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Moulay Idriss Zerhoun

4km (2 1/2 miles) S of Volubilis; 29km (18 miles) N of Meknes; 74km (46 miles) W of Fes

Coming around the bend from Meknes, the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is a dramatic sight, a jumble of houses and mosques almost hidden between the twin hillsides of Khiba and Tasga. Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is a pilgrimage center, home to the tomb of its namesake, Idriss Ben Abdallah Ben Hassan Ben Ali, great grandson of Ali and Fatima, the Prophet Mohammed's daughter. The descendants of Ali and Fatima, the Alids were persecuted by the ruling Abbaysid Arabs in Baghdad, and after being implicated in a rebellion against them, the Alid Idriss fled to the western extremity of the then-known Islamic world. By 788, the Muslim Auraba Berbers, who resided in the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis and rebelled against Damascus's efforts to rule the entire Islamic empire, accepted Idriss as their spiritual leader, or imam. Endowed with a charismatic personality and venerable heritage, Idriss united the warring Berber tribes and thus founded what is regarded as the first Moroccan dynasty, the Idrissids. At this time he began the construction of his capital, Fes. Word of his growing influence reached Baghdad, however, and in 792 he was fatally poisoned by the jealous Caliph Harun al Rachid. The Berbers laid their leader to rest between two craggy hills on the western slopes of the Zerhoun Range, within sight of Volubilis. Today he is referred to as Idriss El Akbar (the Great). Idriss's son, Moulay Idriss II, proceeded to develop Fes into the first significant focal point of urban Arabic culture in Morocco.

The actual town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun was mainly developed in the 18th century by Sultan Moulay Ismail, in part using materials pillaged from nearby Volubilis. Off-limits to non-Muslims until 1912, it is still primarily a sacred village and best visited during the day as an excursion from Meknes.

The tomb and sanctuary, or zaouia, with its green-tile roofs, prayer halls, ablution areas, and tombs, is closed to non-Muslims -- and coincidentally beasts of burden -- courtesy of a low wood bar. For a much better view from above, take the stairs to your left and climb through the winding streets to the summit of the town. There is usually a local guide who will show you the way for 50dh. On the way up you will pass the Persian-inspired cylindrical minaret of the Sentissi Mosque, which was donated in 1939 by a pilgrim freshly returned from Mecca. It's a bit of a steep hike, but at the top there is a rewarding view over the sanctuary, showing the courtyards, roofs, and adjacent royal guesthouse (the royal family are regular pilgrims).

Once back in the town, the little street below the main square has a string of cafe-restaurants and is a good spot to absorb the festive pilgrimage atmosphere.

It goes without saying that this is a holy place and should be treated as such by visitors. Restraint in picture taking and dressing respectfully (covering the knees and elbows) is recommended. That said, the townsfolk of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun are very welcoming and seem to be genuinely embracing a recent increase in non-Muslim visitors. Saturday is market day and, as a result, an especially lively day to visit.

Getting There -- Buses for Moulay Idriss Zerhoun depart hourly daily between 8am and 6pm (20dh) from Meknes's gare routière outside Bab el Khemis. Grands taxis depart when full (25dh) throughout the day from opposite the Institute Français, on avenue des Nations Unies (the road to Tangier/Chefchaouen). See Meknes arrival information regarding chartering a grand taxi. If you're driving yourself, take avenue des Nations Unies, at the junction of avenue Hassan II and avenue Moulay Ismail. After 5km (3 miles), veer right onto the Chefchaouen road, on which the turnoff to Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is signposted.

Volubilis

4km (2 1/2 miles) N of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun; 33km (20 miles) N of Meknes; 70km (44 miles) W of Fes

The Roman ruins of Volubilis (Latin for "morning glory") are the most impressive in Morocco. The existence of a Roman city in Morocco surprises some people, and while much has been pillaged over the centuries to adorn other cities (mainly Meknes) or taken to museums such as that in Rabat, the structure of the town is still clearly visible from the ruins. A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is highly recommended.

Although the Roman influence on Volubilis was the greatest, archaeological evidence points to the possibility of a Neolithic settlement, while recovered tablets show there was a 3rd-century-B.C. Phoenician village here. However, it was under the Berber Mauritanian king Juba II, descendant of Hannibal and husband to the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, that Volubilis began to flourish, and from A.D. 45 to A.D. 285 it was the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana. Under the Romans, this province -- once in Horace's phrase "the arid nurse of lions" -- became one of the granaries of the empire, and Volubilis grew to a city of 20,000 inhabitants on the back of exporting vast quantities of olives and wheat to Rome. The number of presses that have been found on the site reflect the importance of the olive to the city's fortunes. Volubilis was also a noted exporter of wild animals -- in particular the Barbary lion -- to figure in the legendary gladiator games in the Colosseum. The city was also the meeting point between Berbers and Romans, where the two cultures met to trade even though the indigenous nomads of Morocco were never subdued by the Roman legions. Volubilis's weakness was that it was on the fringes of the empire, only connected to Rome through the Atlantic ports. Although numerous emperors had dreams of taming the Atlas and forging on into the Dark Continent, they never came to fruition. With the empire beginning to crumble in the late 3rd century, Emperor Diocletian withdrew his legions to the coastal areas, leaving Volubilis at the mercy of neighboring tribes.

With its established olive and farming industries, however, the city continued to function for centuries afterward. Latin was still the common language among the city's population of Jews, Greeks, Syrians, and Berbers until the Islamic Arabs arrived in the late 700s. The proclaimed sultan in Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, preferred his new city of Fes, however, and the demise of Volubilis is echoed by the rise of early Islam in Fes.

The city and its Christian and Jewish population survived with diminished importance, becoming the Christian enclave of Oualila during the 8th century, but by the 11th century Volubilis was virtually deserted. In the 18th century, Sultan Moulay Ismail raided the city's remains for building materials to construct his vast palace at nearby Meknes, while the devastating earthquake of 1755, which flattened Rabat and Lisbon, brought the city to the ground.

French excavations and reconstruction began in 1915, with more reconstruction in 1962. The site covers 40 hectares (99 acres) -- about half has been excavated so far -- and contains more than 30 mosaics and buildings with poetic names such as the House of the Athlete, the House of the Nymphs, and the House of Orpheus. The Decumanus Maximus is the main street, at the end of which is the Triumphal Arch, dedicated to Emperor Caracalla. On one side of the street is the Forum, with its restored Corinthian columns. The best-preserved houses include the house of Dionysus near the Decumanus Maximus, the House of the Euphebus next to the triumphal arch, and the House of Orpheus to the south near the olive presses. Although fading in the open light, the floor mosaics are still fascinating to view. Featured are various mythological figures such as Bacchus, the un-Islamic god of wine Dionysus, Medusa, and Orpheus. Hunting, music making, and scenes from the natural world -- such as the dolphin mosaic -- can also to be seen.

With encouragement from UNESCO, the Moroccan government has begun a complete rebuilding of the site's entrance area, including a much-needed visitor information center. At the moment there are a couple of cafes in the parking lot, one of them a Berber tent, and a temporary ticket office and postal agency. Visiting Volubilis requires a bit of effort and planning, and the site itself is quite large and can take a couple of hours at least to discover properly. Only a few of the sights are accompanied by information panels -- and only some of them in English -- and although roped off, the mosaics are easily visible. English-speaking guides are always hanging around at the entrance, and I suggest hiring one if your interest is anything more than fleeting; ask for Abdelhay Grirrane (tel. 0661/792365), who has shown me around both Volubilis and Moulay Idriss Zerhoun numerous times, and whom I can highly recommend. There is very little shade through the ruins and it can be oppressively hot in the middle of the day, so be sure to take a hat (an umbrella works superbly) and plenty of water. Conversely, during winter it can at times be cold and miserable out in the ruins, and warm, protective clothing is then recommended.

Large tour groups are usually traipsing through the ruins daily from 10am to noon and again from around 2 to 5pm. As a result, the best time to visit is first thing in the morning or as the sun is setting.

Volubilis is signposted from the main road. Admission is 20dh adults and children over 12, and hours are daily 9am to sunset. Secure parking is available; a gratuity of 10dh to the gardien is expected.

The Volubilis Inn (tel. 0535/544405 or 0535/544281; fax 0535/544280; www.ilove-morocco.com/hotelvolubilisinn; 826dh double) is 1km (2/3 mile) from Volubilis, situated on the side of Jebel Zerhoun overlooking the ruins. Although leaning throughout to an obvious Romanesque theme, the 50-room hotel is nicely decorated and furnished. All the rooms are spacious and modern, most with a balcony and views of the ruins. The hotel is also a very pleasant lunchtime stop and offers three restaurants and two bars, open from noon to 11pm. In a large panoramic terrace, the summer sunset views, accompanied by a glass of "Roman red" and a plate of Volubilis olives, are stunning.

Getting There -- There are no buses to Volubilis. You can catch the bus to Moulay Idriss Zerhoun and then either walk about 45 minutes or charter a grand taxi for around 50dh one-way. Arrange a time for the grand taxi to return to pick you up. Note: Only pay him once he picks you up, especially if you are visiting in the afternoon, or you may end up hitchhiking on the main road. The best option for two or more travelers is to charter a grand taxi from Meknes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.