PART 4: THE RUINS OF VOLUBILIS
A dusty trail took us to the ghost city of Volubilis, whose majesty still commanded attention 1,972 years after Emperor Claudius built his farthest Roman outpost. Our guide walked ahead barely sharing the enormity before us. The mosaic floors, now faded to pink and black revealed the talents of both Roman and Berber artisans; sea creatures still life-like, gods and goddesses still beautiful. Mighty pillars loomed on the expanse, thumbing their noses at time and the elements. One column caught my eye. At its top was a huge nest; big enough to cover my chimney at home. Were there pterodactyls in ancient Morocco?
“What bird made that?” I asked our guide. It was as if I had awakened him from a long sleep. His weather-worn face brightened as he answered, “that’s a stork’s nest.”
I realized I had never considered storks nested or that, since they did, they would make homes the size of monster truck tires. I would have been content to continue on the Moroccan Appian Way, but my guide had found a topic that touched his heart. “I saw a black stork once…just once. It flew from there to here and I saw it. It’ll never happen again-the black ones are rare.”
“I saw a black squirrel on a walk near my home,” I joined in.
He asked if that was rare too. I answered that I had never seen one before, but later learned that they are abundant in other parts of NY. It was all the connection we needed to chat about animals while exploring the ruins. After pointing out the sign of the cross on an ancient signpost that proved Romans were still in Morocco after the fall of their empire, he reached down and picked up a small pink mosaic tile. “Here, take it home.”
I stared back for a moment before allowing him to drop it into my palm. I have been to many historic sites on my travels, but was never given a relic. At home, I can’t visit a park without passing a sign forbidding the removal of anything except my own trash. Later, when he gave me a black tile, I pictured policemen dragging me out of the Air Maroc terminal. I kept them anyway.
Our guide led us through the remains of a street where Roman shopkeepers sold olives and cactus silk before rushing ahead to a stone sarcophagus. He sat, crossed one painfully thin leg over the other and lit his cigarette. “Where do you think we are now?” His sly grin displayed more gaps than teeth. HJ ventured a guess, “the baths?”
“No!” His answer expressed his enthusiasm. He exhaled a plume of smoke and stepped off the stone. “This is the brothel! Funny, no?”
HJ and I snapped photos. We didn’t need to. That phallic carving is pictured on every travel website, startling or amusing contemporary explorers.
We ended the tour with a tip for the guide and a quick stop at the ladies’ room. The majestic baths of Volubilis were shaken from our thoughts as a man with grimy hands and dirt encrusted fingernails held out a toilet paper roll at the ladies’ room door. He tore off three sheets for me (which I flushed away) then held out his hand for my 20 dirham tip.
Back in the Range Rover, with my purloined Roman artifacts hidden in my wallet, I realized that the Ancient Romans came to Morocco for the same reasons I did; fertile lands producing an abundance of delicious foods, sun-filled days, sparkling water from the Atlas Mountains and Berber artisans.
Like the Romans, my time in Morocco would end, but my appreciation would linger.