At Christmas time, the sky in Morocco appears infinite and unchangingly serene, a natural partner of this expansive landscape. Sheltered by this sky, the Moroccans are gentle and surprisingly calm. Worlds away from the rhythm of the Mediterranean, this north-west corner of Africa, once the ancient Roman province of Mauretania, boasts three great Classical sites, each of which is a pleasure to visit.

The once-great city of Lixus, which was first settled in the 7th century BC when the Romans conquered Carthage. The river Loukkos snakes beyond.

Rabat, the modern capital of Morocco, hugs the high ground where the river Bou Regeg runs into the Atlantic. Even on a calm day this is a surfers’ paradise, the rollers pounding into the long sandy shore. The city’s origins lie inland, at the far side of Rabat, at Sala Colonia – now known by its Islamic name, Chellah.

Chellah, with its massive medieval gate, is a real surprise. The ancient site is overshadowed by the medieval palace and the gardens that occupy much of it, and above all by the unreal colony of storks that have nested on every conceivable pinnacle in the place. Like masonry drills chipping away at old concrete, the cacophony of clacking by these idle, ungainly birds lends Sala Colonia an idiosyncratic mystique.

Most of the storks have perched their bulging nests on the ruined palace, paying scant attention to the visitors to the tomb of Abou al-Hassan Ali. The eels in the ornamental pond beside the palace gardens are no less languid. Rather like a forecourt to this unlikely aviary, the Roman colony dating to the Emperor Claudius concentrates where the ancient Decumanus Maximus meets a minuscule forum. The elevated temple of Jupiter and a collection of large multiperiod dwellings make up the bulk of the remains. Their massive masonry and ruined monumentality stand in stark contrast to the graceful picturesque ruins of the Islamic period, crowned with the bulging bowers of the storks.

Rabat being a capital, the archaeology museum should be a destination. Tucked in a side-street close to the heart of the elegant colonial city, the museum is an uninviting building, however, with an atrium flanked by two small galleries of sorts. Many objects were out on loan, and only the Islamic coins and miscellany of Islamic-era ceramics and tiles aimed to lend a coherent narrative for Rabat. Truth be told, as a museum it was wholly forgettable. Instead, we took the coast road north to the magnificent site of Lixus.

On to magnificent Lixus

Lixus’ industrial-scale tanneries.

Like Sala Colonia, Lixus is a short distance inland from the Atlantic rollers. Once a great city, today it occupies a hill on the north side of the river Loukkos, close to the modern fishing port of Laranche. Location is everything here. The Loukkos weaves out of the plateau towards the distant ocean with a Mississippian languor, twisting like a wide-bodied snake beneath the ancient town.

First settled in the 7th century BC, when the Romans conquered Carthage, Lixus – like Chellah – became an imperial outpost of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. It reached its zenith under the Emperor Claudius in the 1st century AD, covering about 75 hectares in area. The ancients believed it to be the site of the Garden of Hesperides, and a place where Hercules gathered golden apples.

The archaeological site today merits only a discreet sign. It is easily missed. Plans to build a new entrance with a ticket office and facilities were almost completed, but not quite. A tentative desire to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site seems to have lapsed too, notwithstanding the acres of excavations made between the 1940s and 1960s.

Getting in today is not straightforward: it involves squeezing through an unlikely gap in the enclosing wall. Beyond this makeshift ingress, three young guards were waiting beneath the olives in the hope of visitors. No formal path exists at present, but on the far side a worn track winds through not one, not two, but simply endless Roman-era tanneries. The tanks still have a sculpted feel to them, some filled with water, some conserved, and some overgrown – only the acrid stench is missing. As in modern Fez, these workshops were located close to the river, taking prodigious amounts of water for the disagreeable task of processing hides.

The rough track speckled with potsherds twists up a steep hill, climbing past ruins engulfed by low scrub as far as a simple arena. This modest amphitheatre offered its audience on the uphill side not only the spectacle of the games, but also a view beyond the river of the limitless Moroccan interior. Strange, it seems, that the westerly view taking in the distant ocean was eschewed by the arena’s architects. Perhaps the western side was already built up. Today, the hilltop is occupied by the ruined remains of a forum and an array of sanctuaries and temples, while the steep western hillslope appears to have been colonised by terraced townhouses. A modest fortress of medieval date was inserted into the very top of the hill overlying earlier Roman public buildings; otherwise, the ruins belong to Lixus’s heyday under the empire.

The special appeal of Lixus is its tranquillity, the hallmark of being lost to time. For sure, archaeologists long ago bustled away excavating swathes of the remains, but now Lixus has returned to a kind of benign provincial anonymity. Redstarts spring among the ruins and untidy scrub, and buzzards wheel away in search of prey from the hilltop over the lazy river. It is a place to sit and watch nature, to ponder the lost metropolitan scale of this city, and to wonder at its industrial-scale tanneries.

Touring imperial Volubilis

The beautiful basilica at Volubilis.

It is a straight shot to Morocco’s most-celebrated Roman site: Volubilis. The road from Lixus might as well have its origins in Roman times, since it barely deviates as it runs like a die across the largely featureless rolling plateau, ascending a little higher only towards the last 20km. Volubilis sits close to the base of the Zerhoun hills, which curtain it off completely from the great valley occupied by the Islamic imperial cities of Fez and Meknes. Location is everything. The ancient town appears to have a huge fertile hinterland to its north, the Wadi Khoumane, breathtaking insofar as no modern community interrupts the panorama.

The town may have Punic origins, but it can certainly trace its beginning to the Augustan era, when King Juba II of Numidia, educated in Rome and married to Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, introduced Roman practices. After Claudius annexed Mauretania in AD 44, it was designated the provincial capital. As a result, and thanks to its fertile lands, the city prospered, apparently exporting cereals, olive oil, and wild animals for gladiatorial spectacles. Pomponius Mela, the 1st-century AD geographer described it in his De situ orbis libri III as one of ‘the wealthiest cities, albeit the wealthiest among small ones’ in Mauretania.

The Gordion palace at the once-affluent site of Volubilis.

Being located on the south-western limits of the province, Volubilis was always vulnerable to potentially hostile and increasingly powerful Berber tribes. Towards the end of the 2nd century, with tension increasing, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius ordered the construction of fortifications with flanking towers and eight gates. It was a short-lived panacea. Mauretania suffered badly in the 3rd-century crisis, causing the Emperor Diocletian in AD 285 to reorganise the province around its coastal littoral. Shorn of its status, Volubilis lived on, but without the patronage it had enjoyed for almost three centuries. With time, the economy and population were reduced to a mere shadow of their zenith. Most of the city was abandoned when, in the late 8th century, it became the seat of Idris ibn Abdallah, founder of the Idrisid dynasty and the ruling dynasty of Morocco. Two centuries later, it was finally deserted in favour of Fez, while much of the population, it is said, moved to the whitewashed citadel town of Moulay Idriss five kilometres away.

Though Volubilis was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 owing to the scale of the archaeological remains, it possesses only a small car park, an underwhelming ticket office and café, and a museum that is closed. Again the pleasure of the place is its setting and calm atmosphere. With ancient ruins covering about 42 hectares, it feels much larger, perhaps because the eye is drawn to the largely featureless open countryside beyond in every direction.

Exploring the site

Caracalla’s triumphal arch on the Decumanus Maximus.

Ambling through Volubilis, I noticed some ‘Decauville’ railway lines (to truck away spoil) that bear witness to the industrialisation of the excavations in the French colonial period. But most visitors are drawn to the restored monuments clustered around the forum – the basilica with its own stork’s nest, the elevated Capitoline temple, and the triumphal arch dedicated to the Emperor Caracalla and his mother. Yet, as ever, in the public heart of this provincial capital, adjoined to a modest paved forum, it is the smaller details like the public fountains and latrines that catch the eye.

You cannot miss Caracalla’s triumphal arch. That was the architect’s intention. It sits rather vainly on the Decumanus Maximus, and today denotes a kind of downslope terminus to the excavated ruins. Erected in AD 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the North African emperor and his mother, it marks a significant cultural change in this distant Roman community. Caracalla had extended Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of its provinces, and the burghers of Volubilis expressed their gratitude. The Emperor never saw the arch; he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in AD 217 while campaigning against the Parthians. The dedication to the Emperor was restored by French architects in the 1930s from fragments scattered around. Originally the monument would have been far more baroque in appearance; a bronze chariot pulled by six horses apparently graced the top of the arch. The Emperor and his mother were represented on medallions on the arch, but given their grotesque reputations both were damned and defaced.

The unembellished Tingis gate, on Christmas Day 2015.

The supreme pleasure of Volubilis is pottering up the Decumanus Maximus to the unembellished Tingis gate. Following the paved street, a boulevard in all but name, it is soon apparent that the majority of the ruins belong to townhouses of Volubilis’s affluent. The Gordion palace is the most elaborate and oversized in every way (note its bath-block). But it is the sheer number of dwellings that is dazzling. Most properties dating to the 2nd to 3rd centuries possess elegant atria with small ornamental pools, as well as myriad rooms paved with mosaics. The mosaics themselves bear witness to aspirations that in this far distant place were probably a mere dream. It is hard, though, not to imagine that the countryside for several generations, irrespective of the politics of Rome and the alleged hostility beyond the frontier, prospered in peace.

Volubilis is not a breathtaking place in terms of its architecture. Like Sale Colonia and Lixus, it represents the serene motor of Roman hegemony. The setting, though, has a kind of infinity to it, the ploughed fields running far into the distance reminding the viewer that the monuments were mere affectations of authority. It was the products from these lands that paid for the well-appointed houses and their pavements.

This blurring of town and country under an immense sky is best admired while taking tea on the terrace of the Hotel Volubilis on the hill above. The spirit of serenity is positively magical and emboldening. It is the perfect place to plan a visit to the glories of medieval Morocco at Fez and Meknes, and the hyperactivity of their enclosed dark medinas, on the far side of the rugged Zerhoun hills.

Richard Hodges is President of the American University of Rome.

This article appeared in issue 77 of Current World Archaeology.