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?

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.

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.

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people

Sport
nflAtlanta Falcons can't count and don't know what the UK looks like
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London