I was in Fes, Morocco’s spiritual capital, with the intention of checking out the Sufi choir whose album, Les Voix de Fes, features them chanting the Koran. I wanted to see Fes because I’d read Paul Bowles’ 1955 masterpiece, The Spider’s House, which deals, in nasty detail, with Moroccans and Europeans in Fes during the country’s freedom struggle. Morocco’s Imperial Cities are all notable, but Fes is haunting and seductive in the most voluptuous way.
I never got to see the Sufi choir but I did see, in a perfectly preserved Art Deco cinema with a screen the size of three container trucks stuck on top of one another, Gladiator dubbed into French. The movie had been a hit in the West about nine months earlier and I was out of my box. It was a rare pleasure to experience an on-screen image achieved by light being fed through film, traveling through smoky air, before hitting the screen. Add to that the sight of buxom uniformed matrons walking the aisles vending trays of salted nuts, perfectly chilled Coke in glass bottles, and cheap sticky candies. What more could you ask for by way of a cinematic experience? I felt like I was aged nine all over again.
Gladiator’s vision of psychedelic classicism revived my desire to check out Volubilis, the 2000-year-old Roman city near Meknes, a town as impressive in its small way as Fes is in its majestic way. I was heading for Meknes the next day, so I suggested to my pal Nou that we make a day trip to the Roman ruins. Nou said we’d get his cousin Abdul, a prosperous man in his thirties with a Saddam moustache who made his living importing what he called “contrabandito,” to drive us there. It was as good as done.
Next day in Meknes Abdul was waiting for me in what passed for a bar. I joined him and Nou in a semi-bordello decorated in the sort of cherry red crush velvet wallpaper we forgot about in the West a long time ago. After an hour in the company of Abdul’s adolescent street corner henchmen, and much beer on Abdul’s part, we took the road out of Meknes. It would be fair to say that Abdul’s vehicle spent as much time on the right hand side of the road as it did on the left. It was purely a random bit of good luck that we didn’t crash. Along the way we stopped in the middle of an olive tree grove so that Abdul could take a leak and drink a few cans. He told Nou that he reckoned I was a big time gangster with whom he would happily do business. Nou did nothing to dissuade him.
A Second Century AD Roman city, Volubilis was one of the most far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire, originally inhabited by Berbers, Greeks, Jews and Syrians, all of whom spoke Latin and, sometimes, practiced Christianity up until the coming of Islam.
I saw carved granite Roman sculptures lying untended in the weeds. An Irish friend in Tangier later said: “Of course one is very much tempted to get one of the local urchins to grab one of those sculptures. I’d just love one for my back garden. I’m not sure if all those mosaics are actually the real thing. I think the French removed the real ones years ago, that the actual mosaics can be found in the museum in Rabat.”
Volubilis was a functioning town until the 1830s. Farming families still live there; I saw girls picking herbs in the middle of a thousand year old mansion while boys herded sheep in the Forum. Three Moroccan youths were dancing to Rai and reggae played on a cheap ghetto blaster atop The Arch of Caracalla, a triumphal arch which has surveyed the treeless green valley down below for 1800 years. Made of marble, originally topped by a bronze chariot, the Arch was built in 217 AD and restored by the French in the 1930s. Guardians of the ruins pleaded with the youths to come down because what they were doing was dangerous. They were, after all, hopping along like mountain goats, breakdancing and moonwalking, on an 1,800 year old structure.
Moroccans can be blissfully indifferent to manifestations of their distant past. This is in many ways a commendable thing; the past is a foreign and sometimes boring country. Abdul shared the indifference of his race so he lingered around his vehicle while I went rambling. He was busy guzzling Flag Speciale, a local beer which I quite like though I’m no drinker. Nou clambered up onto The Arch of Caracalla where he was soon fooling around with the other delinquents and trying to score some dope. From his vantage he was able to point out places of interest to me. The ruins stretch away into the distance.
Between 40 to 285AD, Volubilis enjoyed a pretty spectacular prime. Major urban structures appeared; spacious roads, public monuments, public buildings. The visually extravagant monument-stuffed core of the city is reminiscent of Surrealism at its weirdest and most engaging. Also dating back to this period are loads of stately homes for the rich replete with pools, semi-erotic mosaics, bakeries, and about one hundred olive oil presses attesting to the early presence of what is still a major local industry. There is also a whorehouse and a place where beheadings were undertaken.
At the end of the Third Century decline hit Volubilis. Emperor Diocletes decreed that the Roman administration and army in that neck of the woods should vacate. In the Sixth Century what remained of the population built a protective wall around themselves and kept on prospering. Latin inscriptions found in the city’s necropolis from the period 599-655 indicate creeping Christianity.
Arab sources wrote of an Islamic presence at the beginning of the Eight Century. Idriss I, the first Arab and Islamic king of Morocco, initially used the city as the capital of his new kingdom. After his assassination his son, Idriss II, abandoned the city in favor of Fes, which he founded in 789. According to an early Arab historian Volubilis was still a happening spot as late as 1086. After this date, Arab historians usually referred to Volubilis as an abandoned city in ruins.
In 1915 the French Protectorate took it upon themselves to resurrect those ruins; they’re still working on it. Some buildings have been reassembled from their marble or granite blocks which lay scattered everywhere. Other houses and monuments never fell down. There is an argument that Volubilis would be all the more fascinating if it’d been left untouched, standing up or scattered around the place, just as time and events had thrown it. But the French like interfering in other folk’s affairs – especially when those folks are non-white or Islamic – and have their own notions about how things should be done.
The return journey was as perilous as the outward one. Abdul had become substantially drunker while we were communing with the ancients. Once more, I saw both sides of the road. A lot. We nearly killed a young traffic cop who was directing traffic at a crossroads. Abdul declared, when I got out of his car in Meknes, glad to be alive, that in all the years that he had lived in Morocco, he had never been to Volubilis. Until a man like me, a Christian, brought him there.
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.