Category Archives: Geography and environment

How does the remarkable geographical diversity of this country shape its culture? What are Morocco’s environmental challenges, strengths, and strategies?

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:




Once we finished our big travels over the winter break–and in the middle of those travels, truth be told–we had many things to do: move from Omar’s house to housesitting for Karen and Kevin and Claire Smith during their five months in the United States was first on the agenda.
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We left behind some of our favorite “rose pinecones” (super soft with a layer of velvet on the top of each petal) and the wedding cape that covered the bed.  Imazigh women weave this kind of a cape in anticipation of their wedding, and the details of the weave, the thread, the beads, all tell a story about the woman who wove it.

Jeremy, sporting his Santa tie and socks that posed as high-top sneakers (a Christmas present), was happy to be back n the house.  And Nejma was happy to have company.
But floods seem to follow us everywhere we go:

And then came a major snowstorm that kept the children out of school (though people living in the annex went to school and built a communal igloo!):
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We liked the snow better when it was dry and bright and buildable.

IMG_1944  IMG_1941

Aziz brought us a puppy he found by the side of the road.  He stayed for a few days and Jeremy named him Malik.  He was covered in fleas and at first we kept him outside, but when the snow came, I relented and gave him a bath and brought him into the kitchen.  Thankfully, Fatima’s father eventually gave him a home on his farm.P1020172

We confirmed that the storks do indeed overwinter in Ifrane.  By February, they were clacking their beaks and thinking about spring.

Jeremy became fascinated with polar animals:
Zoe finally beat me out, height-wise:
We experimented with the shapes from my Art of Islamic Pattern course:
And Fatima fed us and tried to teach us about beldi foods (like beldi lemons, much better than the modern, foreign, romani kind).

In the meantime, I prepared and taught four digital storytelling workshops at Al Akhawayn, James started teaching his own systems design course, and the children powered on at school.


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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Faced with another day of rain in Tangier, we decided to head over to Tetouan.  James had been reluctant to wrestle our way through city traffic, and in fact we got lost and found ourselves accidentally driving through the high-rent neighborhoods of Tangier, which was interesting in and of itself.

But Tetouan was (relatively) sunny, despite being surrounded by dark clouds on all sides!  We were quite taken by the mingling of practical equipment and tourism, even outside of the medina.

The city seemed small but purposeful, thriving in many ways.

As we entered the medina, a man named Abdelmalik struck up a conversation with James.  He was a teacher, he said, and wanted to practice his English.  In exchange for the opportunity to speak English, he’d be glad to show us around the medina.  James hesitated, then said yes, much to Zoë’s dismay.  She has a much more finely tuned sense of a scam than her father does.

But Abdelmalik did indeed show us many highlights of the Tetouan medina, albeit at a faster pace than we might have set for ourselves.
P1010942 P1010939I wonder why Moroccans always assume foreigners will want to visit the Jewish cemetery?  It’s picturesque, but we never know quite what to do there.

We liked the white and green of the medina: the color scheme Chefchaouen used to have before it turned blue…
And James liked watching the men paint the door to the mosque: a sign of daily life.

The charcoal produced by slow-burning the wood in forests outside the city was packed in bags closed up with vines.

Abdelmalik led us up through a carpet shop to look at the view over the rooftop.  We only had to spend 15 minutes looking at carpets in exchange, and we warned young Youssef that we wouldn’t buy anything.  He didn’t seem too upset about this.P1010960 P1010964

Down the stairs into the medina again, and Abdelmalik suddenly turned a corner to present us with Tetouan’s small tannery.  This was James and the children’s first experience of  a tannery and it seemed a smaller, gentler place than the Chouwara tannery in Fez.

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In a side room, men use the half-moon knives to strip the hair from hides.P1010951

In a pool near the exit, this man did the same with a skin under water.  It’s amazing to see the hair peel right off.
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I was interested to see the sand and lime used in traditional building for sale in the medina, just past the carpenter’s souq.  The white stones inside the doorway are blocks of lime.
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As we wandered through the medina, Abdelmalik had begun saying things like, “Allah will repay me for my time,” and mentioning the desirability of a glass of tea.  We decided we needed to feed the children, so we left the medina, leaving Abdelmalik with a little money for tea.  Finding a place with vegetarian food to eat was a bit of a challenge: Zoë was tired and nauseous.  We ended up walking quite a distance and then eating bad pizza, much to Jeremy’s delight.  He spent half the lunch time wandering down to the kitchen area and chatting and smiling at people.  Some Brits sat at the table behind us: they had retired to the shore near Tetouan some six years ago, and were very happy living in Morocco, despite the fact that they had little language for navigating the country.  I find this baffling.

After lunch, we took a brief look at the weekly souq, but we were put off by another, more insistent “teacher wanting to practice his English” who wouldn’t leave us alone, so we…

went to the archeology museum, with its collection of mosaics from Lixus.
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I was struck by how different these mosaics were to zellij–human versus geometric forms, carefully cut geometric shapes versus a broader range of building blocks–despite the fact that they share so many principles.
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Jeremy was particularly interested in the skull with the spike in it.  Warfare was rough in those days…

Then, when you went to your beloved’s funeral, there were special containers to catch and preserve your tears.  Lacrimatoires: talk about emotional exhibitionism.P1010980

For his part, James was fascinated by this model of M’Soura, a stone age burial site.  We decided we’d have to check it out on our way down the coast.  Roman Morocco.P1010972 IMG_1920

We were all amazed by the cave drawing by the front door.  It doesn’t belong here.  But this was the first museum in Morocco, and so when a Spanish general went driving around the south, in French Morocco, and he saw this carving, he picked it up and brought it back to Tetouan, presumably for the greater glory of Spain.

Finally, gelato all around made the drive back to Tangier all the sweeter.IMG_1924


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.
P1010821 P1010822

(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!


It’s all about the ramparts.  The waves breaking on the rocks just beyond, the rows of sombre cannons facing the sea
P1010476(even if the only thing left to aim at is a stray seagull).
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The fabled isle of Mogador lies just offshore, amid the crashing waves, on the far side of the smaller Iles purpuraires (the purple islands): this one with the fort is Dzira Sghira; it was disarmed by the French when they bombarded the town in 1844.
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The Phoenicians established some trading posts on Mogador, or the iles purpuraires, back in 1100 BCE (Amazigh tribes had been fishing in the bay for a couple of thousand years before that).  In about 600 BCE, the Phoenicians established the settlement of Migdal, or watchtower, on the island now known as Mogador.  Then, in 500 BCE, Hanno the Carthaginian visited Mogador and established the trading post of Arambys.

Starting in 25 BCE and lasting until about 300 CE/AD, Juba II established a Tyrian purple factory, processing murex and purpurae shells found in the intertidal pools between Mogador and the mainland
into precious purple dyes used to color imperial Roman senatorial togas.  (Tyre is a city in Lebanon where these dyes were also produced.)  Tyrian purple was valued in part because the color was supposed to improve rather than fading with age.

Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans: oh my!

I want to go find a tidal pool, but this seems challenging.  In the meantime, James chooses a cannon, ready to repel an attack from the sea,

and we encounter our Ifrani friends, the Dye family.
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Jeremy, Zoe, and I climb the tower to peer down on things from above.  Beware incoming seagull!P1010600

The town was known as Mogador until Mohamed III had it rebuilt by French and Genoese architects and builders and renamed it Essaouira (little fortress souira, or well-drawn picture souera).  The name Mogador may come from Migdal, or from the saint Sidi Mogdoul whose shrine is here (he was reputedly a Scot–MacDougal–shipwrecked on the coast, and endowed with baraka).  The French changed the name back to Mogador, but independence brought a return to Essaouira.

Baraka Mohamed: maybe some of it will rub off on us.

Jem and Zoe pose in the circle close to the entry to the ramparts.P1010606 P1010608

But it looks a little different from the other side, in the evening light.

That’s one of the interesting things about Essaouira: it’s both a tourist center and (still) a fishing village, even though the fishing industry has suffered in recent years.

As tourists, we enjoy the wandering musicians (whose music Zoë hopes to share),
P1010614 P1010613and we go horseback riding on the beach in the afternoon.

I like talking with our guide, Brahim.  He sits on his horse so comfortably, kicking a leg over now and again: half the time, it looks  little like he’s lounging on a sofa.P1010621

“Were you a jockey?” I ask.  He’s got the physique and the professional comfort level.  Brahim nods.
“Did you get hurt?”  He nods again.  It’s a stupid question.  All jockeys get hurt.
“Break some bones?” Nod.  Enough already, Betsy.  It’s like picking at a scab–I can’t quite stop–but at least I can stop with the personal questions.Brahim
photo Zouina cheval

“Where is there racing in Morocco?”
Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca, Tangia: all the major cities.  The responsibility for organizing the year’s racing rotates among the cities, so each one takes a turn.  Ibrahim rode for an owner with a large stable–nine jockeys.  But then the owner married a French woman, moved to France, and sold all his horses.  Ibrahim was a little unsure what to do next.  He came to Essaouira to meet a friend at the Gnawa music festival–he’s also a musician, in his spare time–and he discovered Zouina Cheval was in need of a manager.  He and the boy leading Jeremy run the stable, just the two of them.  Ibrahim likes it better than being a jockey–likes talking with the tourists, meeting people from all over the world.  He has a wonderful face, with wise eyes.
brahim photo Zouina cheval
Brahim only worries when the riders are a mixed group, like us.  “Your son is doing well, but sometimes the children cry.  I worry they won’t be happy.”

We too were worried that Jeremy would be unhappy–but now I only worry for the young man leading Jeremy.  Jeremy is as happy as can be–and demanding as well.  “Vite! Vite!  Ma mère a dit wakha, c’est bon.”  Jeremy mingles French and Darija like a Moroccan.  “Fast, fast!  My mom said it’s ok, it’s good.”  The young trainer gets his boots splashed by a sudden wave, and runs up the sand.  Jeremy laughs and laughs: “Encore! Dans la mer! Encore!”  Again! In the sea! Again!
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Nancy and Jeff look very professional–Nancy says it’s her first time “running” a horse.  She did beautifully.

J and Zoë and I splash through the surf with Mogador in the background.  Visible on the island are the mosque and a women’s prison, now defunct, originally built by Moulay Abdelaziz in 1897 to lock up rebellious member of the Rhamnna tribe.

Here are two photos of the prison from (a great resource): first, “Berber prisoners” sent to this prison by Moulay Abdelaziz, 

and then a view of the four gates constituting the only way in or out of the prison.  island_prison_2_h300
The structure had no roof.  Prisoners evidently had to take the rain or sun as it came.

By contrast, this sunny, breezy afternoon on the beach feels like such a luxury–as indeed it is.  It turns out that we’re in Essaouira during the non-windy time: the wind blows constantly from April through September.  Brahim tells tall tales, of the village down the coast where every house has two doors.  All summer, the wind blows from the north and villagers use the southern door.  All winter, the wind blows from the south, and villagers use their northern doors.  (The town now hosts a wind farm, so there’s definitely an abundance of  wind.)

After our ride, we head back to Essaouira, which is gleaming in the evening light.  The juice sellers here decorate their stands with what strike me as orange “scalps” (sorry):
And the fishermen are hard at work, preparing their sun-bronzed boats for the next day or week or month:


À vendre: for sale.  Fishing boat, anyone?  Or shall we settle for supper in a bag on a bike?

At evening, the seafront is full of hidden corners,P1010709

And the sunset heightens the magic of the iles purpuraires:
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Christmas in Imlil and the mountains

Despite Jeremy’s worries, Santa managed to find his way to Imlil on Christmas eve.  Jeremy woke and was sad not to see any presents, but when he went back to the foot of his bed, he felt something that rustled! Like wrapping paper!  (Wrapping paper is not exactly prevalent in Morocco. Thanks, Jeff.)  And the definition of Christmas morning delight was that the whole bed was covered in wrapping paper–which we then popped into the fire at breakfast.  Best of all was the fact that Santa had brought Jeremy things his parents had refused to get him: a “magic” lipstick that starts out green and turns red, a toy that shoots up into the sky on a rubber band, and a variety of scarves.
Jeremy went to town with that magic lipstick.  Luckily, Zoe reminded us in the nick of time that the magic lipstick worked because it included henna, which might last significantly longer than 24 hours–we scrubbed his face, but his arms remained pink for several days.

The room came with some djellabas, presumably on loan against the cold (and it was cold!): we dressed up for a family Christmas photo:
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Zoë looked the best in her get-up, though:

After breakfast, we packed up, and then went out to the road, where a mule and muleteer were waiting for us.  Jeremy was very nervous about getting on the mule to start with, but soon he was having a blast:

And when Zoë’s asthma started to kick in up the steepest ascent, she caught a little ride too.  Think about Mary on that road to Jerusalem.  Or maybe not.  Peekaboo!

Family Christmas portrait number 2:
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The mountains were beautiful, and the mule meant that we were all having a great time on this hike.  Jeremy got to feel very independent and strong…
and we all enjoyed the cloud-scapes
P1010370the patchwork hills
P1010389the clever terracing of the hills and towns (OK, maybe that was just me enjoying it for all of us).

We had hoped to find deep snow here, to answer Zoë’s longings, but this was the closest we came, really.

The second half of the path led through a “forest” full of fruit and nut trees and carefully dug irrigation channels (I’ll spare you the details just this once).  I want to come back and see it all in blossom in the springtime (insh’allah).
We were sad when we reached the end of our trail, but at the same time, we were ready to get on the road to Essaouira, to meet up again with Jeff and Nancy.

Bonus point if you can find the goat below in less than five seconds:
They’re everywhere, really.  As are vibrant colors and designs.


James took a brave back road to Essaouira, taking us past another massive dam and reservoir
and along the side of this carefully cultivated wash, or dry river bed.  Farmers must have to brace themselves against the likelihood of disaster if the rains ever come in earnest.
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Ironically, the worst of the road was not the part marked as a possible piste through the mountains, but the heavily traveled road not quite wide enough for two cars.  Too many games of chicken were played that sunny afternoon.  At least the road was swept for us.


Centuries of olive oil

We had stopped by La clé de huile the afternoon we arrived in Ourika, but it was closed.  A housekeeper came out to tell us the boss was in Marrakesh but would be back tomorrow, so we said we’d come by about 10 a.m. We arrived to find the gate once again closed, but we banged on the door and eventually a man came out.  “No,” he said, “the museum is closed.” “Dommage,” said James: polite French for “Bummer.”  He points out, gently that we came yesterday and were told it would be open this morning. “Ah, oui,” says the man.  “Elle m’a dit.”  The housekeeper told me.  You can come in. He swung open the gates and let us in, not only to the museum, but to his day, a small slice of his life. We started in the museum, full of informative posters about the history of olive oil production, both in Morocco and around the world: P1010155 P1010159 There was also an old Roman-era grinding stone, P1010186 plus an example of an ancient oil press, with technology even more “beldi” or traditional than what we saw outside Demnate: P1010190 And here you can see a little more clearly the bags that are filled with crushed olives in order to be pressed: P1010187 The metal press (outside Demnate) certainly seemed easier and less dangerous to run! But the museum was just the beginning.  We went out into the olive grove, to see people harvesting the olives with a hydraulic rake: P1010191 The yellow battery pack will run for the best part of a day; the prongs of the rake swing back and forth, shaking olives out of the trees.  People on the ground gather up the fallen olives: P1010192 P1010197 Under trees that have already been harvested, a small group of women gather up individual olives, gleaning in a traditional way. P1010199 The workers are paid 20 dirhams–about $2.50–per container of olives.  This is a little over the odds: our host didn’t want any trouble or argumentation over hours or labor.  (Nancy points out that this is also more than the minimum cash wage for tip employees in the U.S.) Nancy asks about pests and spraying, and indeed the trees are sprayed twice a year, first to prevent the growth of a particular fungus, Verticillium wilt, and then to limit the attacks of the  olive fly. Abdelhaq manages La Clé des Huiles for a French patron: a lawyer who has been involved in politics on a national scale, associated somehow with a prominent lawyer who recently committed suicide.  The patron had originally planned a large retreat center, where everything would be available on-site.  There are separate houses and apartments dotted about the property, a swimming pool, a massive professional kitchen and dining hall.  The place is beautiful: as we walk around the property, we can imagine how fabulous it would be to stay here.  But everything is shut, in limbo.  The aging patron, focused on his own troubles in France, wanted to fire all the workmen in the middle of Ramadan two summers ago.  Abdelhaq told him he could not do that–it would be unethical.  He tried to broker an agreement by which the 18 workmen would each work one-third time for the month of Ramadan so that everyone could have at least enough to support their families, but the workmen refused and all went on strike together.  What a misery, to be attacked on all sides.  The owner has now passed decision-making power to his son, who wants to sell the property.  Our friend was hoping that a friend of this son would help him negotiate a means of taking the property forward. P1010203 After our tour, we pulled up chairs in the courtyard of the living and office space, moved the buckets of olives off the table, and feasted on mint tea, olives, beldi olive oil, and warm fresh bread. We tried to offer Abdelhaq at least the listed admission fee for the museum, but he would have none of it.  We asked to see his store, up on the main road, where we tried to buy enough products to compensate in some small way for the time he had spent with us–and he kept knocking down the price as a gesture of friendship.  He set us on the road again, loaded with special honey, preserves, limited edition olive oil–and a plastic water bottle filled with fresh beldi olive oil.  We think of Abdelhaq every day as we dip our crusty bread in that delicious, warming, filling fare. P1020308

Ourika and saffron

P1010138Driving the back road between Demnate and Ourika, we have these wonderful views of snow dusting the high Atlas, with green fields and harvested fields alternating below.

The main road of Ourika is a bit of a come down: it feels a little like an American strip mall, with hotels, restaurants, shops and workshops all stretched unendingly along the road.  It’s hard to see how a saffron growing center or an olive oil museum would fit in here.

In fact, the saffron center is about a kilometer down a side road, with another turning off that road.  Suddenly we’re pulling up in front of a gate that seems to have no space for visitors.  We park and open the gate and find ourselves in something like a secret garden.

December is high tangerine season, and these trees are loaded with fruit.  The evening sun picks out each “golden apple of the sun,” supposedly the fruit of Hesperides’ mythical garden.

Pathways lined with rosemary or lavender keep the evening air sweet, and provide a secondary harvest, with herbs drying on racks behind the main display center.

James, resister of goats, is the first to spot this small herd on the other side of the path:
P1010144 P1010148More permaculture! Multiple layers of productivity, with livestock integrated into the growing cycle: eating pruned tree branches, contributing manure to the fields.

But we are here to see the saffron: first the small display fields at the front:

Not much to look at now, but imagine this field in early fall, with the saffron in flower:

 (web catch of a field in Taliouine, Morocco)

Even near the children’s school, October crocuses spring up in the fall:

The owner of this land is a medical man based in Casablanca, who has managed to grow truffles on about ten acres outside Immouzer Kandahar, near Ifrane.  Mohamed Amine manages this property for him, and has a part to play in the truffle farming as well.  We hope to meet up with him in Ifrane or Immouzer sometime this winter.P1010150

In the meantime, Nancy is going to try growing saffron in her garden in southern California, so Amine digs up a few bulbs to send home with her.  (Will they get past the airport sniffer dogs?)