Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Imagining Volubilis

Archeological sites fascinate me, providing fodder for daydreams and questions, so spending part of this weekend wandering around the historical site of the ancient city of Volubilis (outside Meknes, northern Morocco) was a joy. I moved from building to building, wondering, picturing. What must this place have been like?

Imagine a city from 5,000 years ago. Imagine it being home to the Phoenicians in the third century, then becoming a Carthaginian settlement. Imagine its conquer by Roman centurions, in the years when Rome was powerful. As the olives and agriculture of Volubilis furthered Rome's prosperity, the city flourished. Picture this triumphal arch 
and these mosaics, testaments to the beauty of this town. Imagine what they must have looked like, what the people walking past them sounded like, the sights these architectural remnants must have borne witness to.
Imagine the town's pride as it grew into a  city to be proud of, a city with baths and temples and beautiful things. Morocco was the edge of the Roman Empire, but what did that mean? Did Christianity spread here? Did Volubilis witness the early Christians and their struggles?

Picture the day when local tribesmen overtook Volubilis and won her for their own. What did that day look like? How did they fight - by stealth or by strength? Did they creep into the city under the cover of night, or did they run through the gates with proud cries? And the Romans, sitting in their temples and their mosaic-ed baths - did they know what was happening? How did they react? Picture the destruction and the pain, all for want of a city.

Now we imagine Volubilis' period of change, from a Latinized Christian community to an early Islamic settlement. Imagine that. A city that watched the beginnings of Christianity is now on the forefront of Islam's growth. Can you picture it? Can you picture the people, so different from the Romans who once walked the streets. What language is spoken now, as people visit the market and chat idly with their friends? What is worn, said, used, done in their daily lives? 

Imagine Volubilis as she grows in glory once more, until she is the seat of power for the founder of the Idrisid dynasty. She witnessed the beginning of Morocco, all those hundreds of years ago. She watched customs get formed and changed, languages develop and merge and grow. Can you imagine?

Then, again, the fall from grace to rubble as the seat of power transfers to the city of Fes. How would a city feel, when power is taken away for a reason she can't understand? When the whims of men decide her importance, never mind the thousands of years she has toiled to serve them and make them great. She is abandoned, her glory faded, her people moved away. Earthquakes and sun and looters take their toil, stripping her dignity as they strip her of the few valuables remaining. Her ruins now are amazing, but they pale in comparison to what must have been. 

Don't you wish you could have gone on that journey with her, from Phoenician to UNESCO Historical Site, from Christianity to Islam, from one language to another and ending with the variety you hear today, a true sign of a tourist site. She's seen so much, Volubilis has. Can you imagine?

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