Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Volubilis, mostly photos

600 years before the Arabs claimed North Africa, the Romans cast ashore, built a town, and maintained a presence in central Morocco for two centuries' time. On Friday, Sarah and I negotiated a taxi from Meknes to drive us the 20km to this town, called Volubilis in Latin or Walili in Arabic. While the names sound nothing alike, both derive from the Berber name for the ever-present oleanders that grow there: alili.

The first big surprise in Volubilis is that for a city nearly two millennia old, it's in remarkably good shape. The houses are still clearly outlined, an entire wall of the temple remains standing, and many of the mosaics are complete. We wander with the feeling that the city might well spring back to life, as though we could easily be transported back into Roman times. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine that it has suffered two earthquakes and that all its marble was stolen during the building of Meknes - it is worn down, but time has been kinder to it than I would have imagined.

The second is that the city remains untouched. Unlike similar sites in Europe, there is no museum built around these ruins, no glass to protect the fine tiles nor railings to prevent our free exploration in the open air. A giant bird's nest perches atop one of the columns of the forum, while a donkey grazes in the salon of one of the houses. The tiny town of Moulay Idriss is just up the road, but otherwise the site is surrounded by open fields and protected by the hills. It is easy to see how it could have been forgotten so long by the Europeans, who neither knew nor cared about its fate until the early 20th century.

After an hour's wandering, Sarah and I could easily have opted to spend longer wondering at this odd outpost of Western civilization nearly erased from the history books, but we had negotiated our taxi's wait in advance and needed to return to Meknes if we didn't wish to be abandoned or charged a higher fee. Morocco is full of surprises, and it's Roman past was no more astounding than many of the other beauties and secrets it has been revealing over the past month...

No comments: