Volubilis: Roman Morocco
Independent, November 1999
It is dangerous to linger at Volubilis beyond the late afternoon. Dusk here brushes the dry stones with the disturbing, magical glow of Morocco and leads to a lifelong addiction. I can no longer guess at the number of times I have wandered through these ruins. Yet I still vividly remember my first night here, 23 years ago, after visiting the site.
Sleep was broken by dogs patrolling the flat rooves of neighbouring village houses. The echoing barks unleashed dreams culled from the vivid mosaics of the House of Venus. The ruins of the palatial townhouse, tucked a discreet block away from the main street, is dominated by an opulent courtyard, from which a corridor leads to two bedrooms. Their floors, alive with gorgeous depictions of rippling naked flesh, aredesigned to haunt the imagination of the adolescent that I was. In one the beautiful youth Hylas, boyfriend of Hercules, fights off the advances of two nymphs who will later drag him down to the depths of the lake to serve as their sex slave. In the next room Actaeon sprouts horns at the moment as he betrays his chaste friendship with the virgin goddess Artemis, by pruriently gazing on her naked form as she bathes.
Both mosaics are concerned with the same theme, the unspoken boundary seperating friendship from erotic desire, and dwell lovingly on the punishment that follows any breach. It is an enduring theme, as furiously relevant now as it was in the 2nd century AD. To bring the message further home the side panels are furnished with winged erotes being whipped by their fellows, for the transgressions of love.
The assimilation between ancient and modern is made even easier by the surrounding landscape. The hills that rise immediately to the east of Volubulis are an Arcadian dream, a Claudian landscape of limestone escarpments, pine woods, stone-built villages and ancient olive groves. In such a land, the world of myth becomes a vivid possibility. To what extent, I only found out years later, when I explored the foothills, known locally as Jebel Zerhoun.
Just an hours walk from Volubilis I found an outdoor bath worthy of Artemis and her peeping Tom Actaeon. It lies at the bottom of a steep valley north-east of Moulay Idriss. Here sits an intact circle of carved Roman stone into which a subterranean hotwater spring still bubbles. It was in use, not by a goddess, but by an elderly plough-man who was calming his arthritis in its odiferous and muddy waters. He had good reason to be surprised by the sudden arrival of a Roumi (a Roman, as all Europeans are still enduringly known in Arabic-speaking Morocco) but showed none of the petulance of a deity. Instead, with the impeccable manners of his country, he politely vacated the waters and offered me sole use of the bath.
On another Jebel Zerhoun hillside I later came across a shadow of the vengeful virgin goddess, in the local form of Aisha Qadisha. This powerful and malevolent spirit is feared by men throughout Morocco. She appears as a slim, elegant and veiled figure in the evening light, luring men to follow her with the seductive turn of her body and her flirtatious glances. She leads them away from the busy streets to a quiet place of assignation, and only those who manage to spot the imprint of her cloven hooves can make their escape. Those who succumb to her first embrace have already secured their doom. Here she is associated with a dank natural grotto whose entrance is all but obscured by the spreading branches of an ancient fig tree. Even at noon it was chilling. Just a few burnt out candles, and ragged scraps of cloth tied to the tree mark it out as a place of devotion. Whether the women venerate the site order to banish Aisha Qadisha from these hills or to call down her vengeance on abusive men, I would not contemplate returning at dusk.
On that first visit to Volubilis I remember staring up at the ruins of the Capitoline temple, slowly mounting the steps of the sanctuary and then looking east as the setting sun caught the pigrimmage town of Moulay Idriss in its glow. This view is one of the most celebrated in North Africa. It seems to be designed as a symbolic template of the passage of history, with the classical columns of the temple neatly framing the distant sanctuary which contains the tomb of the great grandson of the Prophet Muhammed. At the time, no view could have been more graphic, both picturesque and satisfyingly didatic. For here stand the ruins of the open, ordered and familiar world of the ancient classical civilization, while like a fortress on the hill crouches the successor culture, Islam.
In the decades that followed I have unwittingly destroyed this satisfyingly simple image. The first idea to fall was that of Rome the primal creator. Volubilis, despite the elegant drapery of its Roman-era baths, arches, basilica and forum, is a city that existed as a trading and government centre centuries before the first Roman official set foot in the place. Excavations have revealed a Punic-influenced Berber city with its own magistrates, temples, written script and political strategy.
The second, more obstinate, image to fall was that of the romantic ruins of Rome standing as a mute sentinel through the centuries. Like many a traveller I simply had no idea how ruthless (and creative) the early French excavators were. They simply cleared away all the medieval layers of the city to rebuild the principal Roman monuments. In particular, that much vaunted view from the Capitoline temple turns out to be as much a work of imagination as of scholarship. The excavators were inspired by a mystique which saw the 19th and 20th-century colonists as the true heirs of a revived Roman Empire. It was, of course, erroneous thinking. In the process they wiped out, either deliberately or accidentally, most of the evidence of continuity between the classical and the Islamic world.
Fortunately some areas were overlooked and an intriguing picture emerges of the city surviving after the fall of Roman power. It remained a centre for trade, sheltering pockets of Christian and Jewish belief, governed by a council of chiefs. Far from being swept aside by a new, Islamic monarchy, it was this multi-cultural city which in 788 first welcomed Moulay Idris, the great grandson of the Prophet Muhammed in their community. And this Moulay Idris arrived, not as the West would imagine him - at the head of a swirling band of Arab cavalry, but as a penniless refugee. He had only his scholarship, piety and noble blood with which to offset the price on his head fixed by the Caliph at Baghdad.
With each new revelation of complexity, my love affair with the ruins has deepened. It has always been a pleasure to stroll past the empty shops and broken arcades that line Avenue Decumanus between the Arch of Caracalla and the Tangier Gate. I fill the emptiness with all the contemporary animation of the souks in Fez and Marrakech and now, instead of just watching out for the shadows of the Romans, I also keep a look out for the shades of Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs, early Christians and proud Berber chieftains.
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by Barnaby Rogerson