Located on a fertile plain, Marrakesh is one of Morocco's four imperial cities. Founded in eleventh-century as the African capital of Almoravid dynasty; it was conquered by the Almohads in 1147, and then to Marinids, only to be taken by the French in 1912.
Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Yusif Ben Tashfin, the first ruler of the Almoravid dynasty. His son, Ali, built the Ben Yussef Mosque and the city wall. The Almohads (1146-1268) made Marrakesh the capital of their empire and it was during this period that the Koutoubia was built.
The Marinids (1268-1520) neglected Marrakesh but they were succeeded by the Saadians (1520-1668) who endowed the city with the Badi' palace, the Ben-Yussef madrasa and the Saadian mausoleum.
From 1668 onwards, the Alawites, who resided in Marrakesh only occasionally, erected numerous buildings such as the palace of Bahia and Dar Si Saod at the end of the nineteenth-century. Later, the modern town was to develop three kilometres from the Medina, with its wide avenues bordered with palm-trees, orange-trees and jacarandas.
When first created in the 11th century, Marrakesh was a link on the caravan route that joins the south and the north of Morocco by way of the valleys up the Upper Atlas. Routes from the Tafilelt region and the Draa valley also converged on Marrakesh. Later, as the capital of the Almoravid and subsequently the Almohad empires (eleventh and thirteenth centuries), it became the seat of the unique authority ruling the entire Muslim West, including Andalusia.
At that time, Marrakesh was a large metropolis, housing probably up to 100,000 inhabitants.
Between the thirteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Marrakesh experienced a period of decline due to the displacement further east (in Algeria, Tunisia and particularly Egypt) of roads used to transport African gold, and the relocation of Morocco's capital to Fez. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the Saadians, Marrakesh was revived and flourished thanks to the gold trade, and the conquest of Tombouctou by the Saadians.
The Jama' al-Fna is a large open-air market at the southwestern edge of the medina of Marrakesh. Defined only by the streets and buildings that surround it, the market square has been used as a public gathering place since the eleventh century, when Marrakech became a lively international capital under the rule of the Almohad dynasty (1130-1269). Merchants from distant regions of the Almohad empire, then stretching across much of northern Africa and into Spain, assembled daily in the Jama' al-Fna to distribute their wares, but the traditional functions of the square have never been confined to
trade and commerce alone: dining, political and religious assembly, and
many forms of entertainment are essential in defining the character of
the highly dynamic space. The square persisted as a key urban hub for centuries after the decline of the Almohads, and is still functioning today.
The Jama' al-Fna is a triangular space bounded by Rue de la Koutoubia to the northeast, Rue Moulay Ismail to the west, and Rue Dabachi to the south. The side of the square along Rue de la Koutoubia is 136 meters long, the side along Rue Moulay Ismail is 146 meters long, and the side along Rue Dabachi is 166 meters long. The triangle bounded by the three major thoroughfares is roughly equilateral. The angle between Rue Dabachi and Rue de la Koutoubia is fifty-one degrees, the angle between the Rue de la Koutoubia and Rue Moulay Ismail is sixty-one degrees, and the angle between Rue Mouay Ismail and Rue Dabachi is sixty-eight degrees. In terms of orientation, the side of the square that borders Rue de la Koutoubia is rotated fifty-four degrees clockwise from the north-south meridian.
The crossing of Rue Moulay Ismail and Rue Dabachi forms a second triangular space, roughly equal in size to the Jama' al-Fna, directly to the southwest of the square. This space is bounded by Rue El Mouahidine to the southwest and is landscaped as a public garden.
Several significant buildings either border or are axially linked to the Jama' al-Fna. The Commissariat building is located opposite the west side of the square along Rue Moulay Ismail. Fifty meters northwest of the northern vertex of the triangular square, Rue de la Koutoubia turns approximately ninety degrees toward the southwest, then terminates after 360 meters at the foot of the Kutubiyya Mosque (1147-1162). Rue Moulay Ismail continues to the north of the square as Souk Laksour, the principal route that cuts through the dense souks of the medina. Souk Laksour ends 320 meters to the north of Jama' al-Fna at the Ali bin Yusuf Madrasa (1564-1565).
The ground surface of the square is paved with concrete. A repeating geometric pattern of expansion joints within the slab suggests tile-work. Though there are no permanent structures within the square, temporary market stalls define the street edge while portable carts, tents, and umbrellas create a dynamic "roofscape" and provide shade in the center of the large open space. Depending on the time of day, the square may be as densely occupied as the souks that border it to the north.
Several possible explanations are given for the origin of the name of the square. The word jama', or djemma, is an Arabic term meaning "gathering" or "assembly," sometimes carrying the more religious connotation "mosque." The word fna means "nothing" or "end." The interpretation of Jama' al-Fna as "the mosque that came to nothing" refers to an unbuilt mosque that was planned for the site by Sa'di Sharif Ahmad al-Mansur (reg. 1578-1603) but was never erected. Another rendering of the name's meaning is "the gathering at the end of the world," an understanding that derives from the chaotic atmosphere of the space.
The Jama' al-Fna accommodates such a wide variety of activities and populations that it is occupied twenty-four hours a day, with a patterns of use that vary each hour yet repeat daily. The complete lack of physical programming of the space affords extreme flexibility of use over time, and the square's grand scale is especially effective as an urban gesture when contrasted with the high density of the adjacent souks in the medina. While the square is flooded during the day with international tourists on their way in and out of the neighboring souks, after dark the lingering crowds in the square are mostly composed of Marrakech locals, who come to hear the traditional storytellers and singers perform late into the night. The Jama' al-Fna was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 as a part of the "Medina of Marrakesh" site.
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