Morocco: The past is a long dream

Ancient and modern worlds meet at Volubilis, where Europeans are called `Romans'. But does this area really owe its heritage to classical civilisation?
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It is dangerous to linger at Volubilis beyond late afternoon. Dusk 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. My sleep was broken by dogs patrolling the flat roofs of neighbouring village houses, their echoing barks unleashing dreams initiate by the vivid mosaics of Volubilis's House of Venus.

The ruins of this palatial town house, tucked a discreet block away from the main street, are dominated by an opulent courtyard, from which a corridor leads to two bedrooms. The floors of these rooms are alive with depictions of rippling naked flesh destined to haunt the imagination of the adolescent that I was. In one, the beautiful youth Hylas, boyfriend of Hercules, fights off the advances of the 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 he betrays his chaste friendship with the virgin goddess Artemis, by gazing on her naked form as she bathes.

Both mosaics are concerned with the same theme - the unspoken boundary separating 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.

The assimilation between ancient and modern is made even easier by the surrounding landscape. The hills that rise immediately to the east of Volubilis 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.

An hour's 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, a subterranean hot-water spring still bubbles into an intact circle of carved Roman stone.

It was in use, not by a goddess, but by an elderly ploughman, calming his arthritis in its odoriferous and muddy waters. He had good reason to be surprised by the sudden arrival of a Roumi (a Roman, as all Europeans are still known in Arabic-speaking Morocco), but showed none of the petulance of a deity. Instead, with impeccable Moroccan manners, 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 spot the imprint of her cloven hooves can make their escape. Those who succumb to her first embrace have 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 in 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 recall staring up at the ruins of the Capitoline temple, mounting the steps of the sanctuary and then looking east as the setting sun caught the pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss in its glow. The 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 that contains the tomb of the great grandson of the Prophet Mohamed. At the time, no view could have been more picturesque and satisfyingly didactic. For here stand the ruins of the open, ordered and familiar world of classical civilisation, while like a fortress on the hill crouches its successor, Islam.

In the following decades, I have unwittingly destroyed this satisfyingly simple image. The first idea to fall was that of Rome as 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 arrived. Excavations have revealed a Punic-influenced Berber city with its own magistrates, temples, written script and political strategy.

The second, more obstinate, image to crumble was that of the romantic ruins of Rome standing as a mute sentinel through the centuries. Like many travellers, I 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, and 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 Idriss into its midst.

And this Moulay Idriss 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 grown. I stroll past the empty shops and broken arcades that line Avenue Decumanus between the Arch of Caracalla and the Tangier Gate, filling the emptiness with the contemporary animation of the souks in Fez and Marrakesh. Only now, instead of just watching out for the shadows of the Romans, I also keep a look out for Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs, early Christians and proud Berber chieftains, too.

Traveller's Guide

Gateways: airports with direct links from Britain include: Casablanca and Tangier from Gatwick (BA 0345 222111) and Heathrow (Royal Air Maroc 0171-439 4361); Marrakesh from Gatwick (BA) and Stansted (RAM). Expect to pay a minimum of pounds 220 return. For northern Morocco, you could save by getting a cheap flight to Malaga or Gibraltar and travelling by ferry from there.

Tour operators: the mainstream operators have shown little interest in Morocco for the past few years. Those specialising in the country include: Cadogan (01703 828 313); Coromandel (01572 821 330); Headwater (01606 813 333); Panorama (01273 427 777); and Travelscene (0181-427 8800).

Foreign Office advice: "If offered the services of a guide, ensure the guide is authorised by or operating with the agreement of the local tourist authorities, and is displaying an official badge. Respect Moroccan laws and customs regulations. The penalties for possession of drugs are severe. Be aware of drug dealers. Do not carry Bibles in Arabic or attempt to distribute any evangelical literature."

More information: the Morocco National Tourist Office 0171-437 0073.

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