Marrakech is a city in the grip of a delirious imagination. A feverish dreamscape of honeycombed alleys and minarets quivering in the moonlight and haunted by the restless creatures of a visionary carnival that has lasted for a thousand years and shows no sign of stopping now. Marrakech is one of the worlds enchanted places where time becomes suspended and, through its open door, you catch a glimpse of the past so rich and so remote and yet so palpable.
You can sense the atavism propelling every trick and turn in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech's pulsating main square and one of the worlds great theatres. The Djemaa is a spectacular pageant of singers, tumblers, sorcerers, herbalists, raconteurs, impostors, preachers and snake charmers, all competing for your eye. There is nowhere else in Africa which so effortlessly involves you, blows aside travel cynicism and keeps you returning. If you get tired, observe the spectacle from one of the overlooking rooftop cafes.
Djemaa el Fna is a square and market place in Marrakesh's medina quarter (old city). The origin of its name remains unknown : it means Assembly of the dead in Arabic, but as the word djemaa also means mosque in Arabic, it could also mean place of the vanished mosque, in reference to a destroyed Almoravid mosque.
The place remains the main square of Marrakesh, used equally by locals and tourists. During the day it is predominantly occupied by orange juice stalls, youths with chained Barbary apes, water sellers in colourful costumes with traditional leather water-bags and brass cups, and snake charmers who will pose for photographs for tourists. As the day progresses the entertainments on offer change: the snake charmers depart, and in the afternoon and evening the square becomes more crowded, with Chleuh dancing-boys (it would be against custom for girls to provide such an entertainment), story-tellers (telling their tales in Berber or Arabic, to an audience of appreciative locals), magicians, and peddlers of traditional medicines. As dark descends the square fills with dozens of food-stalls, and the crowds are at their height.
The square is edged along one side by the Marrakesh souk, the traditional North African markets which service both the common daily needs of the people of the city, and the tourist trade. On other sides are cafe terraces to escape from the noise and confusion down in the square, and on yet other sides are hotels and gardens. Narrow streets lead into the alleys of the medina quarter, the old city. The photograph illustrating this article shows the entrance to the souk at the left, cafes in the centre, and the entrance to the medina via the Street of the Olive (Derb Al Zitoun) on the right. Once a bus station, the place was closed to traffic in the early 2000s. The authorities are well aware of its importance to the tourist trade, and a strong but discreet police presence ensures the safety of visitors.