Friday, January 06, 2006


It is January 2006. My husband Richard and I are in Morocco researching Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis. We have been staying at a B&B run by a Frenchwoman named Gentiane in Moulay Bousselham and have already had some adventures. Today is our big excursion to Volubilis.

On the way we stop at the Thursday Market at a crossroads near here. Families are coming from all over on horse or donkey drawn carts, or in shared taxi, or on foot. The market is huge, with different products being sold in different sections. In addition to the usual spices, sweets, shoes, sardines and bric-a-brac, we see barbers shaving their customers beneath little makeshift awnings.

The Festival of the Sheep is coming up, so lots of the things on sale are geared to that: bales of sweet yellow hay, a green clover-like fodder to feed the sheep; sharp knives to cut their throats next Wednesday; skewers and grills to cook the meat, and the sheep themselves. We see several men leading sheep on mere pieces of twine. There are lots of lambs about but the sheep for Wednesday must be full-grown rams because the festival commemorates the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, when God supplied a ram at the last minute. The rams cost between 800 and 3,000 dirhams; the equivalent of about 50 - 2500 pounds sterling.

At the market we buy a beautiful woven throw-rug for our room at Gentiane's house. The tile floor must be deliciously cool in summer but it is freezing here at night; I have not been so cold since the last time I went camping. The carpet, which cost about five pounds, will bring relief from the icy floor.

Back in the car, Gentiane drives us towards the mountains. We stop for a quick mint tea and break at Souk el Arba, a town whose name means 'Wednesday Market'. We pass more horse-carts and donkey-carriages going down a straight flat road lined with eucalyptus. Beyond lie orange groves, sugar cane and artichokes... Soon we begin to climb thorough hills fuzzed with wheat, making them look like the folds of a bright green plush blanket. We reach the site of Volubilis about two and a half hours after we set out. There are puffy clouds but no rain and by the time we have paid our entrance fee and found a guide to show us the mosaics, the sun comes out. There are wildflowers everywhere: little orchids called Venus-slippers, white fragrant narcissi, yellow and white daisies...

Volubilis is a stunning site in a stunning setting. Martin Scorsese filmed The Last Temptation of Christ here. Storks roost on the lofty columns of the ruined Temple of Jupiter. The Decumanus Maximus runs from the arched remains of the Tangier gate down to an impressive arch of Caracalla. Our guide Abdu shows us all the mosaics. I especially wanted to see the mosaic of four chariots pulled by birds, but it has been eroded or vandalised and is only partially and badly restored. The mosaic of the desultor (horse acrobat at the chariot races) is in better condition. There are two very strange mosaics on the same subject: Venus being washed by Pegasus spouting water from his mouth.

It only takes us an hour or so to look round; it is the setting I especially wanted to see... After another mint tea for me, and coffee for Richard and Gentiane, we set off back home. Just as well: we reach the motorway and the last stretch of or journey just as it is getting dark. It's dangerous to drive on the country roads in darkness because the horsecarts rarely carry lights; they think if they can see you that you can see them. You come up on them very suddenly, and therefore need to be alert.

When we get in, it is so cold that we decide to move on the next day. Most Moroccan houses are not heated because it is so rarely cold, so Gentiane is not to be blamed. She rings and books us a hotel in Fes for two nights – the Hotel Batha – and she makes sure to ask for a heated room. Twice.

[The Beggar of Volubilis is book number 14 in the the Roman Mysteries series. These books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game. For more information, teacher should visit my SCHOOLS page.]

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:35 AM

    Hello. I am a Moroccan university student. I learnt from you blog that you have been to Morocco and I was happy to read about your visit to Volubilis. I just went there for a fieldtrip and I am trying to get more information to write my paper.

    Well, I found some important things in your blog. Thank you

    in case you want to write to me, this is my email address