Our first morning in Fes began with a roof top breakfast of fresh fruit, homemade bread, French toast and boiled eggs with the most aromatic spices I have ever come across– who would have thought that cumin went so well with boiled eggs! It seemed strange to be going to see Roman ruins in Morocco and yet just after breakfast there was Reda, our driver from the previous day waiting to take us to see Volubilis – a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Roman ruins from 3 BC. Reda turned out to be our almost constant companion during our three days in Fes. Having studied psychology, English and philosophy at college as well as being a proud Fesi, with great knowledge of and love for his home place we could not have asked for a better guide.
Along the route to Volubilis he stopped to show us a reservoir recently built in the valley (so recently that those following google maps are often surprised to find their road abruptly turning into a blue mass of water) It has been a very dry winter season here in Fes and while, when the dam was created those living alongside it were moved further away because it in fact comes right up to the old houses when full, it was currently so empty that not only were a couple locals fishing in it but farmers had taken the opportunity to grow a couple of small crops in the rich soil. We stood on a ridge looking down onto this little oasis of blue and green for a while – nearby sat a couple of gentlemen selling almonds – Reda shared some of his previously purchased almonds with us. These have flavour! Unfortunately for me, for the first time in my life I could taste the marzipan flavour within the almond. Yuck. However I was content enough out here in vast nothingness it was peaceful bar the occasional car passing.
We continued our journey and came to a tiny farming village, I’m not sure what its name actually is but I will certainly remember it as the Stork Village – Huge stork nests adorned roofs, chimneys, electricity poles and road signs.
The main road was packed with donkeys, dogs, cats and people. Apparently Wednesday is market day and everyone comes here to trade and buy. The little café on the side selling coffee was the equivalent of the local Facetime spot. Locals catching up on gossip, negotiating prices, commiserating over bad crops. We took photos of the nests and then glanced enviously at Reda when he returned from a packed old café bearing an espresso. He encouraged us to go grab one for ourselves, we wandered over and stopped – I don’t believe I have ever seen so many people, men only, packed onto a patio in my life. In the dim interior there were even more people – although there were one or two chairs free no tables were and, unsure of the etiquette Pierre and I hovered uncertainly till Reda returned to grab a couple of free chairs which were happily handed over. We sat sipping strong hot espresso among the gaggle of men. When I closed my eyes their chatter reminded me of the chatter of the birds overhead who hang beneath the large crows nests like cheeky subletters. Reda told me not to mind, “if they stare,” he said, “they mean no harm, they are only curious and trying to imagine what your life is like” I could reply honestly that I truly felt no animosity or threat in their glance, far from it, I was keen not to offend them! I have been treated with nothing but friendliness and respect by the local men.
The Roman ruins at Volubilis date from 3rd century BC– why the Romans abandoned it in 11th century AD is still unknown. The Roman word Volubilis refers to the Morning Glory that apparently bloom there in profusion even though they are not in bloom when we are there. The Arabic word for the areas, Walele refers to the many Oleander bushes which we do indeed see many of. Whereas in Pompeii drainage and sanitation were arranged so that effluence flowed downhill and ones status in society was reflected in how far uphill or downhill one lived with the most important living at the top. While Fes and its surrounds are quite mountainous Volubilis is set in an area of flat green plains and here, unlike Pompeii the wealthy and poor were separated by the main road running through it. Needless to say the poorer side was on the side from which invaders might approach.
Also whereas in Pompei the route to the brothels were boldly marked with phallic symbols here we see no such markings and our guide tells us that the brothels were built next to the library with a tunnel connecting them …”just going to the library dear” I am unsure if this is true or his own private joke though it makes for a funny story. He points out the many carob trees and tells us how they would use the seeds from the carob to weigh gold – hence carat. Some other trivial pursuit information I learnt (and vaguely recall hearing something similar at Pompeii) was that the width of our railroad tracks is identical to the width of the Roman carriages 134 cm.
An hour or so spent looking at the ruins, and, surprisingly well preserved mosaics reflecting mythology and daily life in Volubilis I am left with two thoughts – Firstly I am reminded once again how much the Roman empire contributed to current civilisation and how, no matter how powerful or rich an Empire may be….eventually all fall and over time are reclaimed by time and nature …it would do serve some of our modern super powers well to remember that. An old poem from school echoes through my mind….
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Leaving the Volubilis behind us we travel to the very special city of Moulay Idriss