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Djemma EL-FNA: The World's Oldest Living Circus

Jan 29, 2008
For centuries the heart and soul of Marrakech, where people come to meet, eat, shop and be entertained, Djemma el-Fna today remains the city's lifeblood. A place where you can be enthralled by snake charmers and acrobats, have your hands tattooed in henna, bargain over the price of dates and spices and when it all becomes too much, retire to one of the rooftop cafes to take in the spectacle with a glass of mint tea.

History

The name in Arabic means "Assembly of the Dead" and its origin is unknown, adding to the squares enigmatic nature. To locals it is known simply as "la place" (the square). Centuries ago it was a destination for caravans from across the Sahara Desert looking to trade gold, medicines and slaves amongst other things. It was a practice that had been undertaken since 1000BC. It wasn't until the 11th century that a permanent city, and with it the Djemma el-Fna, was created. It is said that the entertainment that remains today is similar to that which was arranged for travelers all those years ago.

Location

Set in the middle of the Medina, or "old town", it seems that Marrakech is built around Djemma el-Fna. The huge irregular square leads on one side to the souks. Narrow, crowded alleys filled with stalls selling carpets, spices, metal and wood works and tourist trinkets, the souks sprawl through the Medina like a giant maze. It is simply not possible to browse the stalls peacefully. Anything more than a second's glance at the wears on offer could easily result in a lengthy conversation with an eager market trader and before you know it, you've bought yourself a carpet or some spices.

Surrounding the square are numerous cafes where you can sit at a table and watch over the activity, or head to the rooftop tables and take in the view from above of the square and the labyrinth medina that surrounds it.

Food and Drink

By day in Djemma el-Fna, orange juice and date sellers abound. As the sun sets, food carts roll in and set up in the middle of the square and it isn't long before smoke fills the air and hawkers appear from nowhere earnestly trying to convince you that their stall is the best, offering the most delicious delicacies. All manner of Moroccan delicacies are on offer. From snails and couscous to kebabs and sheep's heads.

Characters

Djemma el-Fna would be nothing without its characters. The ever present water sellers dress in bright costumes and happily pose for photographs (for a fee of course). Meanwhile musicians, story tellers, snake charmers, acrobats, monkey trainers, tooth pullers and henna artists all compete for your attention (and money). Those who earn a living from the tourist dollar have learnt the art of gentle persuasion, and when that fails, not so gentle persistence.
More than a sight to behold, Djemma el-Fna is an experience not to be missed. It is truly like no other place on earth. A symphony of sounds, sights and smells. It is symbolic of Morocco itself: exotic, intense, sometimes difficult, but always rewarding.
About the Author
Mark Eden is a freelance travel photographer and writer, and the founder and director of Expanse Photography, a photographic services company offering fine art, limited edition prints as well as stock and assignment photography and publishing services. Mark can be contacted through the Expanse Photography website http://www.expansephotography.com.
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