A visit to the Jamaa el Fna Square in the heart of old Marrakesh is about more than just a place to shop and sightsee. It’s almost like stepping back in time to see the whole of Moroccan history.
For more than a thousand years, this square has been where the people of Marrakesh came to meet, to set up their market, and to be entertained.
In Western culture, the square featured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and in season three of The Amazing Race reality show.
Spend the day in the square
Today, the Jamaa el Fna Square is a delight for visitors and a complete assault on your senses. If you arrive by day, expect the large rectangular square to be fairly quiet. There will be a few orange juice sellers around, and some tourists.
A great way to spend the day at the Jamaa el Fna is to choose one of the many cafés that line the streets around the square and settle in with some chicken tangine (chicken and couscous steamed together in a clay pot) and a peppermint tea. You will see and hear the call to prayer at least once during your meal, as it does happen five times a day.
Come back at night
Whatever you do in Jamaa el Fna, make sure to come back at sun set. As the sun heads west into the Atlantic Ocean, Jamaa el Fna comes to life. Sellers push their food carts and juice machines into the square as snake charmers unload their baskets and their flutes, and buskers and musicians unpack their instruments.
Thousands of people crowd into Jamaa el Fna Square every night for the simplest forms of community entertainment. It’s kind of like an annual county fair, only it’s nightly, and here in Marrakesh it has been going on for centuries.
The air is full of smoke from the braziers cooking halal meat. Families by the dozen line up at the food carts, choosing from mountains of fresh fruits, dates and almonds. You can even get a bowl of escargot. Your options are endless and you can feast for just a few dollars.
As you wander around the endless aisles of meat, you can find a line of snake charmers humming on their horns to obedient snakes as they dance hypnotically for children and parents with a few coins to spare. There are also story tellers and acrobats and kids with Barbary apes as pets.
Wander a little more and you’ll find Moroccan buskers acting out street theatre to its finest. Arabic and Berber are the primary languages, but there are French and English influences so every now and then you may be able to catch an understandable phrase. If you see a pretty girl acting out a scene, keep in mind that’s no girl. It’s not customary for girls to be performing in public.
A word of warning
With all the sights and sounds of the Jamaa el Fna, it’s easy to get completely absorbed by what is happening around you. However, keep your head clear and your eyes open. Make sure you have a steady grip on whatever bags you’re holding. You may notice groups of young men. Some of them are there, working together to disorient you and snatch whatever loose belongings they may be able to grab.
Are you intrigued by all the flavours of Moroccan street food available at the Jamaa el Fna square or would you just stick to a freshly-squeezed orange juice?