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by Barnaby Rogerson
on Travel Intelligence
North Africa was once one of the richest provinces of the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century AD the Imperial family, a third of the Roman senate and a third of the knights came from North Africa. Morocco was on the fringe of this golden age. No road connected it to the rest of North Africa and it was more often than not treated as a subsidary of Spain.
Roman Morocco was restricted to just the north-western corner of the country. The Rif mountains and the eastern plain were not conquered while the southernmost frontier stopped just outside modern Rabat. The whole vast expanse of the Middle Atlas, High Atlas, Anti Atlas mountain chain and the Saharan oasis valleys were left unsubdued. True this is mostly tough, mountainous country but elsewhere (in the equally forbidding terrain of southern Algeria, southern Tunisia and Libya) the Romans had pushed their domain south into the fringes of the great sand deserts of the Sahara. Why the fertile and flat coastal provinces of the Chaouia and the Doukkala were left alone is especially intriguing. This rich agricultural area, which was sprinkled with old phoenician harbours, was well within the known world of the Mediterranean trading economy.
This anomaly has never been satisfactorily explained. It has been suggested that the Romans liked it this way. The unconquered lands of central Morocco provided them with slaves (captured in inter-tribal conflict), a field from which to recruit auxiliary cavalry, to aquire wild beasts for the amphitheatre shows while from the secret island base of Mogador they were in touch with the riches of the trans-Saharan trade. It is these pleasing mysteries, as much as the sites themselves, which provide much of the fascination of a tour of ancient Morocco.
Every tour of Roman Morocco should start at Tangier, the three thousand year old trading city that commands the one generous bay on the southern shore of the Straits of Gibraltar. Tangier was the capital of Roman Morocco but its continuous occupation has defied excavation. It is said that the Petit Socco stands over the old forum, the Grand Mosque sits over the Capitol and that the city's walls stand on Roman foundations.
In Tangier you should stay within the walls (ideally at the faded charms of the turn of the century Hotel Continental) but take an afternoon mint tea at the Cafe Hafa by the punic rock cut tombs. Day trips should include the coastal site of Roman Cotta, a villa cum commercial fishing station. No romantic images of desert bound caravans present themselves here, just a solid income based on the salting of fish, the preperation of garum, a rancid fish paste plus a little sideline in shipping out local wine and olive oil. Another trip is east to Tetouan, a medieval Islamic foundation whose Roman predecessor Tamuda (enclosed within a martial-like grid of walls) stands on the southern side of the river Martil. Perched on a hillock and overlooked by the brooding massifs of the western Rif mountains, here you get your first taste of Moroccan geographical realities. Not until the invention of the aeroplane and the howitzer could the tribes be winkled out of these hills.
Heading south down the Atlantic coast to visit Lixus you get a much more favourable view of Morocco the clement. Lixus perched on a hilltop overlooking the sea and the serpentine meanders of the Oued Loukkos is a wonderful site best appreciated with a picnic. The fish processing industry is once again strongly to the fore though there are baths, unknown temples, 4th century AD walls, a mosaic floor and the intricate confusing ruins of the Capitol hill to explore. In the evening you should dine on fresh fish in Larache and stay in the hotel coverted from an old mansion of the Duchess of Guise. Jean Genet is buried nearby.
Thamusida and Banassa are even further off the beaten tourist track. Easy neighbours in the days when transport moved on the slow moving muddy waters of the Oued Sebou, but much less accessible now by back road and farm tracks. Thamusida is a large but melancholic site which seems to slide downhill towards its riverside docks. A fortress garrison was attached to one corner of the walls during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Buzzards patrol the sky looking for prey and remind one of the Baquates tribe who descended on the town in 280 AD and extinguished all its life.
Banassa, which shared the fate of Thamusida, has a happier air with its charming little provincial forum overlooked by the ruins of a basilica and its capitol. Of the town's set of five public baths look out for the 'Baths of the Nymphs' which, with a little work could be put back to use as a neighbourhood hammam. Inscriptions recovered from the site record local careers in the auxiliary cavalry, grants of citizenship to some of the local tribal chiefs and acknowledge the export of elephants.
Outside Rabat are the ruins of Sala Colonia, encased within the walled medieval tomb-garden of the Merenid Sultans known as the Chellah. The small area of excavation has at last been opened to the public. Look out for the 4th century AD inscription dated to the reign of the Emperor Constantine - graphic proof that this city, unlike Banassa and Thamusida - survived the destruction of the 280's and existed for 200 years as an isolated Roman port surrounded by a Berber hinterland. Look for answers and you often only find more questions.
If you can afford it, stay at the recently restored Tour Hassan hotel right in the centre of Rabat, or the faded but much cheaper Balima which overlooks the Moroccan parliament, or on the banks of the Oum er Rbia river at the Dawliz. At least one meal should be taken at the Bordj Eddar fish restaurant overlooking the sea.
The tour culminates at Volubilis, the one Roman site in Morocco that can compete on equal terms with the spectacular ruins of Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Its splendour combines with its impressive size to present yet more questions. Why was this city, so close to both the southern and western frontiers of the province so rich? You'll find a dozen or more palatial villas with intact mosaic floors, a wonderful broad basilica, a venerable triumphal arch, a beautifully restored capitol-temple and a handsome main shopping street. Hidden beneath the various villa floors a Kings ransom in bronze statuary has been unearthed. Yet the traces of half a dozen frontier forts lie almost within view of the cities walls. Its prosperity has often led historians to mislabel it the provincial capital, though we know full well that the province of Mauretania Tingitana was governed from Tingis, that is Tangier. At the peak of its prosperity Volubilis may have housed a population of 20,000. It fell in 280 but unlike Banassa and Thamusida survived as a much reduced but still functioning trading centre into the Islamic era.
Stay at the Volubilis hotel for at least two nights. In the evening you can muse over the mysteries of Roman Morocco from the hotel terrace watching the ruins catch the last of the evening sun.
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