This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

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Thomas Reilly

British Ambassador to Morocco and Mauritania

Part of UK in Morocco

8th October 2018 Morocco, Rabat

A Journey into Morocco’s Roman History

It is at once an immense honour and a surreal experience being an Ambassador.  Sometimes, you have to pinch yourself to remember that it is all real.  And last month began with one of those moments: a visit to which I had been looking forward for some time.

Dame Mary Beard and her equally erudite and charming Husband, Professor Robin Cormack came to visit.  Dame Mary is one of the UK’s (and therefore the world’s) foremost experts on Roman history.  And she had come to poke around Morocco’s Roman remains to see whether we could establish a UK-Morocco cultural exchange programme based on that shared experience.  Dame Mary was doing some research as well for a potential TV show on Roman roads – ‘all roads lead to Rome’ – but it seems that in Morocco, the roads may actually have been rivers – the flood plains of the rivers cut across Morocco all the way to the Mountains, making normal roads all but impossible. That alone makes Morocco’s Roman history fairly unique in the region.

But before going off into the field, we went to visit the Archeology Museum in Rabat.  I had heard that it was not worth the visit: the reality could not be more different.  It is an absolutely wonderful museum, with the most beautiful bronze and marble statues from Roman sites across Morocco.  The centre piece were two bronze heads of Juba and Cato from Volubilis, which would have graced any Roman exhibition anywhere in the world.

And of course, I was duty-bound to escort Dame Mary to visit Volubilis and Lixus: I love Roman remains.  But being able to spend time with such extraordinary experts such as Dame Mary and Professor Cormack at these wonderful sites, whilst being able to legitimately claim it was all about work was a huge privilege and a real pleasure, as well as a wonderful education.

Volubilis was as brilliant as I remember it.  For those of you who have not yet been, it is definitely worth a visit. Although the site is not on the top of a hill, it nonetheless dominates the surrounding countryside, with endless views out across the plains over scenery which hasn’t changed much since the Romans sat in their fine dining rooms and gazed out (although, apparently, the Romans didn’t go in much for views – they preferred their internal courtyards and gardens).  I like to wander round Roman sites and put my hand on the stones and imagine what stories they could tell if they could talk…

And there are plenty of stones at Volubilis.  The Romans built on more than 60 hectares of land over the years – much of which is yet to be fully uncovered. Hard to tell, of course, what is original and what has been restored over the years, but what has been revealed is impressive. The normal Forum and Temple complex, an imposing triumphal arch as well as well-preserved houses, hypocausts and baths.  But the stand-out for me is the mosaics.  I have seen great mosaics in Jordan and in Syria, but nothing like those at Volubilis.  The colours are still eye-catching and the detail is impressive.  They are also astonishingly intact.  On their own they would make the visit worthwhile.

From Volubilis, we went for lunch in the historic town of Moulay Idriss.  I had heard so much about Moulay Idriss and yet had not found the time to visit it.  It is a little gem.  Largely untouched by the tourist hordes, it has retained its charm.  Green-washed walls, winding streets.  Narrow lanes where donkeys only could pass.  No motor-driven transport beyond the city walls.  Up we climbed.  Endless twisting, winding stairs.  Up steep slopes, with houses impossibly hanging above us.  Up to the very top of the town where a terrace opened out to a view over the town, which has grown up the opposite hill above the Mosque dedicated to the founder of modern Morocco.  It did not seem possible that such a profusion of houses could sprout upon the hill without pushing one another down the slope into the Mosque courtyard below.  Yet they did, somehow, manage to find space to put down their roots into the hill and hold firm.

We spent the night in Chefchaouen.  Since I have already written about that wonderful, mysterious blue town in a previous blog, I will not bore you with it again.  Other than to say if you have not already been, go.  It is a place to wander, to meander, to get lost.  To remember how to dream.  To spend time poking into one deep blue courtyard after another.  To imagine the histories and the intrigue these streets could share if, like the Roman stones in Volubilis, they could talk.  We watched the day end from the terrace of the new Clock Café, drinking fruit-juice cocktails and listening to a gnaoua band serenade the sinking sun. it was a magical end to a thoroughly enjoyable day.

The next day we travelled to Lixus, the only Roman acropolis in Morocco.  We drove out of the wonderful town of Larache, across the aimlessly meandering river Lukkos.  Past salt pans, which hadn’t changed for centuries, full of recently-flooded sea water from the high tide to the exciting entrance to the site.

Although less well-preserved than Volubilis, Lixus is still well-worth a visit. The old industrial quarter and the theatre are unique in their own way.  Somewhere down by the winding river there must be a lost port – excavating that would be quite something!  But the lasting memory for me is not reciting Julius Ceasar in the crumbling theatre, or wandering amongst the temple ruins, or wondering what the Romans who built Lixus and lived there must have thought or wished for, but the extraordinary view from the top of the hill.  Because of the steep sides of the hill, which rises from sea-level almost vertically to nearly 100 metres in height the Romans were obliged to bring in water to the hill-top town across a long-disappeared aqueduct. From the summit of the hill, Lixus affords the most wonderful 360 view of this part of Morocco, utterly dominating the surrounding area, encompassing sea, valley and river flood-plain – it was easy to see why using the rivers as roads would have been so tempting to the Romans.

The view and the extensive remains reminded me that the Romans were not just passers-through, but that, just as they did in the UK at the Northern boundary of their rambling empire, the Romans lived and thrived in Morocco for a couple of centuries at this Southern border.   And again, I was brought face to face with the reality that there is so much more that unites us than that divides us.

1 comment on “A Journey into Morocco’s Roman History

  1. What A great article !!
    Thomas Reilly is a man who works & travels tirelessly … Never heard or seen
    A man in his position doing what he does.
    He has done & Achieved a lot in his short period, He is the modern IBN BATTUTA !
    Great work!!

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