Nobody really knows the origin of the name for this most famous location in Marrakech. The name translates from Arabic as ‘Assembly (or Mosque) of the Dead.’ It could refer to a long lost Almoravid mosque that may have once stood on the spot. Another popular suggestion is that the plaza took its name from grizzly executions that might have once been performed there. No matter how the plaza took its name, Djmaa el Fna today reverberates with life.
The English writer Nina Epton once wrote of the famous square’s city, Marrakech, words that could also be applied to Djmaa el Fna itself: “[It] is different than Fes and from any other town in North Africa. It is more African. It possess the magic of heathen incantations in the beating of the nakkos, the drumbeat which seems to echo the rhythm of life, of the pulse, of creation itself.”
Djmaa el Fna is ringed on one side by the souks of Marrakech andon other sides by cafes, gardens, and hotels. A daily pageant of humanity has occurred here for what may be time immemorial. During the day, the place is occupied by orange juice stalls, water sellers in colorful traditional costumes with leather water bags and copper cups, Gnaouan dancers with their instruments and frenetic acrobatics, snake charmers posing with vipers and cobras for tourists’ cameras, and a myriad host of locals and tourists. As day slowly fades to dusk, an almost magical transformation takes place, and Djmaa el Fna is turned into a dreamlike scene of almost medieval scope.
As the crowds begin to grow thicker, the snake charmers depart and push carts are moved into the plaza by gangs of white smocked Moroccan restaurant workers. The heavy laden carts are turned into brightly lit outdoor restaurants offering up a delightful array of fresh vegetables, grilled meats, and raucous entertainment. The throngs of nightly entertainers arrive to liven the atmosphere: Chleuh dancing boys in traditional dress, wildly gesticulating story tellers weaving tales in animated Berber and Arabic, henna artists who weave their art quicker than a bird in flight, fortune-tellers, hucksters and tribal witch doctors offering herbal remedies, love potions, and traditional medicines from blanket shops arranged along the periphery. As night falls fully upon the plaza, the cacophony of thousands of voices, drums, and reed flutes combine with the smoke of the grills to blanket Djmaa el Fna in a haze of noise and mist that seems to blur any sense of reality.
To avoid sensory overload, it is advisable to indulge one sense at a time; namely, the taste buds. For all the spectacle that surrounds the plaza, the highlight is of course, the food. There are well over a hundred different stalls that set up shop here every night of the year, rain or shine, and to miss out on a meal here would be criminal. Select a booth, sit yourself down to have as much freshly baked bread as you can consume immediately served to you, and point out which of the wonderful selection of olives, salads, and meats you’d like to have. It’s cooked up right before your eyes, and it will, without doubt, be one of the best meals you’ve ever had. For all its pageantry and spectacle, the most remembered delights of Djmaa el Fna are often the simplest.
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