Lixus, Morocco

Off the Grid May/June 2024

(Franck METOIS/Alamy)
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According to the first-century A.D. Roman writer Pliny the Elder, the ancient city of Lixus in what is now northern Morocco was the site of the Garden of the Hesperides, where the semidivine hero Hercules is said to have slain the dragon that guarded a tree bearing golden apples. The earliest traces of a settlement in Lixus date to the eighth century B.C., when seafaring Phoenicians from the Levant built one of their first western Mediterranean outposts atop a plateau overlooking the Loukkos River. “Two thousand years ago, Lixus would have been on a peninsula in a brackish lagoon, rather than situated further inland as it is today,” says archaeologist Stephen Collins-Elliott of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The city’s position on this navigable inlet, he explains, would have provided one of the only safe harbors on North Africa’s Atlantic coast for sailors to dock on long sea voyages.

Lixus became part of the Kingdom of Mauretania under King Juba II (reigned 25 B.C.A.D. 23) and his son Ptolemy I (reigned A.D. 23–40), who were responsible for transforming it into a booming port city. Juba commissioned a monumental building complex on the city’s summit, which scholars have traditionally presumed was a temple area but which others have more recently interpreted as a palace. While on a visit to Rome, Ptolemy was murdered on the orders of the megalomaniacal emperor Caligula (reigned A.D. 37–41). His execution incited a revolt in Mauretania that was soon followed by Caligula’s own assassination. Troops dispatched by the new emperor, Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54), quelled the uprising, and Rome annexed Mauretania. With its new status as a Roman colony, Lixus continued to thrive as a hub of maritime trade and industry. “Lixus is known for having the largest basins for the production of garum, or fish sauce, in the western Mediterranean,” Collins-Elliott says.

Since it was identified as ancient Lixus in the nineteenth century, less than 10 percent of the 150-acre site has been excavated. New excavations of the garum production facilities are currently underway. Archaeologist Aomar Akerraz of Morocco’s National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage and Collins-Elliott recently completed a survey and excavation of the surrounding Loukkos Valley to assess the contributions of rural sites to Lixus’ economy and the effects of Roman conquest on the hinterland’s people.

THE SITE

A new on-site museum exhibits artifacts from every period of Lixus’ occupation, from the Phoenicians’ early settlement to a fourteenth-century mosque. Self-guided tours begin on the southern edge of the site, where visitors pass through the fish-salting factory before making their way up the hill. Roman-period structures include an amphitheater. This is the only known Roman amphitheater in Morocco. Adjacent to it is a large bath facility, whose central hall features a floor mosaic depicting the god Oceanus. In one of Lixus’ residential neighborhoods, visitors can tour two large houses—the House of Helios and the House of Mars and Rhea—named after their mythologically themed mosaics. These mosaics are now on display in the Tétouan Archaeological Museum, 65 miles northeast of Lixus. The last stop on the tour takes visitors to the site’s summit, where they can explore the so-called temple quarter overlooking the Loukkos River.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE

A few miles west of Lixus is the modern city of Larache. After soaking up the sun at one of the area’s beaches, Collins-Elliott recommends eating lunch at the harborside Café Chentouf, where seafood lovers can enjoy plates of grilled and fried marine delicacies. If you’re still hungry, street vendors sell slices of kalinti (from the Spanish caliente, or “hot”), a chickpea-flour tart seasoned with spices. Ancient sites within driving distance include the Roman cities of Banasa and Volubilis to the south and Tingis (modern Tangier) to the north on the Strait of Gibraltar. On your drive north, be sure to stop by the cromlech at Mzoura, a prehistoric tumulus surrounded by more than 150 standing stones.