Saturday, November 08, 2014

Roman Cities in Morocco: Lixus

It's off the beaten tourist track, with a makeshift entrance and little infrastructure. But the ancient Roman city of Lixus, near the northern Moroccan seaport of Larache, is well worth a visit. Suzanna Clarke reports for The View from Fez

On a day trip from Assilah in northern Morocco, we made our way to Lixus, 35 kilometres away. I had visions of ticket collections and the usual posse of guides hanging around the entrance, as they do at that other well-known Roman site, Volubilis. Perhaps even a small cafe?

However, Lixus is a site in waiting. The entrance is a "provisional" one, and isn't easy to find, and there is no ticket collection or other infrastructure. Once a thriving city stretching over 75 hectares, nowadays the entrance to Lixus is a gap through an unfinished wall, and a planned visitor centre looks impressive, but work on it ceased prior to completion, more than two years ago.

The remains of the fish processing area, where the fish paste "garum" was made

We were the only visitors to Lixus that morning, and a cheerful security guard offered to show us around. His grandfather had been a guardian of the site, as had his father, he told us.

First stop on the tour were the remains of more than 150 pools and the processing areas used for a fish factory, which used to make "garum", a strong fish paste. Fish were laid out and covered with salt in order to make the paste, which was then shipped to other parts of the Roman Empire.

We turned and began to wind up the hill, following an ancient roadway. Settled by that sea-faring culture, the Phoenicians, in the 7th century BC, Lixus was later annexed by Carthage - and became one of a string of Phoenician/Carthaginian settlements along the Atlantic coast, which included Chellah (now in modern Rabat, and then called Sala Colonia by the Romans) and Mogador (now Essaouira). Further inland was the better known city of Volubilis. When Carthage fell to Ancient Rome, Lixus, Chellah, Mogador and Volubilis became imperial outposts of the Roman province Mauretania Tingitana. It flourished during the reign of Emperor Claudius 1, from AD 41 - 54.

The Roman amphitheatre

Only an estimated 20% of Lixus has been excavated, so it's possible a wealth of ancient mosaics and other significant artefacts lie beneath. Active excavation did take place between 1948 and 1969. Then, after an international conference in 1989, which many scientists, historians and archaeologists participated, the site was partly enclosed in order to undertake a study of the mosaics. One of these represented Poseidon – the Greek god of the sea, horses and earthquakes. The mosaics and even a mask of Hercules, found in a temple, have been moved to museums in Rabat and Tetouan. In 1995, Lixus was put on the World Heritage register.

As we rounded the hill, to our right was a breathtaking sight - an ancient amphitheatre, one of the few in north Africa and the only known one in Morocco. In the middle is a large mosaic of Poseidon, which has been covered over with dirt to preserve it. Here gladiators and animals such as lions would have fought and plays would have been performed. Behind that are the remains of a public bath-house. The changing rooms, pools and ovens to heat the water are still visible.

The remains of houses where the wealthiest citizens lived
In typical Roman (and later Islamic) style, houses were centred around courtyards

A little further on, with a magnificent view of the river Loukkas and the estuary, are the remains of the houses where the wealthiest citizens lived - those highly ranked in the army. Like Volubilis, the remains of the walls show that the house design was typically Roman, with rooms grouped off a courtyard.

Life, I imagined, would have been more than tolerable if you were in the upper classes. Attractive houses with wonderful views, a sizeable town which produced and traded good food, and for entertainment, plays and gladiatorial combat at the amphitheatre.

Visitors, too, would undoubtedly have made their way there. The name Lixus was mentioned by ancient writers such as Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer who was active around 450 BC. and the Geographer of Ravenna. It is also confirmed by the legend on its coins and by an inscription. The ancients believed this to be the site of the Garden of the Hesperides and of a sanctuary of Hercules, where Hercules gathered gold apples. It's more ancient than the one at Cadiz in Spain.

The restored Roman armoury

 In the third century Lixus become nearly fully Christian and there are ruins of a Paleo-Christian church overlooking the archeological area. However, the city was badly damaged during the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 5th century. Some Arabs and Berbers continued to live there until a century later, as can be seen by the remains of a mosque and a house with a patio with walls covered in painted stucco. The final demise of the city came about in 1300 AC because of a mosquito problem and a drought. Whether there was an outbreak of malaria can only be speculated.

The Roman forum has been partially restored
Some of the columns were vandalised a month ago

Following the path leads to a restored armoury, and the remains of a watch tower. And down beyond, is what used to be a Roman forum. This has been partially restored. Last month, unfortunately, vandals broke in and stole some of the columns and pushed over others.

It's clear there is a desire from the government for Lixus to fulfil its potential. The new visitors's centre, by a Belgian architect, is stylish and well designed. Complete with electricity and water, it looks ready to go - it just needs the finishing touches.

It will contain a small museum, restoration areas for trained archeologists and offices for management, as well as a contemporary cafe with a wonderful view out over the the river and Larache. But it's been more than two years since work stopped.

It's to be hoped that the money can be found to complete the project. With a modest injection of funds, Lixus could easily compete with Volubilis as a popular site for tourists - whose revenue would in turn help fund continuing exploration and restoration of the site, and increased employment in the local area. It's a magic place - so make the effort to visit it.

Words and photos: Suzanna Clarke

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