Twin cities, Vol­u­bilis & Fez

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

When you are at Vol­u­bilis over­look­ing the broad plains of north­ern Morocco you are firmly in the world of the Cae­sars, tri­umphal arches and colon­naded streets. Trav­el­ling the short dis­tance to Fez takes you from these pa­gan sur­round­ings to the world of Is­lam as crowded streets pass mosques and madrasas and the prayer call of the muezzin echoes around you. Close, but not cheek by jowl, Vol­u­bilis and Fez are linked through a shared his­tory that spans the an­cient and mod­ern worlds of Morocco: from when the coun­try was a prov­ince of the Ro­man Em­pire to its mod­ern place as a vi­brant mem­ber of the Is­lamic com­mu­nity.

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal work at Vol­u­bilis shows that the city pre­dates the Ro­man Em­pire by some cen­turies and that its strate­gic po­si­tion on the banks of Wadi Khoumane en­cour­aged the mix­ing of the lo­cal Ber­ber in­hab­i­tants with the for­eign Phoeni­cians although it is cer­tain that the Phoeni­cians were there to trade, not ad­min­is­ter.

The name ‘Ber­ber’ de­rives from Greek word bár­baros, or specif­i­cally, 'non-Greek-speak­ing' but it is un­cer­tain if the name was first ap­plied to the na­tive in­hab­i­tants of north Africa by the Ro­mans or much later un­der the Arab con­quest. The Ber­bers are cer­tainly not ‘bar­bar­ians’ in our sense of the word and many to­day pre­fer to call them­selves Imazighen, mean­ing 'free peo­ple' or 'noble men'.

As the na­tive peo­ple of Morocco, the Ber­bers came into con­tact with the Phoeni­cians who had set­tled at sev­eral lo­ca­tions along the Mediterranean and At­lantic coasts of Morocco dur­ing the ninth and eighth cen­turies BC. The Phoeni­cians, hail­ing from the coast of present day Le­banon, es­tab­lished a wide­spread trad­ing net­work that bought and sold the goods of the hin­ter­land, as well as es­tab­lish­ing fac­to­ries for the pro­duc­tion of Tyr­ian pur­ple dye and Garum, a foul smelling fish paste so beloved by the mar­kets in the East. In Morocco, the trad­ing colonies were con­fined to the coast and the Phoeni­cians largely let the Ber­bers get on with their lives. How­ever, trad­ing was in the Phoeni­cians' blood and mer­chants would have lived in size­able Ber­ber com­mu­ni­ties, such as at Vol­u­bilis. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cally this is at­tested by the ru­ins of a Phoeni­cian tem­ple to Baal, as well as some in­scrip­tions us­ing the Phoeni­cian script: the world’s first pho­netic al­pha­bet.

Morocco, how­ever, was an out­lier of the ma­jor Phoeni­cian set­tle­ment at Carthage in mod­ern Tu­nisia, and as any stu­dent of the an­cient world knows, the Ro­mans and Carthagini­ans fought a se­ries of wars dur­ing the third and sec­ond cen­turies BC that even­tu­ally led to the de­struc­tion of Carthage and the grad­ual an­nex­a­tion of North Africa into the Ro­man Em­pire.

As these wars raged, Vol­u­bilis lay within the king­dom of Mau­re­ta­nia which be­came a Ro­man client state fol­low­ing the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. Later, Juba II of Nu­midia was placed on the Mau­re­ta­nian throne by the Ro­man Em­peror Au­gus­tus in 25 BC and Juba turned his at­ten­tion to build­ing a royal cap­i­tal at Vol­u­bilis. Ed­u­cated at Rome and mar­ried to Cleopa­tra Se­lene II, the daugh­ter of Mark Antony and Cleopa­tra, Juba and his son Ptolemy were thor­oughly Ro­man­ised kings and although of Ber­ber ances­try their pref­er­ence for Ro­man art and ar­chi­tec­ture was clearly re­flected in the city's de­sign.

It is essen­tially this de­sign that a visi­tor sees to­day when vis­it­ing the city, and although many of the mon­u­ments date to later pe­ri­ods, Juba’s de­sign of a clas­sic Ro­man city was re­tained. Most no­tice­able in this re­gard is the grid pat­tern of the streets with the De­cumanus Max­imus (main street) bi­sect­ing the city. In true Ro­man style, the

de­cumanus was paved, with ar­caded por­ti­coes on ei­ther side be­hind which were dozens of shops. As were many other Ro­man cities, Vol­u­bilis was sup­plied with water by an aqueduct that ran from a spring in the hills be­hind the city. Once reach­ing the city, an elab­o­rate net­work of chan­nels fed houses and the pub­lic baths from the mu­nic­i­pal sup­ply and a se­ries of drains car­ried sewage and waste away to the river to be flushed. The aqueduct ter­mi­nated at a large foun­tain at the city cen­tre pro­vid­ing a respite from the fierce Moroccan sun.

Two ma­jor pub­lic build­ings are read­ily vis­i­ble at the cen­tre of the city: the basil­ica and the Capi­to­line Tem­ple. The basil­ica was used for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice and the gov­er­nance of the city. Com­pleted in the early 3rd cen­tury AD, the build­ing orig­i­nally had two storeys. Its in­te­rior is dom­i­nated by two rows of col­umns fram­ing the apses at each end of the build­ing where the mag­is­trates sat. The outer wall of the basil­ica, which is faced with col­umns, over­looks the fo­rum where mar­kets were held. The Capi­to­line Tem­ple stands be­hind the basil­ica within what would orig­i­nally have been an ar­caded court­yard. An al­tar stands in the court­yard in front of 13 steps lead­ing up to the Corinthian-columned tem­ple which had a sin­gle cella or holy space. Ded­i­cated to the three chief di­vini­ties of the Ro­man state, Jupiter, Juno and Min­erva, civic as­sem­blies were held in front of the tem­ple to hon­our the gods or to en­list their

as­sis­tance in some civic ven­ture. In the first cen­tury AD the ge­og­ra­pher Pom­po­nius Mela, de­scribed Vol­u­bilis in his work De situ or­bis libri III as one of "the wealth­i­est cities (in Mau­re­ta­nia), al­beit the wealth­i­est among

small ones". The wealth came mostly from the pro­duc­tion of olive oil and over 58 oil-press­ing com­plexes have so far been un­earthed in the city. The re­mains of these build­ings are still read­ily vis­i­ble, as are the re­mains of the orig­i­nal presses and olive mills. One such build­ing has been re­con­structed with a full-size replica of a Ro­man olive press to il­lus­trate the process for vis­i­tors.

As well as olive oil, Vol­u­bilis would have been a tran­ship­ment point for the prod­ucts of the African in­te­rior so sought af­ter in Rome: skins, ivory, slaves and live an­i­mals for the fre­quent glad­i­a­to­rial shows held across the Ro­man Em­pire.

This wealth was ex­pressed in a num­ber of wellap­pointed pri­vate houses lo­cated prin­ci­pally to the north of the De­cumanus Max­imus. These houses, some of which have large mo­saics still in situ, have been named by ar­chae­ol­o­gists af­ter their prin­ci­pal mo­saics: the House of Or­pheus, the House of Venus or the House of the Labours of Her­cules. One, the House of the Knight, has a mo­saic of Bac­chus com­ing across the sleep­ing Ari­adne. This house was a large build­ing, with an area of about 1,700 m² and in­cor­po­rated a sub­stan­tial area ded­i­cated to com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing

shops and a large olive-press­ing com­plex.

While the re­con­structed basil­ica or the Capi­to­line Tem­ple are im­pres­sive, the iconic mon­u­ment of Vol­u­bilis is the Arch of Cara­calla sit­u­ated at the end of the De­cumanus Max­imus. Built in 217 AD by the city's gov­er­nor, Marcus Aure­lius Se­bas­tenus, to hon­our the em­peror Cara­calla and his mother Ju­lia Domna, the arch bears an in­scrip­tion that reads in part:

‘…be­cause of his (Cara­calla’s) ex­cep­tional and new kind­ness to­wards all, which is greater than that of the prin­ci­ples that came be­fore, the Re­pub­lic of the Vol­u­bil­i­tans took care to have this arch made from the ground up, in­clud­ing a char­iot drawn by six horses and all the or­na­ments…’

The ‘kind­ness’ men­tioned on the re­con­structed arch re­mem­bers that Cara­calla, who was him­self a North African, had re­cently ex­tended Ro­man

cit­i­zen­ship to the in­hab­i­tants of Rome's prov­inces in­clud­ing Mau­re­ta­nia. This re­form, with ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits to the cit­i­zens of Vol­u­bilis, prompted the build­ing of the arch at one of the most prom­i­nent points within the city.

To­day when vis­it­ing the site one can walk through the north­ern Tingis Gate, down the De­cumanus Max­imus and have the ver­dant plains sur­round­ing Vol­u­bilis framed by the Arch of Cara­calla. To the right are pas­sages to sump­tu­ous houses with foun­tains in the atrium and mo­saics in the tri­clin­ium, to the left are shops and a bath house. Around the corner is a foun­tain, and in the dis­tance is the basil­ica and fo­rum. Although re­mote from Rome and on the pe­riph­ery of their world, Vol­u­bilis has ev­ery­thing that a Ro­man trav­eller would find fa­mil­iar.

But not all things last. In the third cen­tury AD as trou­bles en­gulfed the Ro­man world, the in­te­rior of Mau­re­ta­nia was aban­doned by Rome who only re­tained the Mediterranean coastal strip guard­ing ac­cess to the Straits of Gi­bral­tar. But while Rome aban­doned Vol­u­bilis, Vol­u­bilis did not aban­don Rome and ar­chae­ol­o­gists have found in­scrip­tions writ­ten in Latin be­ing carved up un­til the time of the Is­lamic con­quest in the eighth cen­tury AD. By the time the Arabs ar­rived in 708 AD the city was in­hab­ited by the Awraba, a Ber­ber tribe that orig­i­nated in Libya, and the Arabs formed a com­mu­nity out­side the city walls.

It was here that Moulay Idriss es­tab­lished the Idrisid dy­nasty of Morocco in 787-8 AD. A di­rect de­scen­dant of Muham­mad, the Is­lamic prophet, Idriss es­caped po­lit­i­cal dis­putes in Syria, and due to his ven­er­ated ge­neal­ogy, was pro­claimed imam (or re­li­gious leader) at Vol­u­bilis and con­verted the Awraba to Is­lam. He then mar­ried an Awraba girl, Kanza, and fa­thered a son, Idriss II. Idriss I con­quered most of north­ern Morocco dur­ing the three years of his reign un­til he was as­sas­si­nated in Vol­u­bilis in 791 AD on the or­ders of the caliph of Bagh­dad, Harun al-Rashid.

While at Vol­u­bilis, Idriss I first resided out­side the city and then at a nearby town that houses his mau­soleum and has been named Moulay Idriss in his hon­our. While here he es­tab­lished the city of Fez, pre­sum­ably to make a fresh break from

the pa­gan past epit­o­mised by Vol­u­bilis. On his ma­jor­ity, Idriss II moved to Fez which served as his new cap­i­tal, de­priv­ing Vol­u­bilis of its last ves­tiges of po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance and al­low­ing the city to moul­der into the ru­ins we see to­day.

From Vol­u­bilis to Fez

If, like the Idrisid founders, we too travel the 100 km from Vol­u­bilis to Fez, we step into one of the more au­then­tic ori­en­tal cities; not only in Morocco but within the Is­lamic world. While Mar­rakesh has its maze of shops and the in­com­pa­ra­ble Dje­maa elFna, Ra­bat its white­washed houses framed by the At­lantic and Mek­nes its im­pos­ing adobe walls, Fez is a ca­coph­ony of sounds, smells, peo­ple, mules, mosques and houses. It is easy to see Fez from above as it oc­cu­pies a nar­row val­ley with steeply ris­ing hills on ei­ther side.

Con­ve­niently for the trav­eller, dur­ing the Saa­dian Pe­riod (1549–1659 AD) two forts were con­structed over­look­ing the city. From the van­tage point of one of these forts, the com­pact maze of habi­ta­tion spreads out punc­tu­ated only by soar­ing minarets, and while this panoramic view be­lies the hub­bub found at street level, the main ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures of the city can be dis­cerned. Im­me­di­ately be­low you is Fez el-Bali or ‘Old Fez’ while on higher ground is Fez Jdid, or ‘New Fez’ although the name is an anachro­nism as this por­tion of the city was built in the late thir­teenth cen­tury AD. Out of sight is the Ville Nou­velle, the French built ‘New City’ where the broad, tree-lined boule­vards con­trast with the crowded streets of both Fez el-Bali and Fez Jdid.

Fez el-Bali was founded on a bank of the Oued Al Jawahir (River of Jew­els); not as a sin­gle city but as two set­tle­ments: Mad­i­nat Fas by Idris I in 789 AD and Al-'Aliya by Idris II on the op­pos­ing river bank. These set­tle­ments would soon de­velop into two walled and largely au­ton­o­mous sites, of­ten in con­flict with one another. Soon af­ter the found­ing of Fez, the city gained its flavour from im­mi­gra­tion when 800 fam­i­lies from An­dalu­sia (Spain) ar­rived at Fez in 817–818 AD and 2000 Arab fam­i­lies from Kairouan (mod­ern Tu­nisia) in 824 AD. The An­dalu­sian fam­i­lies set­tled in Mad­i­nat Fas and the Kairoua­nis in Al-'Aliya and sub­se­quently give their name to the sites that have been called 'Ad­wat Al-An­dalus ('An­dalu­sian bank') and 'Ad­wat al-Qarawiyyin (‘Kairoua­nian bank’) ever since. To­gether, these mi­gra­tions gave Fez the high cul­tural arts of Moor­ish Spain and the re­li­gious au­thor­ity of Kairouan, in its day, the pre­dom­i­nant Is­lamic city in North Africa.

One of the most no­table con­struc­tions at 'Ad­wat al-Qarawiyyin dur­ing the early years of Fez was the build­ing of the al-Karaouine (some­times spelt alQuaraouiyine) mosque. The mosque was founded

by Fa­tima al-Fihri in 859 AD and has an as­so­ci­ated school, or madrasa, which sub­se­quently be­came one of the lead­ing spir­i­tual and ed­u­ca­tional cen­tres of the re­gion and is re­garded as the old­est con­tin­u­ally-op­er­at­ing univer­sity in the world. A state univer­sity since 1963, it re­mains an im­por­tant in­sti­tu­tion of learn­ing to­day.

For such an im­por­tant build­ing it is some­what dif­fi­cult to find when you are at ground level as it is com­pletely en­veloped within the town. The main en­trances of the mosque open on to laneways, and like most mosques in Morocco, it is off lim­its to non-Mus­lims. There­fore you can only get a glimpse of the prayer hall through chinks in the huge metal-stud­ded wooden doors at one en­trance and a glimpse of the court­yard and foun­tain from another. Although you can­not en­ter the court­yard, some help­ful guardians will take your cam­era, and for a fee, snap off a few pho­tos of the court­yard and main build­ing. While the non-en­try rule is frus­trat­ing, at the al-Karaouine mosque it some­what adds to the mys­tique of the place as it is hid­den within the twist­ing al­leys of the town, and even when found, is hid­den from view from all non-Mus­lims.

The mau­soleum of Moulay Idriss II, the prin­ci­pal founder of the city, is also hid­den from view as it too is deep within the old city and dif­fi­cult to find. Af­ter pass­ing un­der a wooden bar across the street that forces don­key rid­ers to dis­mount, you as­cend a gen­tle hill past shops sell­ing can­dles, prayer beads, in­cense and other holy ac­cou­trements. Ahead of you in a blaze of gold are the richly worked doors to the mau­soleum. But it is here

that you must pause, only able to gaze in­side to the richly ap­pointed room con­tain­ing the ceno­taph of Moulay Idriss II. While wor­ship­pers push past you as they en­ter and leave, you need to feel re­spect that the lo­cal rules stop the in­te­rior be­ing swamped with cam­era-click­ing tourists: in a strange way it main­tains the sanc­tity of the place and keeps it a place for Moroc­cans, not tourists, to es­cape the bus­tle of the old city.

If you want to find tourists en masse, head for the Bou Ina­nia Med­ersa (madrasa) that cap­tures the hall­mark of Marinid Pe­riod ar­chi­tec­ture with its strik­ing blend­ing of An­dalu­sian and Al­mo­had tra­di­tions. This is a com­bi­na­tion of four el­e­ments: the green tiled roof, in­tri­cately carved cedar ar­chi­traves and ceil­ings, even more in­tri­cately carved stucco dec­o­ra­tion on the walls and fi­nally, on the lower reg­is­ter be­low the stucco work, glazed mo­saic tile work. To­gether the four sum up all that is tra­di­tional in Moroccan ar­chi­tec­ture and the com­bined ef­fect is fan­tas­tic.

The Bou Ina­nia Med­ersa, built by the Marinid sul­tan Abu Inan Faris in 1351 AD is a strik­ing ex­am­ple of a tra­di­tional the­o­log­i­cal school where pupils would have been housed on the sec­ond floor with the ground floor re­served for a prayer halls ar­rayed around the court­yard with the ubiq­ui­tous foun­tain for pre-prayer ablu­tions. The one downside of the Bou Ina­nia Med­ersa is that it can get very crowded with tourists although it is amus­ing watch­ing some pa­tiently wait­ing for that per­fect shot free of other peo­ple as if they had found the mon­u­ment empty of peo­ple! If you are trav­el­ling around Morocco, I heart­edly rec­om­mend a visit to the smaller, but more in­ti­mate, Bou Ina­nia Med­ersa in Mek­nes where you are likely to have the place to your­self and can en­joy the four el­e­ments of Moroccan ar­chi­tec­ture to your heart’s con­tent.

What has been de­scribed so far is just the tip of the ice­berg in Fez. You can also go to Fez Jdid: the tra­di­tional Mel­lah, or Jewish quar­ter, of Fez. The name Mel­lah comes from the Ara­bic word for ‘salt’ and is a re­minder that the en­light­ened Marinid rulers gave a mo­nop­oly in the salt trade to the Jews to en­cour­age them to stay in Morocco and lend their other con­sid­er­able tal­ents in fi­nance

 If you are not afraid to get lost (mo­men­tar­ily), take a walk through FezelBali and just ex­pe­ri­ence it all... Along the way you’ll pass in­nu­mer­able shops sell­ing ev­ery­thing from fresh camel heads (I kid you not) to an­tique brass ware. I sug­gest find­ing a quite nook and just stop­ping and let­ting the world pass you by 

Left, clock­wise from top right: De­tail of beau­ti­ful win­dow carv­ing; In­te­rior of the Riad Fes which is now a ho­tel; Ve­ran­dah at the 19th cen­tury Dar Batha palace; Hides spread out to dry be­fore be­ing tanned; The tan­ner­ies, a big in­dus­try in Fez Over­leaf: Sheep skins in the souk in Fez and ad­min­is­tra­tion to the king­dom. In Fez Jdid you can see the bleached-white Jewish ceme­ter­ies and still func­tion­ing syn­a­gogues; al­beit for an ever-de­clin­ing con­gre­ga­tion. Back in Fez el-Bali you can hold a sprig of mint against your nose and see the leather tan­ners at work stomp­ing hides in their multi-coloured vats. All the main van­tage points are oc­cu­pied by shops bulging with ev­ery imag­in­able leather good and while you are free to just look, a sales­man will be at­tached to you for your visit. How­ever, be warned. While not no­tice­able when you’re there, when you get your leather good home, the smell of the tan­nery comes with you and can take some time to dis­si­pate! There are also in­ter­est­ing mu­se­ums to visit such as the Dar Batha Mu­seum which houses a some­what desul­tory ar­ray of tra­di­tional ethno­graph­i­cal arte­facts, although housed in one of Fez’s grand old houses with a fine ex­am­ple of an an­cient oak tree over­look­ing a typ­i­cal quadri­par­tite gar­den of herbs, pome­gran­ate and roses.

But Fez is not a tale of iso­lated mon­u­ments: it is a liv­ing, breath­ing city and one of the best ex­am­ples of an ori­en­tal souq or mar­ket that this writer has had the plea­sure to visit. While the souq at Aleppo, Syria, (now sadly largely de­stroyed) oozed his­tory and the souq at Is­tan­bul is big and brash, Fez is a place where peo­ple live, shop and work. There are tourist shops but there are also butch­ers, car­pen­ters, metal work­ers, bas­ket sell­ers and cloth­ing shops. Mules laden with goods push past you as the driv­ers yell ‘bar­rak’ (‘care­ful’ in Ara­bic) as they charge ahead know­ing ev­ery­one will get out of their way. There are al­leys where the houses on ei­ther side lit­er­ally touch each of your shoul­ders, pub­lic foun­tains, re-used khans (mer­can­tile ho­tels) now sell­ing sec­ond-hand re­frig­er­a­tors, won­drous doors held shut with an­cient locks and peo­ple from all over Morocco from smart western-dressed stu­dents to Ber­bers from the moun­tains wear­ing point­ed­hooded djellaba.

If you are not afraid to get lost (mo­men­tar­ily), take a walk through Fez el-Bali and just ex­pe­ri­ence it all. I rec­om­mend start­ing at the uphill Bab Bou­jloud. Once you en­ter through the gate, brush off the ‘guides’ who of­fer to show you the city (or if so in­clined take them up on their of­fer and while you won’t get lost you will find it hard to avoid be­ing taken to a num­ber of shops sell­ing car­pets, met­al­work or fab­rics!). About 100 me­tres from the gate, take the first left to get to Rue Talaa Ke­bira. From here you head down­hill, past the Bou Ina­nia Madersa, and into the heart of Fez el-Bali.

Along the way you’ll pass in­nu­mer­able shops sell­ing ev­ery­thing from fresh camel heads (I kid you not) to an­tique brass ware. I sug­gest find­ing a quite nook and just stop­ping and let­ting the world pass you by. You’ll see faces from all cor­ners of Morocco and for those pho­to­graph­i­cally in­clined, if you choose a spot with an in­ter­est­ing back­drop, it is an un­ob­tru­sive way to get some great pho­to­graphs as peo­ple un­sus­pect­ingly walk into your frame of view.

When the ter­rain flat­tens out, search out the signs for Place Rcif that the Moroccan Tourist Board has kindly in­stalled at strate­gic lo­ca­tions. Nat­u­rally you’ll be­come dis­ori­en­tated but a po­lite re­quest for ‘Place Rcif ?’ will get you back on your path. In the flat­ter sec­tion of the city is the mau­soleum of Moulay Idriss II and then the al-Karaouine mosque fol­lowed by a bridge over the Jawhar River (a rather filthy stream and not look­ing like a ‘River of Jew­els’ to­day). Fi­nally, emerg­ing blink­ing into the open at the Place Rcif you can take a taxi to your ho­tel to re­cover from the tu­mult and the as­sault to your senses that ac­com­pa­nies any foray into the heart of Fez.

If you could only visit two places in Morocco (which would be a great shame!), Vol­u­bilis and Fez would be good choices. Not only are they tied to­gether with a shared his­tory, but they rep­re­sent two ends of a rich spec­trum. At one ex­treme is Vol­u­bilis and you are trans­ported back to a world of Phoeni­cian traders and Ro­man ad­min­is­tra­tors. At the other end of the spec­trum is Is­lamic Fez that is crowded with su­perb mon­u­ments rep­re­sent­ing many of the ma­jor Is­lamic dy­nas­ties that have ruled Morocco from the time of the Idrisids. With these two stops you sam­ple the long and var­ied his­tory of Morocco, see a well-pre­served clas­si­cal city and a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of an ori­en­tal souq. While Morocco of­fers so much more, these two sites should def­i­nitely be on ev­ery itinerary!

 How­ever, be warned. While not no­tice­able when you’re there, when you get your leather good home, the smell of the tan­nery comes with you and can take some time to dis­si­pate! 

Above: The stun­ning Or­pheus mo­saic (Image: Cortyn) Right: Gate to an­cient med­ina of Fez (Image: Migel)

Below: The House of Or­pheus (Image: John Walker) Right, top: The Tingis Gate, look­ing back down the De­cumanus Max­imus Right, mid­dle: The De­cumanus Max­imus, look­ing North-East Right, bot­tom: The North side of the Arch of Cara­cella

Left: Map of Vol­u­bilis

Above: The ru­ins of Vol­u­bilis

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