the Mosque at the End of the World
Berber farmers settled the area surrounding today's Marrakech
in Neolithic times.
The city was founded in 1070 by Emir Abu Bakr ibn Umar
as the imperial capital of the newly-established
A large open area near the old city's center has been the main square of Marrakech for centuries. Its origin and its catchy name are now somewhat of a mystery.
The leading historical theory is that a powerful sultan had begun building a large mosque. But due to circumstance, probably outbreaks of the plague, he had to abandon the project before it was finished.
The partly-built mosque fell into ruins, and gradually became a busy marketplace.
The snake charmers and their cobras arrive on the square in the early morning. That's early by Moroccan standards, where I was happy to find that people weren't fanatical about getting an extremely early start to the day. The snake charmers are easy to find by sound, with their high-pitched frantic piping that never stops. Most of them belong to the 'Isawiyya brotherhood, a Sufi sect founded in Meknès by the mystic healer Sidi ben Aissa in the 15th century CE. If you have snakes or scorpions in your house, who are you going to call? These guys.
Men with Barbary apes dressed in sequined outfits like unevolved Las Vegas entertainers also arrive early.
Later, the story-tellers arrive, spinning tales in Arabic and Berber. Yes, many of the visitors to the square are locals, or from other cities in Morocco.
There are sooth-sayers, purveyors of traditional medicines and dubious cures, magicians, dealers in soaps and salves and unguents, and roving water peddlers.Saadian Dynasty Tombs
Ahmad al-Mansur was a powerful sultan of the Saadian dynasty, ruling 1578–1603. He started building a large Friday mosque on what was then a large open area, now on the north side of this square. A "Friday mosque" is the most prominent one in a town, or within a neighborhood of a city, a mosque where a Friday mid-day sermon is preached.
The sultan had to abandon the project when the mosque was only partially completed, probably due to repeated outbreaks of plague.
Here's the view across Jemaa el-Fnaa from its south edge looking toward the north in the early afternoon.
The outline of its ruined walls were still visible into the 19th century. Today the Souq Jdid or the "New Souk", the low structure visible here between the two minarets, is built roughly aligned with that ruin.
The name Sāḥat Jāmi' al-Fanā' is ambiguous. Sāḥat means "square" or "plaza", and Jāmi' is "mosque", but as for al-Fanā'...
The 17th century historian Abderrahmane as-Sa'idi of Timbuktu wrote in his chronicle that the sultan planned to name his mosque Jamaa al-Hna or the "Mosque of Tranquility". After he abandoned it, the locals referred to its ruins ironically as "The Mosque of Annihilation" or Jāmi' al-Fanā'. "The Mosque at the End of the World" is an alternative reading. As-Sa'idi's chronicle is the best explanation we have, it's the square's first mention in historical records.
Another interpretation is "Assembly of the Dead", referring to the square being a site of public executions around 1050 CE. But historians today say it's about the abandoned mosque project from the late 1500s.
There are singers, groups playing stringed instruments, drum corps, dancers, and acrobats.
Music is hugely popular in Morocco, and the local musicians have influenced many from Europe. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant recorded much of their No Quarter album on the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech along with local musicians.
Men from West Africa sell sunglasses and clothing. Again, they sell to locals at least as much as to foreign visitors.
Here's a view of the square in 1930–1931.
Here's a shot from early in Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, the first third of which is set and partially filmed in Marrakech. The principal characters, played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, are arriving from Casablanca in that bus. The square was mostly closed to motor vehicle traffic in the early 2000s, but delivery trucks and the occasional taxi still venture onto its southern and eastern perimeters.
Here is the very similar view that I had from a rooftop café overlooking the square. I'm about twice as high, a little to the right and turned toward the right so my picture doesn't show the Kutubiyya Mosque minaret as seen above. But we see much more of the food stall area to the right. The café veranda visible at far left below and in the pictures above from 1956 and 1930–1931 is where I went late every afternoon to have tea and watch the spectacle.
The rooftop café was next to the minaret of the mosque at the southeast corner of the square. Would I be able to hear the mid-afternoon call to prayer? That's Asr, the mid-afternoon prayer beginning around the time when the length of the shadow cast by an object is once or twice the object's height.
The low structure behind the dark green umbrellas at center roughly replicates the northeast corner of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur's unfinished mosque complex. That structure is Souq Jdid or the "New Souk".
Yes. I could hear the call to prayer.
But it wasn't deafening. Unlike what I have observed in Turkey and Egypt, in Morocco the call to prayer is loud enough to get the job done, but no more. There is no one-upmanship, trying to make your mosque louder than all the others no matter how much distortion that requires.
Time for Tea
It's always time for tea in Morocco. At some point every afternoon I ended up at the Brasserie du Café Glacier near the southeast corner of the square. There are several rows of tables on the veranda. A seat near the back reduces the number of interruptions by mendicants, peddlers, and performers.
It's boiling hot "gunpowder" green tea, named for its appearance after the leaves have been rolled into small pellets. They add many spearmint leaves and stems, and may have already mixed in a lot of sugar, or provide cubes for you to adjust the sweetness.
They brought me three or four 1×1×1 cm sugar cubes with each glass. That's more than enough for me. But in Morocco, that's barely sweet at all.
I realize that it's odd to specify the approximate size of the sugar cubes, but I have a reason.
Check out this sugar block they brought along with my mint tea while I was waiting a few days later to board the SupraTours bus from Marrakech to Zagora.
I would estimate this block to be roughly two normal cubes wide, by four long, by one and a half thick. That is, roughly equivalent to 12 regular sugar cubes. All that sugar for two fills of a glass holding about 100 ml of tea.
Yes, foreign visitors come to this café because it's a seat on the edge of one of the prime attractions in Marrakech.
But much of the time you will observe that the majority of patrons are locals.
There's a large room with seating inside, but almost everyone sits outside and watches the busy square.
Guide books and the Wikipedia description of Jemaa el-Fnaa all mention its importance to the tourist trade, and how "a strong but discreet police presence ensures the safety of visitors." Yes, that is correct.
I witnessed some drama on my last evening in Marrakech. First, a bum was literally thrown out. As in shoved out the door to the edge of the porch and then physically lofted out onto the pavement by two employees.
Then about twenty minutes later there was some brief shouting back in the interior. Almost simultaneously, eight young men in sporty clothing, carrying handheld radios previously hidden in cargo pockets, stepped onto the porch from the left, center, and right, and purposefully strode into the interior. The undercover police had arrived, immediately and out of nowhere as if they were djinns.
Within seconds, two men in the khaki uniforms and neon reflective vests of the overt police were standing just outside the veranda. A police officer in a dress uniform immediately joined them.
Back in the interior, earbuds were removed and all the hand-held radios were turned up loud. Lots of police chatter in Arabic.
Seven more undercover policemen had materialized out of the crowd by the time they marched three men out and back the alley beside the café. Meanwhile, a Sûreté Nationale van, two Gendarmerie Royale Marocaine officers, and a police officer on a motorcycle had arrived. All this took no more than two to three minutes.
The excitement died down and I finished my tea, paid, and headed off to get some soup. But first I turned and took a couple of pictures looking into the veranda of the café.
The two women in black-and-white tops sharing a table are probably foreign visitors. But I would assume that everyone else in this picture lives in Marrakech.
The juice vendors are open all day. They light up their stands as evening falls. The snake charmers have packed up and left, so their constant buzzing finally ends and you hear the various musicians more clearly.
The large minaret in the distance is at the Kutubiyya Mosque, the largest in Marrakech. It was founded in 1147, but what we see today is a complete reconstruction from 1158.
Marrakech was founded in 1070 by Abu Bakr ibn Umar of the Almoravid dynasty. His successors expanded and improved it. The two ends of its main axis were the Ksar el-Hajjar or the "Fortress of Stone", adjacent to where the Kutubiyya Mosque would be built, and the city's first Friday mosque, where the Ben Youssef Mosque stands today. The main souqs were built along the streets connecting those two major sites, a pattern that remains today.Qubba
The Almohads seized Marrakech in 1147. Very confusing, Almoravid and then Almohad dynasties. But totally different if you ask the Almohads. They immediately set about demolishing and replacing almost all of the Almoravid structures. The only exceptions were a few stretches of city walls that they left in place, and the Qubba el-Ba'adiyyin ablutions pavilion near the Friday mosque, which they simply ignored and allowed to fall into ruin and be covered by demolition debris.
The Almohads started building the Kutubiyya Mosque that same year. They built a new kasbah or fortified citadel, and then demolished the Ksar el-Hajjar and associated palace.
A few of the food stands specialize in nothing but harira, a traditional soup in Morocco. I started my dinner with soup at this stand every evening. A bowl was 4 Dirhams, a little under US$ 0.40.
Harira has a tomato base thickened with flour. It includes lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, onions, rice, beaten eggs, and olive oil. It often contains a small amount of beef, lamb, or chicken.
It's served with small dishes of cumin and salt.
Steam and smoke rise from the many food stands.
Maghrib is the sunset prayer, starting after the sun has set but before it becomes completely dark.
Isha or the night prayer begins when the sun's light has disappeared from the sky, when the sun is 12–18° below the horizon.
It's dark, the mosque at the southeast corner of the square is open for the night prayer. To its right is the rooftop café where I was in the afternoon.
Now it's time to choose a food stand and get something off the grill. Choices abound!
Grilled peppers and eggplant, and fried gourd slices. In the background: olives and a spicy sauce.
Pepper, onion, and tomato skewers.
Spicy chicken skewers.
I got dinner at a rooftop café one evening. This is above Souq Jdid or the "New Souk", with a view across Jemaa al-Fnaa.
Looking across the New Souk toward the Kutubiyya Mosque minaret, I see a clothing shop with a sign showing what they offer. The current King of Morocco, Muhammad VI, decreed that while it remains legal for women to wear an all-enveloping burqa, the commercial production and sale of the burqa is illegal in Morocco. If you want one, you have to make your own. It's part of his program to reduce and prevent extremism. Good for him!
Looking to the southeast, I saw frequent airliners on approach to RAK, Marrakech's Menara Airport. Marrakech is only a three-hour flight away from Marseille, 3.5 hours from Paris and London. Marrakech is very popular with French visitors.
Thami El Glaoui became chieftain of the Glaoua tribe of Berbers of southern Morocco. The Glaoua had backed the sultan Moulay Abdelaziz against Bou Hamara, a pretender to the throne in 1902–1909. But then Abdelaziz was deposed in a revolution in 1908 and replaced by his brother Abd al-Hafid. The new sultan rewarded the Glaoua tribe by appointing Si Madani as his Grand Vizier, and Thami as the Pasha of Marrakesh.
Both Moulay Abdelaziz and his brother Abd al-Hafid ruled incompetently, financially ruining Morocco. That led to riots, which led to French intervention, which led to the French Protectorate of 1912–1956. They left Thami El Glaoui in charge of Marrakech and the surrounding region. His power and wealth grew and grew.
In 1922 the Moroccan national government, controlled by French administration, heavily influenced by Thami El Glaoui the Pasha of Marrakech, passed the first laws protecting and preserving Jemaa el-Fnaa's cultural space and heritage.
UNESCO proclaimed the square to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2001, and in 2008 they included it in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Cobras aren't native to Morocco. There's a desert cobra in and around Egypt, but it doesn't rear up or produce a hood. There are tree cobras in central and west Africa, but their venom is highly neurotoxic and there is no specific antivenom so they aren't practical for shows on a crowded square.