We stand atop a tumulus, surveyors of the world beneath us.
There are lush verdant fields on all sides and the ruins of Rome at our feet. (There is also a waste bin, brimming with discarded soft drink bottles.)
Behind us in the distance is the mountain of Zerhoun – and on it, the city of Moulay Idriss, outlines of white buildings.
It is springtime in Morocco. The sun is shining, the weather is sweet. After several days spent confined within the claustrophobic Medinas filled with bustling, teeming, overwhelming life, this, here, serves as a reminder of the grandeur of all that surrounds us, rendering all of us worthless, and also of our worth to each other – for if there weren’t the Medinas, what would we do in these unending, lonely landscapes by ourselves?
That Unconventional “Dope Spot”
Volubilis and Moulay Idriss are not on the conventional list of destinations in Morocco but we have found place for it in our itinerary – at the cost of Marrakech even – for a friend has recommended it highly, variously describing it as “Badass Roman ruins”, “Dope spot” and better than a bunch of Marrakech “thingamajigs”.
We do not regret the decision. The ruins of Volubilis are one of the most striking sites of archaeological excavation I have seen, preserved as well as it is in the middle of this stunning landscape. I recall walking through the ruins of Pompeii – the Vesuvius looming above – an experience equally intimidating, but not as immersive, for there are always people and voices and laughter getting in the way.
Here, there are only a handful of other people and ample space to not get in each others’ way.
We walk among the remains of houses and streets and arches, overgrown with weeds and wild flowers that flutter in the breeze. The Triumphal Arch is the first towering structure we reach. It was built as one of two main entrances into the city. The inscriptions on it, I later learn, are in the Phoenician Alphabet – which, they say, is the oldest verifiable alphabet. The two other structures that rival the Arch’s stature are visible from here – the Basilica and the Capitoline Temple. They are the best preserved (and partially restored) remnants of the town. The columns of the Temple stand erect and proud, without a roof to support.
Atop one column, an enormous vulture has made a nest. It never moves.
Further on, are the residential buildings, ravaged and unworthy of restoration. Their walls rarely rise above our knees, in uneven peaks and troughs, like skyscrapers in a miniature town. A few walls rise higher, framing windows within them that now peer outwards on either side. The houses of some of the wealthy have magnificent mosaic floors, with intricately carved patterns and figures that even retain some colour. I doubt if they had in mind an audience separated by thousands of years from them when they built their homes – but here they are, simple floors of wealthy men now turned into history.
I visualise those moments now, moving slowly through the houses as if levitated over the scene like the long-dead spirits that lived in them.
A Place Frozen in Time
We spot panels installed at various points to provide context to what we see, but they are in Arabic and French and Spanish – none of which are known to us. What we learn, we learn later, from the internet.
The Romans took Volubilis after the fall of Carthage and held it for a few hundred years thereafter. It then fell to the Berber tribes and finally to the Arabs, under the rule of Moulay Idriss I, the founder of Modern Morocco and a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. Through all this, Volubilis survived tenaciously, but then fell from grace when the capital shifted to Fes – but even then it remained intact, like a ghost town, destined to quietly fade away, until it disintegrated abruptly during the Great Lisbon earthquake of the 1700s.
Though the specifics of its history are fascinating, it is also true that the essence of the story lies in how generic all of this really is. It is the same story, and it repeats infinitely, in different eras and with different faces and different names. In every ruined city, there is that lesson to learn and then forget.
We return to Moulay Idriss in the evening as we had come, covering the four kilometres on foot, through winding paths and abrupt turns and dazzling views and the smells of spring, the sun near the horizon.
There are no sounds, except the chirps of birds and the buzz of insects and of our boots crunching twigs and loose gravel. Here, between two towns, between two times, and past and future wars, there is peace.
(Kushal is a Bengali, brought up in Ahmedabad, and earning his daily bread in Mumbai. He travels and writes when he finds time away from selling SIM cards. He has also published for The Mint and rediff.com)