The main square or Jema el Fnaa has been the beating heart of Marrakech since the Red City was founded a thousand years ago.
Fnaa has two meanings in arabic, it can mean death, or it can mean courtyard. Opinion is divided as to whether the square takes its name from the gruesome public display there of the heads of criminals in the middle ages or, perhaps more likely, from its distinctive open space.
There are some distractions in the square which have evolved for the amusement of tourists: colourful water sellers anxious to earn a few Dirhams posing for photographs in traditional costume; snake charmers; performing monkeys, and their masters clutching polaroid cameras. However, what is quite extraordinary is that the vast bulk of the teeming life in the square remains essentially local: dentists displaying teeth removed from previous clients; herb doctors laying out their wares; fortune tellers crouching over gas lamps; storytellers recounting the oral culture of Berber tribes in obscure dialects (UNESCO cited the oral heritage of the square when designating it a world heritage site); and musicians performing ancient gnawa trance rituals the origins of which predate modern language. The square also continues a centuries old tradition of acrobats, tumblers, jugglers, mime artists and other visual entertainers. No visit to Marrakech is complete without experiencing the Jema al Fna.
At night the atmosphere intensifies and the northern end of the Jema al Fna becomes a vast open air barbecue with rows of dozens of food stall competing for trade. Their hygiene standards can be criticised but the ambience is truly unique. A more conservative alternative to eating at the open air food stalls is to sit in one of the many cafes and restaurants around the perimeter many of which have balconies and terraces with views across the square.