Category Archives: History

Recent history or the distant past, from post-colonialism back to 8th century refugees from Iraq, or further…

A Day of Storytelling at ALIF Riad

SONY DSCJess Stephens and Alice Barnsdale helped arrange a “day of storytelling” at the ALIF riad near the Batha square.  ALIF (Arabic language institute in Fès) let us use the gorgeous riad free of charge.  I used some Fulbright funds and Alice got her sister-in-law to produce and serve a traditional Fassi couscous for Friday lunch, plus tea and cookies in both the morning and the afternoon.
I borrowed Al Akhawayn tripods from Charles (rough but better than nothing), and we tried to set up four interview stations around the courtyard of the riad.

Cameras varied in quality, as did the Darija capabilities of the volunteers.  (Hearing my voice on the videos afterwards, I’m repulsed:  “ugly American” and “infantile” are the words that come to mind.)  The Fès university students were held up, arriving only after lunch, which meant that the early story sessions were a little choppy–and Alice was pressed into listening for most of the morning.  The birds drowned out some of our speakers, and in the afternoon, there were competing voices.  Not ideal audio conditions.  But the storytellers themselves were amazing, as were their stories!

Here’s a quick roll call.

Si Mohamed, master-braider: maker of Schlueh (Berber) finery.Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 5.23.10 PM

Abbas, master woodworker and the last carpenter in Carpenter’s Square.

Zin Abidin, master plaster-carver.
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Hajj, blgha (men’s slipper) maker.  A master of the craft for 70 years.
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Driss, his son Nouredine and nephew Azdeen, master ironmongers (knife and scissor-sharpeners; tool-creators)
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Mohamed Féris, a coppersmith in Seffarine Place
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Abdelkader, master dyer in one of the two remaining shops that work with sabra (vegetable silk) and other raw material.
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Plus a group of six carpet-knotters from the Ensemble Artisanal, who did not want to be photographed on that particular day.

The amount of footage to be watched, translated, edited, subtitled, and so forth is truly daunting–but the stories and the storytellers were so inspiring that I must and will find a way to make this all happen.  Insh’allah.

Wandering through “the happy valley”

The gite was beautiful,
as were the surroundings,
P1020954 P1020961and we were a little slow to get started the next morning.

Ahmed arrived with a mule for Jeremy to ride,
and we set off,
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past irrigation gates, sheep grazing around an oven built into the ground,

shepherds with their sheep,
P1020985 P1020987or riding off into the far distance,
houses with fruit trees blooming like a puff of smoke from an invisible chimney,
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children playing, women washing clothes,
chicken on rooftops that look like fields,
baby burros and bee boxes,
spring blooms,
and who knows what all else?

James asked if he could photograph a bunch of boys we met along the road, and then he showed them the photo and a video as well.  When we saw that they had an old board with Qur’anic verses written on both sides–just as we had seen in the Nejjarine fondouq in Fès–we asked if they would read it to us, and they did!

Here’s the link to the video on Vimeo:
Boys reciting the Qur’an

Brahim and Ahmed wanted to stop for lunch at about 11:30, but we had just had breakfast at 9, so we wanted to push on.  Later, when we stopped for lunch, we understood the timing better: they had brought the ubiquitous pressure-cooker and tea kettle and proceeded to make first tea and then a bit of a feast while we lay about.
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All very imperial luxury: we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves.  Then Ahmed needed to go off to the souq across the river,
so we set off with Brahim to climb up to one of the ribats on the mountain-tops through the valley. But first there was quite a lengthy walk back along the valley floor, over the creek, past the sheep, the drying laundry, the stork…
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The ribat was still occupied by a single elderly guardian, set up as a quasi-museum as to how life there used to be lived.
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The central living space included a gas stove with the necessary kettle, a kerosene lamp, food basket, an old couscousier…
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plus a hand mill, with a water-bag and some long underwear hanging from the wall.P1030048 P1030051
The “rooms” were a little claustrophobic, to say the least, but the corridor seemed to wind around forever, and you could climb this “ladder”

and find yourself on the roof looking over the amazing valley.P1030061



Brahim took a picture for us, then Jeremy wanted to take a photo of Brahim…P1030063P1030071SONY DSC

On the way out, Jeremy experimented with what it would feel like to be on guard duty, sleeping by the door.

Then we climbed back down the mountain to meet up with Ahmed and the mule
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and take the long walk back along the valley floor to the gite.

It’s a little hard to see in the photos, but these depressions in the rock are dinosaur footprints (Jeremy’s crouching in one footprint).SONY DSC P1030096I like the way the dinosaurs seem to have stepped off the rock into thin air.

We also passed some women spinning, using something like a drop spindle without the drop–a spindle spun on the ground.
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When they saw how fascinated I was (and we tried to explain that I spin with a wheel but can’t work a drop spindle), they let me take a video of the process (screenshot above).

The evening light was quite magical, even if we were tired.SONY DSC SONY DSCJeremy was drooping, so I got up on the mule and he fell asleep leaning back against me, but he woke up in time for a triumphal return to the gite, leading the mule himself.

And after all this, Brahim fixed us tea and supper and a warm fire.  Such an extravagant experience, all around.
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Tamnougalt overnight

We enjoyed many things about Chez Yacob–talking to Yacob, wandering the palmerie, eating the yummy supper–but probably the best part of the evening was the nightly jam session the men held after dinner.  The music was enjoyable, but even better than the music was the enjoyment of the musicians.  Yacob tried to get Jeremy to play, but an attack of unexpected shyness interfered.  Here’s just one clip of many:

Jam session Chez Yacob

The next morning, Jeremy and I went out to wander the palmerie some more.  Jeremy made friends with a couple of local dogs.
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We watched the sun come up through the palms.
We mused together over the magical weave of the palm bark…

and the pattern of the spider’s web in the spaces of the wall:
We watched the water run through channels that lay quiet and almost dry the previous afternoon…
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…and we watched the women working in the early morning fields.
Then, after breakfast and a bout of storytelling (see Moroccan storytelling, Chez Yacob), IMG_1995
we took to the road again, picking up an elderly hitchhiker along the way.
On the road to another ancient kasbah-cum-movie-set: Ait Benhaddou.

Tamnougalt; or, The road to Marrakesh


People kept telling us that the southern route from Erfoud to Ouarzazate or Marrakesh was much slower than the northern route (don’t trust Googlemap times in Morocco!), but we’d been on that stretch from Tinghir through Kelaâ M’Gouna and Skoura too many times, so we decided to test out the alternative for ourselves.
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The road was fine to start with, lulling us into a false sense of speed.  Then we hit kilometer upon kilometer of potholes.  But the landscape was so stark and compelling, we almost didn’t mind.
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Ruined ksour on a cliff above a palmerie; solitary figures walking or riding through a barren landscape–almost too stereotypically Moroccan–but very striking.
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We had decided to break the journey in Tamnougalt, just shy of Agdz, at Chez Yacob.  Yacob himself turned out to be a major highlight of the journey (see next post): fluent in English, a long-ago collector of traditional tales (back in 1992), a superb and delightful host, and a key figure in a nightly jam session of traditional music.

We arrived mid-afternoon and started with a tour of the still-inhabited mellah of Tamnagoult.  Texture, texture, texture: surfaces were rich and evocative everywhere we turned.  From the carefully detailed brick mantel over the entryway…
SONY DSCto the stark simplicity of corridor walls, the nearly crumbling pisé construction of an inner courtyard or the arch of that entry…
to the eloquent surfaces of daily objects,
or the architectural imagination that turns a brief glance into a (re)framing of the sky.
IMG_1538 IMG_1519Because the mellah is still inhabited, there were signs of daily life: water bottles, mouths covered with lace to keep with water clean, and people working on the roof.
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One courtyard seemed to feature more Andalusian style arches; another had lower arches and presumably ceilings:
At the chef’s room, where local court cases would be heard, the walls were tadelakt, burnished with egg whites, and the ceiling was in Berber style:
J was intrigued by the traditional lock, all made from wood:
P1020618 P1020621 There was a small museum, with examples of a pisé construction frame (with tampers),SONY DSC
and other items, like wooden supports for donkey saddlebags, a large-scale mortar and pestle,  a “treasure chest” that delighted Jeremy, and a rather gruesome goat-skin used for making butter (someone would swing it back and forth to churn the cream into butter).

Many of the hallways were dark, but that made them feel all the more atmospheric, at least in the short term:

And the detailing of the windows at and near the exit was quite extraordinary.    If you look closely, you can see a little hand at the top of the window on the right.

Our guide had his own collection of historical items: grindstones, oil lamps, sandals, platters, and so on–plus photos of the old community and of films that were made here:

After our tour of the mellah, we went wandering in the lovely palmerie.
I was struck by the wealth (a wealth of water, coming from the river visible in the top half of the photo) that meant pomegranates could be left unharvested, P1020636 P1020638with the result that songbirds were feasting, and filling the air with their song.

Spring crops seemed to include peas and wild asparagus.
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Fields of forage were also full of wildflowers, the air was scented with fruit blossoms, and the fresh leaves, especially of the fig, were incredibly green.
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In the hour before dinner, I stayed with the children while James wandered up to the old kasbah, passing women and children and donkeys all carrying food and supplies back home.
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As promised, the kasbah was an empty shell, but impressive nonetheless.
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The palm-tree lintels seem to have been dug out for re-use, except in the long hallway where they’re still doing important structural work.
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Overall, an interesting, but slightly spooky place, in which to watch the night come on.P1020690 P1020697

Fossilizing around Rissani

I realize the word “fossilizing” refers to the process of becoming a fossil, but a day of fossil-hunting left us feeling (almost) desiccated and condensed enough to qualify.

We started out at Brahim Tahiri’s fossil museum where we met Abdelali, our guide for the day. “Today, you’re going into the Devonian and Ordovician,” Brahim told us.  Zoë and I grinned at each other, enjoying the thought of traveling into geologic time periods.   I had hoped for an English-speaking guide who could drill us in the differences between Ordovician and Devonian (for instance), but Abdelali had hardly any English or even much French, and he preferred to speak to James, often not hearing when I tried to ask a question in Darija.  So here’s what I’ve dug up since our trip:

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The Ordovician period precedes the Devonian.  According to this USC website, the Ordovician period lasted from about 510 million years BCE until about 439 million years BCE; it was marked by a huge increase in biological diversity, during a time when all life remained in the oceans.  Life flourished and developed in a warm climate, with reefs providing niche conditions favoring diversity.  The end of the period is marked by a mass extinction in which over 100 families went extinct, probably due to earth cooling beyond the comfort range of organisms that preferred warmth.

One of the most remarkable things about the Ordovidian period is that North Africa was located over the south pole at this time:
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Wacky.  Whose idea was that?  Points to them for thinking outside the box.

The Devonian
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The Devonian was the beginning of the world we know: the first seeds, first land vertebrates, the first time life emerged from the oceans. But there was still a lot of life in the ocean–life that registers now in the fossils remaining in this section of Morocco.  Note the mass extinction defining the end of the Devonian, like the mass extinction defining the end of the Ordovician.  We’re in the middle of a mass extinction today as well.  What new period is coming our way?

After loading up Abdelali’s 4×4 with some water, bread, and oranges, and La vache qui rit (packaged cheese), we drove out into the hammada, also known as the “black desert.”  We turned off the road out of Rissani along this long line of peaks, a place where the earth looks like a breaking wave.SONY DSC

Along that piste through the hammada, there are two distinct veins of fossils, running parallel to one another.  In the first, fossil miners have dug cave after cave in order to excavate plates of fossils from a layer of sediment some 10-20 feet under the surface.

Once the plates of fossils have been identified and chipped out of the substrate, they are assembled, a little like a jigsaw puzzle, on the surface near the mining pit.

These fossil plates seem to feature  crinoids: creatures that in a fossilized state look vaguely like octopi.  Or, as Zoë noted, trees.
IMG_1492 IMG_1491 (photo Zoë)
According to the Bonnachere Natural History Museum,

“The Crinoids’ soft body was protected by several hard plates which formed in a bowl-like shape.  From this came tentacle-like arms, which were used to gather food.  It was fixed to the sea floor by a long flexible stem consisting of many discs.  Once the crinoid died, the discs were scattered over the sea floor.”

There are also lots of little pieces of something that might be cephalopods?  SONY DSC
Abdelali kept using darija words that seemed to mean tentacles or branches, and every time I started talking with one of the miners (most of them had some English), Abdelali wanted to hustle us away, probably for monetary reasons…

The work is daunting.  In the deeper pits, or those with stronger sides, miners dig ladders into the side of the pit.  Elsewhere, they seem to rely on a rope held by a colleague.  Notice the miner’s feet and back tucked into the passage on the right.  Talk about claustrophobia!
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Earth is removed from the pit by means of a pulley system, in some cases run off a solar panel.

Down in the mine: all the comforts of home?

We went down into one of the mines: one with a collapsing set of steps down the side instead of a vertical ladder.
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Hard to imagine working down here with any kind of precision.  Imagine the endurance, the psychological strength, required to crouch here, chipping away in solitude day after day.
You have to look past Zoë’s hat to see me, down at the rock face.  And the light comes from a camera flash, so imagine the normal conditions.  We were glad to come out again.P1020509

But the miners themselves don’t have any such quick and easy exit.  It’s cooler beneath the surface during the heat of the day, but it’s parched out there.  Workers bicycle along the rough piste; some seem to live next to the mines, in a couple of rough huts, perhaps as  night guards?  No one seems to mind us scrabbling around in the slag heaps, looking for fossils…
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We walk over to the second vein of fossils–featuring orthoceras!–where we pick through more slag heaps left by what looked like earth moving equipment.  Instead of carefully constructed pits or caves, there seemed to be large scoops dug out of the earth, and piled alongside the worked vein.

Orthceras were a little like the squid of the Ordovician world.  We find both (nearly) complete creatures, and little cross-sections.
SONY DSC IMG_1497In the black or grey stone, they make me think of shooting stars, as if the residue of this little squid were a path through the stone, light through the darkness.

Jeremy found a lock, which he enjoyed flinging through the desert air; his parents loaded up with fossil finds…

It was hot out there, even though spring is still a week away.  After a few oranges (too many seeds!  we’ve been spoiled by tangerine season!), some water and a few hunks of bread, we drive to a different fossil site.  This is on the scree slope just under the crest of a small mountain.  We’re looking for trilobites, one dominant species of the ancient ancient world.

Let’s face it: we’re wimps.  Jeremy was wanting to go back to the hotel, even before he fell and scraped both knee and elbow.  James fell also and scraped his arm, though he didn’t notice the damage till a few days later.  And the trilobites were harder to find: tiny points of evidence suggesting a larger creature buried in a rock.  James eventually got enthused, finding possible trilobite geodes just under the rocky outcropping capping the hill, and Abdelali clearly knew what he was doing, but I went back to the car with the children for another drink and nibble and a look at the Erg Chebbi dunes not too far away.
We persuaded a reluctant Jeremy to hang on for one more site: this involved driving past what appeared to be a local garbage dump, complete with goats and birds.  We think the goats must know better than to eat plastic–or else they have very strong constitutions and the plastic doesn’t bother them.
Past the goats and the garbage, we climbed a slight elevation with the desert stretching out below in both directions.
Jeremy perked up when he got to hold a hammer.  Finally, a real paleontologist’s tool!
J looked like he was having fun, too:

But then we were pretty well done for the day.  We went back to the Tahiri museum, where we took another look at the process of preparing the fossils for museums and private collectors.  The reconstruction of a large plate of fossils:
The first pass at chipping away the stone surrounding a trilobite:P1020548 P1020550
Closer detail work:
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The finished product:

Trilobites were amazing!  Such a range of forms, improvisations on a single basic shape.  Eyes made out of something like shale.  Impossible curvatures, impossible protuberances.  And the world they came from is almost unimaginable to me–though the world we’re heading into may be almost as unfamiliar.

Still, the thing I learned most clearly today was how hard it is to be a fossil miner.  What I may remember most vividly (other than the heat, the thirst, the isolation) is the extent of the desert as seen from our little elevation–or the way the hills we drove along at the start of the day seemed to remember the waves of the ocean that once covered them.

Walïlï, or Volubilis

We’ve been to this site four or five times now, all told, but I’m going to make a single composite post, to try to unify our various discoveries and delights.  The photo above came from our first visit, in early February.  Wildflowers were already beginning to bloom in this lovely protected valley.

But the heart of this discussion comes from Zoë’s reconstruction of a late February tour led by Eric Ross and John Shoup.  (James was out of the country, and I was leading digital storytelling workshops; Eric and John were astoundingly willing to let Zoë and Jeremy tag along with no parents to ride herd on them. ) I’m also including photos of some of the handouts used on that tour.  When we returned in March with various family visitors, Zoë took on the role of tour guide.  (Some strangers tagged along, too.)
I’m largely replicating what she channeled from John and Eric.

We should start by recognizing the politics of historical preservation.  Many Moroccans feel no ownership of “Volubilis” because the French “discovered” the site as a Roman ruin.  In fact, Walïlï is a palimpsest of settlement, with Phoenician and Carthaginian and Islamic construction bracketing Roman elements;  all of these historical strands were shaped and informed by the local Imazigh people.  (Timeline in French below notes the pre-Roman era, a brief Roman occupation, and a longer Islamicization of the city.)
Protectorate-era French excavated everything that came after the Romans and ignored everything that came before: Volubilis became a testament to the Roman Empire’s presence in Morocco, legitimating France’s imperial ambitions as the inheritor of the Roman empire. The massive gate at the bottom of the Decumanus Maximus, the main drag, is a bad or at least disputed reconstruction.  These two aspects of the Protectorate approach to Volubilis seem related to me….SONY DSC

Of course Walïlï is a critical site of Moroccan history: the city where Idriss I was first sheltered by the Awraba, a Muslim Imazigh tribe, who shared this space with Christians and Jews.  Fès, founded by Idriss I and Idriss II, is in some ways a direct extension of late eighth-century Walïlï, and all of Morocco looks back politically to the Idrissids as the first Moroccan dynasty.

OK, once we’re politically oriented, we need a sense of the site overall.  First a map of the entire locale, in which the area on the right was the part of town dating back to Phoenician times, and the section jutting up on the northeast was the Roman extension.P1030232

And then we zero in on that Roman section with a map of the patrician’s quarters on the north-east side of the site.
P1030234The houses are labeled by what most clearly defined them, from the marble Bacchus found on site to the mosaics or olive presses that remain.

Zoë led us up the north-east path toward the “cortège de Venus,” pausing to point out the hill that was probably once a meeting hall (behind the flowers).IMG_1371
Idriss I was eventually poisoned by the Abbasids he’d been fleeing when he arrived in Walïlï (conquering Tlemcen in modern-day Algeria made him too much of a threat), but he had married Kenza, daughter of the Awraba the chieftain Ishaq ibn Mohamed, and after his death, Kenza gave birth to his son, Idriss II.  A canny strategist, Kenza saw that her son was threatened from many sides.  She invited various rivals to dinner at this meeting hall and massacred them there.  Evidently, when the hill was excavated, the right number of human remains were found to support this story.

The cortège de Venus offers an interesting example of surviving mosaics (which should be under cover rather than exposed to the elements), with a figural center and patterned border full of motifs also found in Imazigh weaving.  The center of the mosaic shows the hunter Acteon surprising Diana bathing; horns are already sprouting on his head as he begins to turn into a deer, to be destroyed by his own dogs.IMG_1372Right across the (overgrown) street is an olive press marking the difference between this provincial city and imperial Roman practice.  In Rome itself, an olive press would never be found in the city; rather, country estates would produce olives and press the oil which would then be shipped to the city.  The base of the press here has channels cut to three separate depths, to channel different grades of olive oil in different directions.   Next to the press is a (now overgrown and large filled in) stone container that WPI students measured at some vast capacity.
IMG_1375 IMG_1376To get to the front of the Venus house (or estate), you have to walk around the corner, onto Decumanus S.1.  If you look down at the paving stones under your feet at the entrance to the house, you’ll see the space underneath the stones where water came into the house, providing water for cooking and cleaning and gardening in the garden at the center of the house.
To the side of the garden, along a corridor, were the family’s private rooms; close to the front were more public rooms where the paterfamilias might have met with other patrician men.

From that patrician house, we walked up to the Tingis (or Tangier) gate: a reconstructed gate built according to the instruction manual sent out with Roman soldiers across the empire.  Can’t you imagine the soldiers cursing the engineer responsible for the drawings?  “Keystone arch?  Easy for him to say.”
The main gate would have been closed most of the time: people would have entered the city through one of the side gates, where their possessions could be checked and taxed by city guards.

Underneath the stones marking the center of the main road, the Decumanus Maximus, there remains a large channel that was once filled with the water supply for the city.
You can see the (large!) channel through some of the larger cracks in the stones.  Moroccans and their water: so clever!  Here, patricians have water delivered to their homes, at first; when the water stops flowing to these aristocratic estates, people move closer to the city center, where the water is used first for a public fountain, then for public baths, and finally for public latrines.

Was this part of the aqueduct?
Perhaps the most moving part of the entire site from my perspective is the public fountain at the center of the city, where the stone has been worn into long slow waves by centuries of women leaning over to draw water from the fountain.Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 11.14.19 AM

Up the hill, meanwhile, across from the patrician houses was an early shopping mall, covered to ensure patrician wives would not find their shopping marred by an untimely rainstorm.

The small shops here, like hanouts in the modern-day marché or medina, would have had a shopkeeper at the front to fetch whatever his customers wanted to examine or buy.

A little further down the hill, we come to the building that houses “the labors of Hercules,” with the mosaic located behind the remaining triple arch on the Decumanus Maximus.SONY DSC

The triple arch itself is adorned with faces, the identities of whom I found but have since lost.

As the map below shows, the house itself would have been entered from the southwest, with entry-ways leading to the hall surrounding a central peristyle (columned porch or open colonnade) and a fountain.  P1030235Zoë is quite indignant about guides who not only tell tourists that the fountain was a bath but damage the remaining Roman cement of the fountain as they climb in to demonstrate the luxuries of bathing.  The pink cement dates from Roman times; repairs can be seen in the whiter cement of recent history.IMG_1396

At the end of the house closest to the street, we find a large Roman fishtank (cold water pool)–but these fish were kept in order to have a supply of fresh fishy food.

Most of the inhabitants of Walïlï are thought to have been Awraba (Imazigh) rather than Roman colonizers, a hypothesis supported by the base of the columns in this house.  Roman Corinthian columns would never include a design like this at the base–and this design is a kind of fertility symbol, designed to bless the inhabitants of the house.IMG_1395

The “Labors of Hercules” mosaic is off in a side room: one would walk through the entrance, around the fountain, and into the room.  Four portraits (two in good condition) occupy the corners of the figural section of the mosaic; each portrait is surrounded by flowers and bovine-looking patterns in a curved diamond shape, with four lozenges filling in the corners.

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The outside lozenge (constituting the outer corner of the figural pattern) is a somewhat abstract shape; the other three represent the labors of Hercules.  The complexity of these interwoven patterns is both impressive and pleasing–and that’s not even addressing the geometric surround.SONY DSC

The labors of Hercules included (1) killing the invulnerable Nemean lion,SONY DSC
(2) killing the Lernean hydra (though this looks more like infant Hercules strangling snakes–a different story),
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(3) bringing the hind of Ceryneia to king Eurystheus,[?]Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 11.44.32 AM
(4) bringing the Erymanthian boar to Eurystheus alive, [?]Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 11.43.38 AM
(5) cleaning the Augean stables [guessing: about to open path for rivers?],Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 11.40.14 AM
(6) driving away the Stymphalian birds (helped with clackers made by Hephaistos, Hercules flushed the birds out of their hiding place, then shot them),SONY DSC
(7) defeating the Cretan bull by wrestling him to the ground,SONY DSC
(8) capturing the man-eating horses of Diomedes, [?]Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 11.42.39 AM
(9) acquiring the belt of the Amazon queen, Hippolyte, [total guess]Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 11.42.03 AM
(10) driving to Eurystheus the cattle of Geryon,
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(11) bringing Eurystheus the golden apples of Zeus,
(12) kidnapping Cerberus.

Two of the images have been destroyed, and you can see I’m guessing on many of the others.  (I’d be very happy with a low pass on these attributions: it’s not so easy to see the connection between image and myth.)

Another important mosaic in the same house represents the four seasons, with Jupiter and his lover Ganymede.

Here’s one more map, this one of the central area around the arch, the Basilica and the Capitoline Temple.

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The “House of the Knight” contains a mosaic of Bacchus coming upon Ariadne, presumably before he’s fathered six children on her. SONY DSC

Next door we find the house of perhaps the only true Roman in town.  The columns in this house exceed the capacity of local craftsmen: those curving lines define a column that would have been made in what is modern-day Italy and imported here to the outskirts of the empire.
Back in the private area of the house, we find another fountain in front of what were likely the family’s bedrooms.
These rooms would have had no windows: the Romans thought night air was dangerous, and to drive out the night air, they would have smoked each room before its inhabitant retired to sleep.  Their theory might have been a little off, but their practice would have been very effective in protecting themselves against mosquito-borne malaria.

On to the forum!

This space (through the arches) in front of the major structure of the site, would have been the forum, where politicians would come to give speeches and hand out free wine to rouse the rabble who lived in the district down below the forum.
Even now that rabble-dwelling area feels a little “low” and uncared-for,SONY DSC

even though it includes named houses with mosaics like the one of the Desultor–an acrobat specializing in leaping from one horse to another.  (Either the mosaic pictures a victorious acrobat, or else it represents something very different: the comic figure of Silenus.  Who knows which?)

The large open space of the basilicum would have been the place where taxes were collected.  Since taxes were paid in kind (sheep, grain, olives, oil), the government needed a large space in which to gather these goods.  As Christianity grew in importance, and the imperial governing structures began to decay, the church took over this space: the “basilica” of a cathedral is a direct descendant of this tax-gathering space of the Roman empire.  Evidence of Christian usage can be seen in the low semi-circular baptismal font, now overgrown:

I’ll include below the hypothetical evolution of the monumental center even though neither Zoë nor I could quite map it onto the visible remains of the site.  Perhaps you’ll do better.P1030237

To the southwest of the basilicum, the temple of Jupiter (Minerva, Juno) overlooks all.  Standing on the platform above the monumental steps, we have an overview of the basilicum and what I take to be the place of sacrifice in the middle of the square.
One can imagine impressive effects, given the right timing for the position of the sun.
From further down the hillside, the temple and the remains of the basilicum merge into a single ideal nesting spot for the resident storks…

On the sides of the temple square are smaller alcoves where other gods could be worshipped.  Evidently, you would buy a small clay plaque with a symbol of what you were requesting and leave that plaque as an offering for the god or goddess of your choice.
Discovery of an offering to Osiris, the Egyptian god, gives a sense of how far people may have traveled to arrive in Walïlï.

Further down the hill is a reconstructed olive press, much like those (reconstructed and still functioning) we saw in Demnate and Ourika.

And at the edge of the site, we find the house of Orpheus and Galen’s baths.  Here, it may be helpful to have both a map of the house and a cross-section to show how the baths worked.
The laconicum was a dry heated room, designed for sweating.  The caldarium was a room with a hot plunge bath.  The tepidarium was the “warm room,” with pleasing radiant heat.  All of these were heated by steam in the walls and underfoot: the famous Roman hypocaust.
And here’s what the remains of that system looks like at Walïlï:
In this last picture, James is in the hypocaust; Jeremy is in the heated space above.

The mosaic of Orpheus appears in the triclinium or the formal dining room:
SONY DSCThe colors here seem especially vibrant to me, even given the harsh sunlight.SONY DSC

Here ends the formal tour.  But I’d like to put in a quick word for the amazing wildflowers we’ve watched developing all spring.  March brought a different palette than February.
And April had its own ideas:
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For what it’s worth, when I asked a Moroccan (carrying a load of biomass designed for fodder up the Decumanus Maximus) what was the flower that gave Walïlï its name, he pulled up a morning glory (the last flower above) to show me.  But the UNESCO World Heritage site specifies oleander as oualilt instead:

In any case, this region of Zerhoun is a biodiversity hotspot, rightly celebrated for the range of plants and animals it supports, as the young macaque at the entrance to Walïlï seems to remind us.

According to Derek Workman, during the Roman’s two hundred year occupation,  “not only was Volubilis one of the gems of the Roman Empire in North Africa but it was also the site of a major ecological disaster. Vast swathes of forests were cleared to create space to grow the enormous quantity of wheat needed to meet the annona, the free grain allowance that was every Roman citizen’s basic right, while the hunting of wild animals for gladiatorial games almost drove indigenous species such as the Atlas Bear and the Barbary Lion into extinction.” []

Still, what remains is beautiful:




From M’Soura, we drove to Lixus: a Roman ruin built on what was once the Atlantic coast.  (Now the coast lies some 3 kilometers to the west–but for how long?)
aerial photo from Tetouan archeology museum

If you like the story that M’Soura is the grave of Antaeus, you might be willing to consider Lixus the site of the famous Garden of Hesperides.  After all, Hercules was on his way to steal the golden apples of the sun (tangerines, from Tangier?) when he met up with Antaeus.  (According to Eric Ross, though, the golden apples of the sun are more likely to be quince, which is a popular addition to tagines when it’s in season, in the fall.)  We were sad not to find either tangerines or quince trees at Lixus.

The guards at Lixus like you to wander up the hillside, past the enormous pools where the prized fish paste was made and stored:
All that’s really left now are  empty stone caverns and these classically beautiful arches.

A little way up the hill, you come to the baths and the amphitheatre.  We had a picnic in the shade of the trees, looking out at the slow meander of the river, and then we rambled around both the baths (on the right) and the theatre (on the left).
The amphitheater itself:
P1020116The baths:P1020117P1020108
Jeremy and I made up a story about a boy from Roman days who was trying to escape his mother’s insistence that he go to the baths.  He snuck out of the baths and went to sit in the theatre to watch the evening performance.  (OK, it was probably more a ritual performance than dinner theatre in those days, but it kept Jeremy happy.)P1020113

The amphitheatre was simply amazing: down on the stage area, you could speak in a normal voice and your words would carry throughout the theatre as a whole–despite a breeze that would have obscured sound in the Scott Amphitheatre, for instance.  And what a view the audience would have had!
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We didn’t want to leave this golden spot–remember, it’s January 5th and we’re heading back into snow–but eventually we continued up the hill, past the temple to the city proper.

The soldiers would have been quartered on the highest point of the hill, for the vantage point out over the bay.
Wealthy people had their own baths:
P1020134 P1020136Jeremy thought he could get used to that.

We loved the views out over the estuary toward the sea.  If the soldiers hadn’t already nabbed this spot for the armory, we would have built our house right here.


The armoury itself (partially reconstructed) was also very evocative, however:
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And in fact, the views are fabulous in just about every direction.P1020137

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They’ve tried to create a partial reconstruction of the Forum on the site.
P1020148We skirted around things like an altar with a stone where animals were sacrificed.  Overall, we found a nice balance between wandering around delighted with our own reimaginings of what life might have been like and learning important details from the guard who had to keep an eye on us as we wandered around (even after we declined his services as a guide).  He was lovely, leaving us space while also offering information when we seemed open to it. And when we gave him a little money at the end, he was startled rather than eager.  He was the one who pointed out the difference between Roman building, with cement, and the Phoenician building, minus cement.

In fact, there were Phoenicians and Carthaginians here before the Romans, and one can see the levels of the city, with the Romans building above the Carthaginian/Phoenician remains.  So much history.  So how and why did the city ever come to be abandoned?


Cap Spartel and M’Soura

Perhaps the saddest part of leaving Tangier was having to say goodbye to our neighbor across the street.  He had  a barber shop on the ground floor of his house, and he let Jeremy come over and sit in the barber’s chair and spin in circles and watch television with him.  Jeremy even got to see a man shaved.  Doesn’t get much better than that.

We drove out to the coast, to Cap Spartel, partly in honor of grandpa Loftus: an important maritime landmark!

Just south of the lighthouse, we had a grand time scrambling over the rocks and watching the fisherman.
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Then we went off in search of M’soura: really, a remarkable challenge.  Off the motorway, then taking a midlevel road to an unmarked tiny road–paved, but not much more than a piste.  We had to ask directions to get onto that road.  Then we drove right past the site.  We would have driven past it again, except that some kindly Moroccans led us to it–at which point, we almost didn’t believe them.

Some say that M’soura is the tomb of Antaeus, who wrestled with every comer until he was finally defeated by Hercules;  every time Antaeus touched his mother, Earth, strength flowed into him.  (His wife or consort was Tingis, the old name for Tangier.) According to Wikipedia, citing Plutarch, “when the Roman commander Quintus Sertorius  crossed from Hispania to North Africa, he was told by the residents of Tangier […] that the gigantic remains of Antaeus would be found within a certain tumulus; digging it open, his men found giant bones; closing the site, Sertorius made propitiatory offerings and ‘helped to magnify the tomb’s reputation’.”  This aerial view (from the museum in Tetouan) shows the tumulus, collapsed in the center, perhaps from the Roman excavation.P1010982

Even in that older photo, you can see the dwellings on the edge of the site.  There’s quite a little village now, backing up onto the stone circle.
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Zoë almost walked off into history. See her ghost figure separating out from her body?P1020082 P1020072

That’s the big stone behind us, l’kbir, with the collapsed cromlech in between.  And the men (including a rather intrusive, or just overly helpful guardien) posed directly in front of l’kbir.
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Can you say, “phallic”?

We couldn’t quite puzzle out this design on one of the stones.
And the “bab” or door to the collapsed tumulus seemed more of a wish than a door.P1020094

But I liked thinking of Antaeus here: still drawing strength from mother Earth, still springing back, ready for anything.
The spring flowers (in early January) and the lichen will surely keep Antaeus alive at least another year.
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We knew it was going to be hard to tear ourselves away from moving house and recovering from our longer travels, but we wanted to get north to see Tangier for a couple of days.  Driving north through the rain underscored the extent of our fatigue: arriving around 5 p.m. in rush-hour traffic in the chaos of Tangier was still more difficult: some of the roads we had thought were drivable (and were, in the end) look a lot like pedestrian-only walk-ways.  We had rented a little house in the old medina; finally, we called our contact person, and handed the phone to the Moroccan we had stopped to ask for directions.  He then ran ahead of us through the narrow streets and gates of the old Kasbah, where we would never have had the courage to drive on our own.
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The house was sweet, with no rooms on the ground floor, and two rooms on every floor above (2, 3, 4) and a rooftop terrace at the top.  Lots of stairs!  And a nice view of the sunrise and sunset.
Who would have thought early January would be raspberry season?

We went out for breakfast the first day, with hot chocolate that was really melted chocolate.  We were all excited by the thought of this drink, but it ended up  being too rich to enjoy fully.
Then we went wandering, past classic Beat haunts, like the Café de Paris and the Librairie des Colonnes.
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We loved that bookstore!  Then we visited the American Legation building together, checking out James Bey’s famous “Moroccan Mona Lisa” painting of his servant Zahra, and some of the many photos of Paul Bowles and the Beats (first, a young Bowles, left, with his wife Jane and Truman Capote, then the older Bowles below).
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I returned to look at the library collection while the rest of the family went to the Kasbah museum.

Sun shone on us briefly, passing the Continental, where scenes from Sheltering Sky were filmed,
but in general, the day was a bit drizzly and grizzly,
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even if we were wandering from the Gran Socco to the Petit Socco and back again.
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Our spirits were low.  We needed a change.



The coast road to Agadir, then Taroudannt, and home

Jeremy couldn’t stand being so near the sea without actually getting wet, so the morning we left Essaouira, he and I spent an hour or so paddling in the waves.  Of course he made friends with some older boys who were doing pretty much the same, and they held his hands and took him deeper than I was willing to go.
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Meanwhile, James and Zoe wandered back through Essaouira.  For a man who hates fish, J takes a lot of photos of fishermen.
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On the road out of town, we spotted some of the famous goats-in-argan-trees, but Nancy and Jeff, driving toward Marrakesh, had the full treatment.  “I swear,” said Nancy, those men must take the goats to the roadside every morning and lay in wait for tourists.  No sooner had we stopped the car than one of the men grabbed a kid and plunked it in my arms.  Then they ushered us over for a photo.  It’s quite the operation!”
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More seriously, driving south, we were worried by what looked like the effects of many years of drought.
Still, overall, the coast was gorgeous.
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We stopped for a PJ-style picnic, sheltering in the non-existent shade of a prickly tree, while Jeremy pleaded for an opportunity to clamber down to the sea.

Agadir itself was not our kind of place.

Rebuilt after an earthquake, it’s mostly concrete.  We stopped at the Marjane to get J a replacement pair of trousers, and between the slow road to Marjane and the excruciatingly slow road between Agadir and Taroudannt, we were all pretty stir-crazy by the time we arrived in Taroudannt.

We must have driven past this fountain three or four times, having made the mistake of asking the gendarme at the main roundabout for directions.  (Note to self: never expect local gendarmes to know where anything is.  Why is that?)

Eventually, we found our way to the “English house” where we spent the night.  Despite the fact that it served as a kind of early capital both for the Almoravids and for the Saadians before they moved their capital to Marrakesh, the town is more a busy industrial/ mercantile center than a tourist center, though the famous walls were indeed beautiful in the evening light.
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From the top of the walls, we could look down on the local pick-up soccer game happening just inside the main gates:
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We splurged on a calèche ride through the gathering dark, down to the square known as the mini Djemma el Fna.  Here it was easier than in Marrakesh to see three storytellers, with their wares spread out in front of them: feathers, ostrich eggs, and so on.  We couldn’t get close enough to hear the stories well, and the audiences (the halqa, or the story circle) were all male.  If we’d had more energy, I would have sent J back after dinner to try to record some of the stories for us to listen to later.

Women standing in the back of a pick-up truck flirted with Jeremy as James negotiated another calèche ride back to the guesthouse.  Starting price: 50d.  Ending price: 12 d.

I really wanted to drive north through the mountains to see the Tin Mal mosque, but poor Zoe finally succumbed to a stomach bug; she spent most of the night being sick, so we spent the day driving north on the motorways, most of the way through the rain.  Outside Rabat, we became one of the statistics making Morocco home of the second-highest number of traffic accidents in the world (according to Wiki-travel): we were rear-ended by a woman driving too quickly as traffic slowed for a previous accident.  Her car suffered more than ours.
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(While we exchanged details with the woman who hit us, another fender-bender took place in the middle of the three lanes of traffic: those two drivers just left their cars in the middle lane and negotiated things in the midst of traffic.)

We arrived home in time to enjoy (the next day) a light snowfall in the Ras el Ma (headwater) outside Ifrane.
New Years Eve we went into Fez to spend the evening with Jeff and Nancy, touring the Jewish cemetery (with its story of a young woman killed for refusing the advances of the governor of Tangier)
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the temple, with its Torah scroll, its ritual bathing pool,
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its subtly different zellij and plasterwork.

We ate pizza with Jeff and Nancy at the Riad Larroussa, meeting the French proprietor Fred (of whom more later) and his American wife Kathy and their posse of children (Jeremy dragged me off into their private quarters, and Kathy and the children were all charming to us).  We spent the night in the separate riad used by Jeff and Nancy during their visit, then bid them a fond farewell.

May the coming year teach us as much and as pleasantly as the past year.  We have been very very fortunate: Hamdulillah!