Bri Lee on the Fickleness of History

Far from dormant, history is always moving with the times, as T Australia’s columnist Bri Lee discovers in a Roman city with a chequered past.

Article by Bri Lee

The triumphal Arch of Caracalla at the ruins of the roman city of Volubilis, a UNESCO world heritage site near Fes and Meknes, Morocco.The triumphal Arch of Caracalla at the ruins of the roman city of Volubilis, a UNESCO world heritage site near Fes and Meknes, Morocco.

I’m about 150 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean Sea, slowly walking among the shadows of giant limestone columns. My gaze is fixed upon the thousands of tiny tiles that combine into mosaics depicting classical Roman scenes of indulgence and myth. A pair of cypress trees keeps watch over the hectares of archaeological ruins — some of them exposed, others lying in wait beneath the soil. Cypresses can grow for more than a thousand years, so these two could have been planted hundreds of years ago by any resident of these long-empty homes. In one of its original incarnations this city depended on the production of olive oil. About 60 presses have been found so far and 120 shops, many of them bakeries. Underfoot, cobblestones the size of bread loaves are marked with parallel ruts, evidence of the carts that once carried loads to and from the city centre. The triumphal Arch of Caracalla has been reconstructed and, squinting, I take in its enormity. Along with the basilica (law court) and Capitoline Temple, it was built around the second century, when as many as 20,000 people lived here. My guide has shown me their baths and bedrooms. Looking out at the surrounding fields, I see rocky outcrops, olive trees and wild poppies. Above us, a bright blue sky is peppered with tufts of cloud. So, where do you think I am? On which continent?

If you and I had been blindfolded and parachuted in, I don’t think either of us would have picked Africa, but here I am: in Morocco, among the ruins of Volubilis. The nearest town is Moulay Idriss Zerhoun — where we’re going for lunch — and we’ve come from Tangier, a few hours’ drive north of here. I am with nine others on a literary, cultural and culinary tour of the country that I helped curate. From the moment I heard about Volubilis, during my preparation months earlier, I couldn’t wait to get here. In this single location lie dozens of layers of settlement and history. Inhabited for centuries by followers of all three major monotheistic religions (and, of course, those who believed in the great cast of Roman gods), this city has peaked, troughed, been forgotten and revived, each incarnation reflecting the powers of the time. To me, the ruins of Volubilis represent a fascinating ancient history and the deadly folly of modern history. Let me tell you the story.

The indigenous people of Morocco are Imazighen (often called Berbers) and they settled this territory first. Phoenician language — totally distinct from Tamazight, spoken by the Berbers — inscribed in pottery and stone in the third century BCE indicates another chapter in the city’s story. Historians say it was the capital of the kingdom of Mauretania before the Romans arrived in the first century CE. But Rome lost the city to the locals in the late third century, then Fez was named the capital and, in the 11th century, the residents of Volubilis began to leave. Successive Moroccan rulers repurposed huge amounts of the stone for nearby cities, including Meknes and Rabat. Antiquities were looted and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake destroyed much of what was left. In time, the town’s name was forgotten by the living.

The lost city of Volubilis was rediscovered in the 1800s, but the story is far from champagne and roses. It is backdropped by the French invasion of Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881, followed by the establishment of a so-called protectorate over much of Morocco in 1912. During this time, the French were thrilled to find any kind of historical evidence of European settlement; scientific exploration and archaeology went hand in hand with colonialism.

With hindsight, it’s easy to see how ideological the discovery and partial restoration of Volubilis was for the French. Here, so far inland, was proof of Latin heritage. And, more than that, “proof” that the Moroccans couldn’t look after their own history. The ruins legitimised the patronising claims of the protectorate.

When the American novelist Edith Wharton wrote about visiting Volubilis in her 1920 book “In Morocco”, she parroted the French position, pitting the cultures against each other by comparing the historical site to the nearest living town, writing: “So the two dominations look at each other across the valley: one, the lifeless Roman ruin, representing a system, an order, a social conception that still run through all our modern ways; the other, the untouched Moslem city, more dead and sucked back into an unintelligible past than any broken architrave of Greece or Rome.” Elevating the significance and excellence of the old Roman city allows Wharton to frame the Arab and Berber presence in Morocco as a temporary, unfortunate blip. Thus the restoration of Volubilis is a correction to the European timeline.

This place gives me a sense of awe, too, but not because I see it as representing some sort of superior approach to society. What I find magnificent is the opportunity to pause and reflect on what has miraculously lasted for hundreds of years through possession, dispossession and repossession. These structures have witnessed the divinity and debauchery of early humanity, and both the exceptional and quotidian parts of life. Builders pressed coins into the walls to mark their completion and, after all this time, I can reach out and touch those very same stones.

It is telling that the French archaeologists at Volubilis were assisted by German prisoners of war. And that the heavy-handed approach to restoration is now considered “radical” — and not in a good way. Every iteration of Volubilis is a testament to what the people in power at the time wanted to see when they looked in the mirror of history.

Colonial Australia also does a particularly good job of controlling the narrative. When we tell the story of “settlement” over “invasion”, we keep reinventing history. If land has been “settled”, it might seem fair that it is then farmed, cultivated and mined. But if land has been “invaded”, the way we understand further violent actions is completely changed.

Consider Rio Tinto’s destruction, in 2020, of a sacred site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region that contained relics of human occupation dating back 46,000 years. The mining company had received ministerial consent to conduct blasts in the area in 2013, and when archaeologists uncovered phenomenal artefacts in the caves a year later, the decision was not reversed.

John Ashburton, the then chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee, said that losing the Juukan Gorge rock shelters was a “devastating blow” to the traditional owners. A sharpened kangaroo bone found there is one of the oldest examples of bone technology in the country, dating back 28,000 years. As the archaeologist Dr Michael Slack told the ABC: “This site was something special. It was a massive cave, it had such a rich cultural deposit, such an old occupation.” Here was proof that humans had lived in the region four times longer than previously thought, and it was legally destroyed by a mining megacorporation trying to reach high-grade iron ore.

So what relics do Australians care about? Well, in June 2021 the Federal Government committed almost $500 million to the redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. A submission from the Heritage Guardians organisation opposing the development states: “Much of the Memorial’s extended space will be taken up with a grandiose foyer and space to display decommissioned planes and helicopters, which do little to promote an understanding of Australia’s wars, while providing a tourist attraction.”

A 2021 survey undertaken by The Australia Institute found that only 13 per cent of citizens agree with the funding; one in two respondents said they would rather see education or health services bolstered. And, in a spectacular display of dark irony, the memorial — an organisation supposedly committed to remembrance and mourning — is seeking further funding from Lockheed Martin. The arms manufacturer should be flush with cash, what with its share price surging since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Clearly, government-funded sites are not strictly for remembering. And age and cultural significance don’t hold sway when we talk about protecting history. There is no structure built by the dead that can outlast the whims of the living. There are no artefacts that can be “uncovered” without simultaneously being interpreted.

There is a lesson for us all in Volubilis. It’s about how fickle history is: how open it is to the pressures of the present. In 1997, UNESCO listed Volubilis as a World Heritage site, one of nine in Morocco. France has 43 sites listed for their cultural value; Italy has 53. And while Indigenous Australians lay claim to the oldest living culture in the world, just eight sites in Australia are listed for their cultural significance (there are 20 in total, however 12 are recognised for their natural — not cultural — value).

And despite its World Heritage listing, much of Volubilis is still underground. The French were more willing to pour money into the project when they had something to prove, and the Moroccans do not appear to be particularly panicked about its preservation or excited by what lies beneath those poppies. Do we judge them for this, as the French did?

Of the 52 sites UNESCO describes as “World Heritage in danger”, not one is in Australia. This makes me wonder what ancient history we’ll blow up next so we can afford to turn a war memorial into a military entertainment destination.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 28 of T Australia with the headline: “Urban Legends”