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Lixus: A Nexus for Great Civilizations

The ruins of Lixus, the Kingdom's most ancient city, have become today an archeological site near Larache that attracts Moroccans and foreigners enchanted by the mystery of the past.

Mythical does not even begin to describe the ancient city of Lixus. Home to the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Hera’s wedding gift to Zeus guarded by the mighty hundred-headed dragon and the Hesperides, Atlas’ nymph daughters, the fabled Lixus was Hercules’ Eleventh Labor’s arena. Whether Hercules slayed Ladon the dragon, held the heavens on his shoulders in Atlas’ place, or just simply relished in a sumptuous feast at the invitation of the Hesperides to get his hands on the Golden Apples remains an enigma, but the existence of Lixus is cut and dried. Its exact location, on the other hand, perplexed Hercules who journeyed through Libya, Egypt, Arabia, and Asia, before catching sight of Lixus, northeast of Larache city on the right bank of the Loukkos river.

While Morocco boasts a multitude of ancient sites and landmarks dating back to distant historical eras and bearing witness of the glory of civilizations on this land, Lixus takes the cake as the Kingdom’s most ancient city. Today, resting on the crest of the treed hill, Lixus’ ruins are imbued with the ancient city’s once magnificent and triumphant history. Overlooking the marshy estuary, Lixus’s strategic position is hardly arbitrary for it is abundant in natural resources, grants the city visibility of farther areas, and most importantly, renders access arduous and pernicious for the enemy. It is not by mere chance that Lixus was erstwhile a nexus for great civilizations, Phonecian, Punic, Mauretanian, Roman, and not to forget Islamic.

What is left of Lixus, since time immemorial, are ruins of the ancient city that are now an archeological site, ushering in visitors to get lost in its charm. The site is accessible for measly rates and is even free on national holidays for Moroccan nationals. Upon one’s entry, you can spot a huge sign board displaying the entirety of the site’s map. A tour guide, a young enthusiastic man, is available to accompany individuals or groups on their way to discover Lixus, adding bits of information and historical fun facts here and there. Three Moroccan women living abroad, awestruck with eyes wide with curiosity, were quick to take him up on his offer. The tour begins at the start of a path which slopes up to the first stop, two tombs excavated by archeologists containing bones of human skeletons laying next to age-old tools such as bowls and sticks. The tour guide gleefully shared with the group how he contributed to the tombs excavation, believed to date back to the Mauretanian era, easily making these tombs 2250 to 2350 years old. 

Proceeding along the walkway, the guide stops the group at what he considers to be the most vital part of Lixus, its industrial district. Situated at the foothills of the highlands on which Lixus rests, the ancient city boasts a fish-salting factory, more specifically 10 factory units and 150 tanks where layers of fish and salt were superimposed forming colossal piles. This fenced place spans a total space of 170m of length and 40m of width. In fact, this activity played a crucial role in the economy of the Roman Empire, seeing as this was the largest industrial complex of its kind at the time, ensuring export of salted fish across the Empire, in addition to some special sauces made of fish guts that were said to have been fabricated in these factories, namely Garum, used as a condiment and similar in taste to Liquamen. These factories were strategically placed at the foot of the hill, thus isolating the stenching smell of fish from drenching the rest of the city and ensuring proper water supply to carry out fish-salting. The ingenious piping system set in place to transport water can be easily detected if one were to take a closer look at the pipe-shaped hollows linking the fish-salting factories to the rainwater collection reservoir. The industrial complex held a space for fishing gear and salt to be stored in, both necessary for the proper conduct of Lixus’ inhabitants’ main economic activity. 

Still caught in the intricacies of the industrial activities this ancient city used to take part in and the craft and resourcefulness of its people, the group trudges uphill escorted by the tour guide to discover what the next site unravels about the eerie Lixus. Promenading skyward, gradually edging closer to the sun, is no easy feat. To deploy such herculean effort, it is advised visitors arm themselves with a bottle of water, a cap, and much fervor and eagerness to learn about this city’s past. Still, nothing beats making it to the top, seeing as an astounding outlook of the vicinity of Lixus awaits you. Overtop the hill, the ever-flowing river, lush verdant plains and hills, clear blue seaboard and skyline of Larache is a sight to behold. Situated on an empty and rock-strewn patch of land, surrounded by bushes and trees, is a small Roman amphitheater. Gladiator combats, venationes, sports, performances, entertainment and executions all took place in this location. As visitors are busy taking in their surroundings, the tour guide snaps them out of their trance and enters lecture mode. He points at two visible entrances in the amphitheater, disclosing that one entrance was for fighters, willing to sacrifice their lives to entertain, and the second entrance was for ferocious animals the fighters battled. The guide also called the visitors’ attention to distinguishable seatings, explaining that they used to be reserved for high-profile personalities. Upon hearing this, one of the visitors excitedly whipped out her phone to share with the guide and the rest of the group, a Roman amphitheater in Amman where the VIP section was just as noticeable as in Lixus’. 

If you come out alive after wrestling with ferocious animals and mighty fighters, a relaxing bath is awaiting you at the bath house located right next to the place where you probably cheated death by a whisker. The bath house consisted of an Apodyterium (undressing room), Frigidarium (cold room), Tepidarium (warm room), and lastly, Caldarium (hot room) that is heated by a brazier. This model is said to have inspired Morocco’s, and the Islamic world, current bath houses. The bathers at that time had massages with oil which were then scraped by strigil tools made from metal to remove the applied oil as well as dirt and sweat. Wealthy romans often had slaves doing for them all the bathing process, some bathhouses were adjacent to places like gardens, reading rooms, and booths. Just beneath the bathhouses is a small sanitary sewer system constructed with small-sized tubes. The existence of ruins shows that the constructions were unable to completely stand the test of time, and while it is distressing, man-made destruction of an ancient site is most deplorable. The centerpiece adorning the mosaic flooring of the bath house, Neptune’s fresco, was reportedly smashed by a man who visited the ancient city, long before it was designated an archeological site. The guide lamentably divulges that the man destroyed the mosaic fresco of the God of the Sea because he considered this to be idolatry. While it may not repair the damage done, visitors were relieved to learn that this act of vandalism earned the man a hefty fine and some jail time. 

Next up on the visitors’ map is a court or is it a temple? Truth is, no one knows, not even the walking encyclopedia of Lixus that is the tour guide. To be as accurate as possible with all the fog clouding history, the edifice is what was commonly referred to as a Basilica. The confusion as to what function this monument fulfilled stems from two things. Primo, Basilicas are essentially a large public building that served different functions ranging from courts to temples, and more. Secundo, in the process of archaeological excavations in Lixus, a bronze mask of Neptune, now displayed in the museum of Rabat, was found in this location, which may lead one to believe that they are standing on the ruins of a temple once dedicated to the worship of the God of the Sea.   

Having enumerated Lixus’ economic activities, entertainment outlets, and even religious or legal practices, it was time to visit where its inhabitants used to live. Uptown Lixus was erected in a particularly strategic setting, atop of the hill, allowing its inhabitants, who were chiefly rich-class and soldiers, to be screened from inundations, threats, and be spared the malodorous smell emanating from the fish-salting factories. One woman from the hordes of visitors ambling around commented slyly that their urban planning was far better than ours in this time and age. The design of Lixus’ population living quarters could be deciphered from the ruins that resisted natural erosion and stood the test of time. Room-like layouts adjacent to private baths were numerous to identify spanning the hill surface area. Odd one out was a singular wall built with significantly bulkier stones than the rest of the architecture. Just as the visitors’ laid eyes on the original structure, the guide chimed in and introduced it as the Hellenistic Wall dating back to the Greek era, standing in contrast with the Roman architecture. Despite it breaking homogeneity, the Romans decided to keep the titanic wall to bolster defense against any attacks when they settled in Lixus. What was particularly impressive was that the stones of this construction were not bound by anything, but they were toothed in a manner to fit into each other. Even more mind-boggling is how stones this sizable were transported to the top using only horses and slaves. 

Abodes of well-off families, comprising four rooms, baths, and a patio, were outstanding, but nothing beats the majesty of the palatial complex where King Juba II ruled. Juba II was of Amazigh origins but was raised by the Romans after they assassinated his father. He went on to become King under Roman rule and married Cleopatra Selene II, the only daughter of Greek Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. From their union, Ptolemy of Mauretania was born. He would reign over Mauretania before getting assassinated by Caligula. As the guide was narrating this, he stopped to ask the visitors if they could guess why he was murdered. The reason astonished the crowd: Ptolemy’s attire, an opulent purple cloak, made him seem as if he was trying to outshine Caligula. The palace is as sublime as it is spacious, boasting many edifices such as temples, where a statue of Sphinx was discovered, libraries, baths, and numerous guest rooms. The only remaining evidence of the Islamic civilization is a Mosque, recognized as such due to its position, facing Qibla and its proximity to a water reservoir used for ablution, in addition to a small elevated place called minbar where the imam normally prays and gives out religious speeches. Perhaps the only construction left entirely intact in Lixus is what is believed to have served as a weapon storage, since spears were found there, located within the premises of the palatial complex. 

If you thought that this account of Lixus is exhaustive, then you are sorely mistaken. This is but a glimpse of what the ancient city has to offer. The Museum of Lixus, situated within the archeological site, and many more fascinating sites and sights are awaiting you, not too far from Larache. And if you cannot physically roam the ruins of Lixus, then worry not for a virtual visit of Lixus is a project in the works.