A Tale of Two Cities in Ruins

The first time I saw Roman ruins was in...well, Rome. I had the wide-eyed gaze of a study abroad student, the kind of look that says everything is fascinating and new. This is ancient, I remember thinking, cruising through the Roman Forum, Colosseum, and at nearly every turn in that glorious city. The thought of those crumbling structures still intrigues me now, nearly a decade later. I have crossed the Atlantic several times since then and seen many other lands, but there's nothing quite like the remnants of a great civilization to move you through time.

One of our first days in Morocco brought again the same awe I felt in Rome, only this time I was in Rabat. We visited the Roman city of Sala Colonia and the old necropolis called Chellah, two historic sites in one. It's hard to adequately capture the beauty of any ancient place, but it's easy to picture life long ago if you use your imagination to reconstruct the ruins. That was no challenge here, with names like Jupiter Temple and Pool of the Nymph to guide you. 

Jonathan enjoying the exploring. 

At the Chellah, as it is locally known, you can walk among the old rooms and wander almost anywhere in the grounds, unlike many sites in Europe. Perhaps most intriguing about this place is its history. The Romans took over the area in 40 AD and remained for centuries. The place was later abandoned until the Merenid sultan Abou al-Hassan Ali built his necropolis there, thus the mix of Roman and Islamic architecture in one ancient place. We saw what was left of Roman baths as well as the tomb of sultan Abou al-Hassan Ali and his bride. Walking through the place, I often had the feeling I was being watched. And the culprits? Just a flock of storks, whose presence is considered a blessing if they nest on top of mosques. A sultan might be buried in the Chellah, but it was clear that the storks owned the place. The oddest site was a shallow man-made pool, home to an unknown number of eels lurking in the dark. Many still believe the pool holds the power to bring fertility and a easy childbirth if the woman feeds boiled eggs to the eels.

Storks nest in many places in the Chellah. 

This cat and many others roam the grounds. Behind, the eel pool offers believers a hope for fertility.

An unexpected and lush garden welcomes visitors. 

The other ancient city we visited, Volubilis, is about an hour and a half's drive from Rabat, but it offered as much to see as the Chellah. Named as the best preserved archaeological site in Morocco, Volubilis is also a Unesco World Heritage site. It was first settled in 3rd century BC by Carthaginian traders, and later became a remote Roman Empire outpost. As Romans tended to do, they abandoned Volubilis at around 280 AD thanks to the Berber (read: barbaric) tribes offering their show of force in the area.

 

The ruins of Volubilis. 

As a former student of Latin, I was happily surprised to learn that the mix of people there - Berber, Jew, Greek and Syrian - all spoke Latin until Islam came to the region hundreds of years later. Volubilis stood for centuries longer, though never regained its former Roman glory, and in 1755 the earthquake that rocked Lisbon and many other areas did its damage to Volubilis, too. Despite the years of destruction from man and nature alike, archaeologists uncovered some astonishingly well-preserved mosaics, the likes of which rival those in Pompeii. 

A well-preserved mosaic of Orpheus (center figure) and animals.

Reconstructed Roman arches show the marvel of their architectural skills.

The goddess Diana turns a man into a stag for watching her bathe.