the demand for their goods is especially high.
The signature attraction of Marrakech is the taming of snakes, which many people prefer to watch from a respectful distance. According to the masters of the outwardly scary creepers, they actually pose no danger, because they have long been tamed and deprived of poisonous glands. But if you can not even make someone look at the safe snakes, they can also communicate with the famous inhabitants of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco – Maggot Monkeys. You only need to remember that their sociability and friendliness often directly depend on the presence of food in the hands of man.
The level of noise on Djemaa el-Fna increases when folklore groups, who are often seen performing in the Medina of Marrakech, perform. The musicians and dancers in the Gnahoua style, a mixture of African and Berber chants and rhythms, attracted the most attention of onlookers. An interesting detail: the performers of dances in women’s clothing and under the veil are sometimes men, so well versed in the plastic movements of the fairer sex that not all viewers notice the switch. But if you can’t even get anyone to look at the safe snakes, they can also talk to the famous inhabitants of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco – the maggot monkeys. You only need to remember that their sociability and friendliness often directly depend on the presence of food in the hands of man. The level of noise on Djemaa el-Fna increases when folklore groups, who are often seen performing in the Medina of Marrakech, perform. The musicians and dancers in the Gnahoua style, a mixture of African and Berber chants and rhythms, attracted the most attention of onlookers. An interesting detail: dancers in women’s clothing and under the veil are sometimes men, who have mastered the plastic movements of the fairer sex so well that not all viewers notice the substitution.
Toward sunset, dozens of mobile kitchens arrive at Jemaa el-Fna to feed Marrakech residents and visitors
But perhaps the most colorful appearance of Jemaa el-Fna is at dusk, when the appearance of dozens of mobile kitchens turns the square into a huge open-air restaurant. It offers all the famous Moroccan dishes, including the famous tajine meat stew, char-grilled lamb meshoui or bastila pie. And the goulleh, the boiled snail broth, has long been regarded as a delicacy for which gourmets from other cities come to Djemaa el-Fna. The chefs, who bustle busily around the steaming vats and pots, resemble shamans seeking to enchant and lure to the tables all who happen to be in and around the square. And if you look at Jemaa el-Fna from afar, it looks like a large cauldron with a thick, fragrant cloud rising above it.