Volubilis. An ancient Roman site, spread out over a small valley in the center of Morocco that I was blessed to visit in March. This story is the first in a series on my Morocco adventures. Enjoy! ~AGA
Volubilis stretches its limbs and body over rocks and peach pit earth, a fading giant, with crevices of secrets. Grand slabs of quarried blue limestone, still thick with thumbprints, slide out in all directions, drawing my eyes and body into it, a time tunnel framed by blue sky and layers of wildflowers. The gate to the city stands solemn and heavy, as though the Romans who built this place wanted me to bow down upon entrance, weighted by the gods and kings that went before me.
I know little of Roman history, know little of the glory this place, know little of its failure. I am vulnerable to it, and I forget that I should be cautious. Cautious enough to listen to the wind, feel the sun, touch the stones. Cautious enough to pay attention to the stories that have been waiting for me here for more than a thousand years. Just like all grand ancient places, this place was the site of famines, wars, campaigns, opulence, orgies, prayer, shrines, art, poverty. Yet it is so succinctly pristine, in such elegant crumbling decay, that I cannot help myself: my eyes feast upon the scene.
The city is built within a valley, a an ancient nest on grass so green it looks fake, like AstroTurf set out in huge rolls that has been allowed to grow. In between hills are Tuscan-like orchards of olive trees and citrus, trailed by lean lines of grapes, twisting around stakes of apricot wood.
Here is the shuffle of the legs of a beetle. Now breathe as the wind rustles through that drift of yellow mustard flowering. Wait, there is sound of laughter by the olive press, just there.. laughter and song, a girl singing.
The constant sound of stone chiseled and chipped. Here is the sound of the plow, scraping the earth. A wooden bowl beats a drumming sound.
There is the sound of water being poured into a tiled tub. Calendula blossoms being crushed with mint. The slap of wet rags being laid out to dry.
I open my eyes, and the sounds are gone. There are only ruins.
I am suddenly surrounded by an enormous group of tourists, wearing equally enormous sunhats and face masks, with rhinestone Hello Kitty sweatshirts and Gucci sunglasses. A few have latched onto a guide, eagerly buying badly printed postcards, Technicolor and blurred. Another group of tourists is coming towards us: women wearing black see through slip dresses over jean shorts and high heels with band aid colored pantyhose, their children on leashes attached to teddy bear backpacks.
Standing in the center of the main boulevard, I remain still, constant, faithful. The tourists are like a school of fish in ancient waters, moving to the right or the left, one body. I feel their scales as they swim past. A ripple of water.
I close my eyes.
A woman's voice, tight and shrill. "This is the main road to the place, but it doesn't go anywhere."
The guide speaks over her shrillness, his liquid voice rapidly stretching taut, almost breaking, like glue not quite dry. Ironically commanding. "Volubilis is named for the Berber word for Oleander, Oualili. You will now see all the Oleanders on the site."
The woman's voice, again, this time a sharp whine over a murmur of Japanese giggles and the sound of photos taken. Click. Click. Click. "Oleanders are poisonous. If I'd known there were so many around here, I wouldn't have brought the kids. Don't touch anything."
They walk past, voices fading, at last gone.
I open my eyes and walk past the grand mosaics, past the columns ailing and broken, into the drifts of pink Gaura flowers which hide an acre of broken olive presses, the workers' quarters.
I sit on broken chunk of limestone, and I realize it's not a random piece of stone but a bench, warmed by the sun, crawling with ants. Ants that are the ancestors of ants that were here in the 3rd century. Ants that were here when these hills were planted with Roman olive groves, and pressed in the press I now rest my feet on.
How different Volubilis is when one listens to it, notices it, breathes it in and out. Stops moving, stops looking, starts seeing, starts hearing.
Who is the voice of Volubilis?
Not me. Not that tourist in that enormous sunhat. Not that child littering candy wrappers, nor that man peeing in the corner, against that stone wall. No.
Nor is the voice of Volubilis in these arches, these columns, these structures to a greatness which was only temporary. I thought that it was those things when I arrived here, because that is what my culture still strives for: arches, columns, temporary greatness.
The real voice of Volubilis is a collective one: the lives lived in the past and the hum of life that is now being led.
Insects and flowers mixing with ancient song, forever.
Amy Gigi Alexander
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