Nobody is entirely sure when or how the Jemaa el Fna came into being – nor even what its name means. The usual translation is “assembly of the dead”, a suitably epic title that may refer to the public display here of the heads of rebels and criminals (the Jemaa was a place of execution until well into the nineteenth century). The name might alternatively mean “the mosque of nothing” (Jemaa means both “mosque” and “assembly” – interchangeable terms in Islamic society), recalling an abandoned Saadian plan to build a new grand mosque on this site.
Either way, as an open area between the original kasbah and the souks, the square has probably played its present role since the city’s earliest days. It has often been the focal point for rioting and the authorities have plotted before now to close it down and move its activities outside the city walls. This happened briefly after independence in 1956, when the government built a corn market on part of the square and tried to turn the rest into a car park, but the plan lasted barely a year. Tourism was falling off and it was clearly an unpopular move. As novelist Paul Bowles observed, without the Jemaa, Marrakesh would be just another Moroccan city.