Marrakech, Morocco/ Troy Media/ - It is Christmas day in Marrakech, and the citizens are dressed for the unseasonable winter cold - it's 12 degrees centigrade. Some are even wearing wool overcoats, toques and mitts.
We are strolling down the market alley in shirt-sleeves. Not yet noon, the souks near our riad (guest house) are mostly open, especially the food stalls that sell large Atlantic sardines and sides of beef that have just been delivered from the port city of Essaouira.
Many are speaking Arabic, but we are constantly asked in French to stop and have a look. We'd like to, but our real destination for lunch is the grand square and marketplace in Marrakech's medina - the old city. Everyone here calls it Jemaa el-Fna - which in Arabic is a combination of Jemaa, which means "congregational mosque" and fina which means "death" or "courtyard." Some think this means, "The mosque at the end of the world."
As noon approaches, students start to stream into the streets from the nearby madrassas and state schools. They quickly mix in with the growing throngs of tourists, merchants, performers and local shoppers who are walking along the carless passageway. Everywhere barbecue smoke is rising from charcoal grills that are cooking beef, heating bread dough and searing sardines for lunch. An occasional moped beep-beeps along behind us, urging a quick side-step so its rider can advance in the pedestrian crowd. Up above our heads a bamboo lattice filters out the sun's rays, but traps some of the charcoal smoke and motor-bike exhaust. I can feel my lungs getting congested.
Soon we are in a changing shop milieu - all about us leather goods are hung up for display. Colourful pouffes, babouches (camel hide slippers) for men and women in shades of yellow, red and green, and exotic animal hides, featuring jungle cats and zebra skins. "I offer a 10 year guarantee," says a young man with hundreds of babouches behind him in his souk stall. "If you have a problem with my shoes, you can bring them back to me in Marrakech and I will replace them free of charge!" The price, of course, is barterable, "Why don't we start at 1000 Dirhams (about $130), good sir?" My daughter, who speaks Arabic, counters: "1000 DH! Do we look like foolish buyers?" We are launched, and so it goes back and forth. Sale price: 300 DH.
We walk on and soon the souk-scape changes again: now we are amongst bicycle and small motor repair stalls, one-chair barber-shops, and cell phone and phone card retail outlets. All around us people are compulsively checking their cell phones just like at home, but here the main architectural back-drop is not a shopping mall but a city wall system erected by Abou Yacoub Youssef and Yacoub el Mansour circa 1147 - 1158.
The medina's mud brick and quarried stone fortifications enclose mosques, a palace, a hospital, ceremonial gardens and the grand Jemaa el-Fna itself. But we still haven't arrived at its edges. They can't be far away now, because the noise of Arab and Berber horns and drums is suddenly intruding on our speech.
A large open space appears just up in front of us. The crowds thin out as they spill forward onto brick pavers that cover at least a square kilometer of public-square. The edges are ragged and lined with terraced cafes and higher-end souk stalls with furniture and ornamental metal work.
What really catches your attention are the acrobats, the snake charmers, the Berber - and Arabic-speaking storytellers, the one act play skit-actors, the youths with chained Barbary apes, the gaudily dressed tea and orange juice sellers, and the barefoot doctors selling traditional medicines. All about them people mill and look and occasionally pass across various amounts of Dirhams. Quickly you begin to understand that the performers are there to earn a living; if you stop and stare and show your appreciation, you are also expected to pay for the pleasure.
Jemaa el-Fna is now an UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This is really UN-speak for a protected cultural space, and in Morocco it is now safe from development projects that would threaten its heritage role in the Medina. Special tourist police now stroll its stone pavement to maintain the bartering peace, and the square itself continues its nearly 950 years of rich experience with trading, singing and dancing human beings.
Marrakesh was founded in 1062 (454 in the
Hijri calendar) by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, chieftain and second cousin of the Almoravid king Yusuf ibn Tashfin (c. 1061–1106). Under the Almoravids, pious and learned warriors from the desert, numerous mosques and madrasas (Koranic schools) were built, developing the community into a trading center for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural and religious center, supplanting Aghmat, which had long been the capital of Haouz. Andalusian craftsmen from Cordoba and Seville built and decorated numerous palaces in the city, developing the Umayyad style characterized by carved domes and cusped arches. This Andalusian influence merged with designs from the Sahara and West Africa, creating a unique style of architecture which was fully adapted to the Marrakesh environment.
Marrakesh is one of the great citadels of the Muslim world. The city was fortified by Tashfin's son, Ali ibn Yusuf, who in 1122-1123 built the ramparts which remain to this day, completed further mosques and palaces, and developed an underground water system in the city known as the rhettara to irrigate his new garden
For centuries Marrakesh has been known as the location of the tombs of
Morocco's seven patron saints (sebaatou rizjel). When sufism was at the height of its popularity during the late 17th century reign of Moulay Ismail, the festival of these saints was founded by Abu Ali al-Hassan al-Yusi at the request of the sultan. The tombs of several renowned figures were moved to Marrakesh to attract pilgrims, and the pilgrimage associated with the seven saints is now a firmly established institution.