The Allure Of Ancient Tangier

Tangier
The whole Mediterranean rim has a rich history. The Minoans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and many others explored and settled these rocky coasts and islands. Tangier, just outside the Strait of Gibraltar and looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean, was considered the furthest point west by many civilizations. To the north, ancient travelers could see the Iberian Peninsula. South lay the coast of Africa, explored by some civilizations and unknown to others, and to the west stretched the seemingly endless expanse of the ocean.

Tangier became an important port early on. The Phoenicians built a trading post here in the middle of the first millennium B.C. and it was later taken over by the Carthaginians. At that time it was called Tingis, after a Berber goddess. Little is left from those days as the ancient city has been buried under many layers of later occupation.

The Casbah Museum in Tangier has a few artifacts from that time, and an easy walk to the western outskirts will take you to the plateau of Mershan and the necropolis of Al Hafa. Here, on an exposed rock with a sweeping view of the strait and the port, the Carthaginians, and later the Romans, buried their dead. You can see a couple of the lead caskets in the Casbah Museum.

All that’s left here are the graves cut into the rock, many of them now filled with rainwater and reflecting the blue sky above. Even those uninterested in archaeology will enjoy the walk through the quiet, prosperous suburb and the fine vista from the plateau. The dead got the best seafront view in Tangier.

%Gallery-175701%The value of traveling to another famous ancient landmark, the Grotto of Hercules, is more debatable. It was here that Hercules was said to have rested after his labors. This cave opens onto the Atlantic Ocean and the waves splash on the rock, swirling in and out and spraying the large number of foreign and Moroccan tourists who come here. Niches carved into the cave’s interior at some unrecorded time are now used by salesmen to hawk trinkets. Yes, this place is one big tourist trap, although an attractive one.

We had been told that the nearby Roman ruins of Cotta were open to the public but when we got there two soldiers and a cop told us politely yet firmly that this land was owned by the king and we couldn’t enter. They were very apologetic and somewhat confused as to why we thought the ruins were open. They’d been closed for five years.

A longer day trip can take you to the Roman city of Volubilis, five hours away between Fez and Rabat. One of its prized possessions, however, is housed in the Casbah Museum. A sumptuous mosaic from the town house of some wealthy Roman is now the centerpiece of the museum. Called “The Voyage of Venus,” it shows the sexy goddess sailing through the salty spray with her nymphs.

If you’re pressed for time I’d say hit the Casbah Museum first, try to go to Al Hafa if the weather is good, and skip the Grotto of Hercules.

Don’t miss our other posts on Tangier! Coming up next: St. Andrew’s in Tangier: A Church With Muslim Art!

[Top image by Almudena Alonso-Herrero. Bottom image by Sean McLachlan]

Tangier

More Roman heritage from Mérida, Spain

Roman, Spain, MéridaIn the Extremaduran city of Mérida, it feels like at any moment you’re going to turn a corner and meet an ancient Roman. Sometimes that almost happens.

This fellow was at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, a world-class museum featuring Roman statues, mosaics, and other artifacts. Built by the famous architect Rafael Moneo Vallés, it looks like an old Roman basilica, with lofty arches, wide corridors, and lots of natural light. This allows each artifact to have plenty of space so it can be viewed from all angles. My five-year-old son loved this place. With the crowds dispersed in such a large area, he didn’t have to keep close to my side all the time. He could wander at will (within my sight, of course) and examine the chariot races on the mosaics all by himself. He also liked the basement, which included a Roman road and several crypts.

While the museum is one of the best I’ve seen, the whole city is actually a museum. Behind a cafe I saw spare chairs stacked under a Roman arch. The local church incorporates parts of a temple to Mars. The main pedestrian bridge across the Rio Guadiana, dating to about 25 BC, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

Last time I talked about the Roman theater and amphitheater at Mérida. These are the two most popular sights in town, but perhaps more impressive is the Casa del Mitreo. This Roman mansion is located near the subterranean temple of Mithras, a mystery religion that was the main competitor with Christianity for the hearts and minds of the Romans in the late Empire. It’s not clear if the house was actually associated with the temple, but a beautiful, complex mosaic on the library floor suggests it was. It shows the divine principles of sky, earth, and sea in a vast interconnected group. These aren’t gods, but ideas, such as Copiae, the riches of the sea; Aestas, the summer; and Chaos. The whole mansion has been excavated and protected under a modern roof, so you can stroll around on a modern walkway and look down the bedrooms, patios, and wall paintings. My wife voted this the best attraction in town. Near the house is a rather spooky Roman graveyard.

%Gallery-112140% On the edge of town you can see one of the best preserved Roman hippodromes in the world. Chariot races were even more popular than gladiator fights or plays. Like the theater this was an institution that the early Christians disapproved of. But like the Mérida theater, it got a major face lift courtesy of the early Christian emperors in the years 337-340 AD. It took some time for the Christians to enforce their strict morality on the Roman populace. Walking along the 440 meter (481 yard) long racetrack you can easily imagine cheering crowds and crashing chariots. Thirty thousand people could be seated here. Nearby are the remains of one of Mérida’s two aqueducts.

Mérida protected the crossing of the Guadiana river, and so even after the Roman Empire crumbled it was an important spot. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, built an imposing city wall and fortress here. Little of that period remains, but the next rulers of Mérida, the Moors, built a sprawling fortress called the Alcazaba next to the bridge. When we visited we had the place pretty much to ourselves. My son got to walk the ramparts and look out over the river, imagining what it would have been like to live in those times. He especially liked exploring the dark tunnels under the main tower, which lead to a cistern that provided the soldiers with water. The upper story of this same tower was once a mosque.

“Fun for the whole family” is a horrible travel writing cliché, but it does apply to Mérida! While the modern town isn’t much to look at, it’s full of ancient surprises. The food and wine are great too. More on that in another post.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors!

Archaeologists discover Roman swimming pool in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel, archaeology
Roman soldiers liked a good swim, especially after a hard day’s work suppressing rebellions.

Archaeologists digging in Jerusalem have discovered the remains of a Roman swimming pool. Some roof tiles at the site bear the inscription “LEG X FR”, which stands for Tenth Legion Fretensis (“of the sea strait”, referring to one of the legion’s early victories). This legion was responsible for controlling Jerusalem. During the Jewish rebellion of 70 AD it besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish Temple, as seen here in an 1850 painting by David Roberts. During the bloody Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 135 AD the Roman legions were again kicked out of the city but were again able to recapture it.

The pools are more like large bathtubs lined with plaster. They’re part of a large complex of buildings housing pools and of course Roman baths. It’s not unusual for Roman military bases to have such luxuries, especially if the legion stayed put for any length of time.

The site is in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. One surprising find was a ceramic roof tile that a dog walked over while it was still wet. Check out this article for a photo. Tiles from the Roman baths in York, England, bear human footprints, some so clear you can see the nails used to attach the sole of the sandal to the upper.

Roman village discovered in London suburb

Roman London Archaeology
Archaeologists working in the west London suburb of Brentford have discovered a Roman village.

The 2,000 year-old village was along a road leading out of London (called Londinium back then) to Silchester, another Roman settlement. Archaeologists found several houses, a stretch of the original road, plus numerous burials and artifacts. The site is located on the grounds of Syon House, the stately home of the Duke of Northumberland.

This isn’t the first find on the Duke’s property. For the past six years an archaeology team has been excavating a medieval abbey there.

The excavation that found the Roman site was done to clear the way for a new Waldorf Astoria hotel. Some of the artifacts will be on display at the hotel once it opens later this year.

Despite being a massive city that’s been built, burned, rebuilt, bombed, and rebuilt again, London has managed to retain some remnants of its Roman past. A mithraeum, a temple dedicated to the god Mithras, is right downtown at the corner of Queen St. and Queen Victoria St., as you can see in the above picture. There are stretches of Roman wall nearby and an excellent display of artifacts in the Museum of London.

Strangely, the announcement of this discovery came at the same time as an announcement by Egyptologists of a discovery of a sphinx-lined road under an apartment complex in Luxor, Egypt. Makes you wonder what’s underneath your basement.