Just published in an edited volume: a chapter on Senegalese urban design

In September 2013 I attended a conference in Lisbon on colonial and post-colonial urban planning across Africa. I am pleased to announce that the resulting edited volume has been published.

Grid Plan in Senegalese Urban Design_cover

Urban Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Colonial and Post-Colonial Planning Cultures was edited by Carlos Nunes Silva and published by Routledge, 2015.

My chapter in this volume is entitled “The Grid plan in the History of Senegalese Urban Design.” In it, I argue that an elite urban design culture involving use of the grid plan thrived in Senegambia prior to colonization. It was first used for the laying out of royal capitals in the 16th century and was then adopted by Muslim clerics in the 17th century. Its first colonial manifestation occurred when the French fort of Saint Louis expanded into a town in the 18th century. In the late 19th century the French systematically disseminated the grid plan inland through the establishment of rail-towns (escales). At this same time (ca. 1880-1950) it was also being implemented by all three major Senegalese Sufi orders in their darou-s (school-villages).

The grid plan is a ubiquitous urban design principle. It can be found in a wide variety of geographical and historical contexts. It characterized the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro, was used in ancient Egypt (worker’s towns like Lahun and Deir el-Medina), was a standard of ancient Greek colonization (Hippodamus’ Miletus), and characterized the camp-towns (castra) of the Romans . Nearly all the imperial cities of China (Chang’an, Beijing) and Japan (Nara, Kyoto) were laid out as grids. It was a feature of many agricultural frontier settlements in Medieval Western Europe (the bastides of southern France) and of some its royal establishments (like Winchelsea and Aigues-Mortes). European powers employed it in various American colonies (the Spanish Law of the Indies, English Philadelphia and Savannah) and it became standard across the United States and Canada throughout the 19th century. The grid plan is highly versatile, adaptable to a great variety of city types, and applied at a gamut of scales ranging from imperial capitals to agricultural villages. In modern times the grid plan has been conducive to the rational provisioning of public amenities (drinking water, sewage, electricity, civic addressing & postal service) and to the mass production of housing allotments. It is also well suited to motor vehicle traffic.

Given the extraordinary distribution of the phenomenon across time and space, the use of the grid as an urban design model does not correlate with any specific regime type, economic system or religious tradition. The only common denominator all grid planned settlements seem to share is the existence of a power, usually a state, able and willing to plan settlements in this way (Kostof 1991: 95-157). In other words, grid planned towns never seem to be the outcome of spontaneous local development. Rather, they are produced by powerful agents as a matter of policy. In cases where that agent ceases to exercise this power of control over built space, as when Roman authority dissipated, gridded towns may well morph into more “organic” types of urban fabric.

In this chapter, I argue that, in the case of Senegal, the grid plan first developed as the dominant settlement type for elites. The late 19th/early 20th-century dissemination of the grid plan across Senegal’s Peanut Basin was due as much to the “democratization” of that elite ancien régime model by the country’s new Islamic elite, the Sufi orders, as it was to French colonial policies. As is my wont, my argument is profusely supported by maps.

Ross_01_ancien régime mapThe above map locates the royal capitals, clerical towns and European establishments of the 17th-18th centuries.

Ross_02_capitalsBoth Diakhao, capital of the Kingdom of Sine, and Lambaye, capital of the Kingdom of Baol, were established in the 16th century. Both have grid plans.

Ross_03_clerical towns Starting in the 17th century, the emerging Muslim clerical elite adopted the grid plan for its settlements.

Ross_04_Saint LouisBy the end of the 18th century the French mercantile authority in Saint-Louis had adopted a grid plan for the town.

Ross_05_colonial mapFrench colonial policy in Senegal centered on opening up the “Peanut Basin” for cultivation of that cash-crop. This involved building a rail network and equipping it with regularly spaced grid-planned rail-towns, called escales. The Sufi orders too established grid-planned shrine-towns and darou-s throughout the Basin. Only a few of the darou-s (school-villages) are shown on the map.

Ross_06_Tivaouane escaleRail escales consisted of a standard grid and were intended as marketing centers for the peanut cash-crop.

Ross_07_Murid towns

Ross_08_Tijani townsAs the French built their rail network, the Sufi orders (the Murids, the Tijâniyya, and the Qâdiriyya (“Khadr”) were establishing darou-s, also linked to the peanut cash-crop. The formerly elite practice of establishing grid-planned settlements was generalized and democratized by these orders, who applied it to virtually all their settlements, rural and urban, major shrine and isolate darou alike.

The development of the grid in Senegal, as both urban model and social practice, clearly transcends the moments of rupture which colonial conquest and then independence are often assumed to represent. It also demonstrates the agency of African actors in the modern urbanization process, particularly during the colonial era, a time when the colonial project was nearly hegemonic and being fully deployed.

A pdf copy of my chapter can be downloaded here.

Suggested readings

on the grid plan in history:

  • Kostof, S., 1991. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. London: Thames & Hudson.

on colonial urban policies in Senegal:

  • Sinou, A., 1993. Comptoirs et villes coloniales du Sénégal: Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar, Paris: Karthala.
  • Pheffer, P. E., 1975. Railroads and Aspects of Social Change in Senegal 1878-1933. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

and, of course, my own works on Senegalese urban design:

  • Ross, E., 2006. Sufi City: Urban Design and Archetypes in Touba. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.
  • Ross, Eric (2015), “The Grid Plan in the History of Senegalese Urban Design”, in Urban Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Colonial and Post-Colonial Planning Cultures, edited by Carlos Nunes Silva, Routledge
  • Ross, Eric (2013), “Les places publiques (pénc) et la configuration des communautés”, in Les arts de la citoyenneté au Sénégal : Espaces contestés et civilités urbaines, edited by Mamadou Diouf & Rosalind Fredericks, Karthala, Paris.
  • Ross, E., 2012. Building Community: Configuring Authority and Identity on the Public Squares of Contemporary Senegalese Sufi Centers. Prayer in the City: The Making of Muslim Sacred Places and Urban Life, P. Desplat & D. Schultz eds., New Brunswick N.J.: Transaction Publishers & Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
  • Ross, Eric (2012), “Touba, le soufisme, et la modernité urbanistique”, in La Réponse du Soufisme à la Crise : Actes du Premier Colloque International du Grand Magal de Touba sur le Soufisme, Serigne Same Abdourahmane Bousso, ed., Dakar/Touba: Comité d’Organisation du Grand Magal de Touba, Commission Culture & Communication.
  • Ross, Eric (2006), “Le Pénc : élément du patrimoine et modèle d’aménagement urbain”, in Sénégalia : Etudes sur le patrimoine ouest-africain, Hommage à Guy Thilmans, edited by Cyr Descamps & Abdoulaye Camara, Editions Sépia, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés.
  • Ross, Eric (2005), “From marabout republics to autonomous rural communities: autonomous Muslim towns in Senegambia”, in African Urban Spaces in Historical Perspective, edited by Steven J. Salm & Toyin Falola, University of Rochester Press.
  • Ross, Eric (2005), Villes soufies du Sénégal : réseaux urbains religieux dans la longue durée, Série Conférences #20, Institut des Etudes Africaines, Université Mohammed V, Rabat.
  • Ross, Eric (2002), “Marabout republics then and now: configuring Muslim towns in Senegal”, in Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara, #16.
  • Ross, Eric (1995), “Touba: a spiritual metropolis in the modern world”, in Canadian Journal of African Studies, vol. 29, # 2.



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Attending a conference on Islam and peace in New York City

The skyline of midtown Manhattan as viewed from the 15th floor of

The skyline of midtown Manhattan as viewed from the 15th floor of Columbia University’s International Affairs Building, venue of the Islam and World Peace Conference.

I started the new semester by attending a conference. This is getting to be a habit; read about attending conferences at the outset of semesters in Lisbon (Sept. 2013), Edinburgh (Sept. 2014) and Harvard University (Feb. 2015). This time, the conference was on Islam and World Peace. Held on September 11-13, 2015, and scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the conference was jointly organized by Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, its Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life, and Majalis, a US-based NGO active in peace-building and African-Muslim heritage.

As academic conferences go, this one was exceptional and unusual in several respects. It included not only presentations of dry scientific papers, as wonderful as these are, but also the screening of a new documentary on Touba’s great Magal by filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and an exhibition of paintings by artist-calligrapher Yelimane Fall.

Painting titled "Touba Darou Salam" (Touba the Abode of Peace) by Senegalese Murid Calligrapher Yelimane Fall.

Painting titled “Touba Darou Salam” (Touba Abode of Peace) by Senegalese Murid Calligrapher Yelimane Fall, exhibited at the conference.

Mostly though, the conference was innovative in that it brought together academics and Senegalese clerics on both sides of the Atlantic. While academics have long studied clerics and their works, the idea that something fruitful can come out of a dialog is rather new. My first experience with this was at an International Conference on Sufism organized by Murids and held in Dakar and Touba in December 2011. There, scholars of Sufism met with sheikhs from several different Senegalese Sufi orders to discuss Sufi responses to the current global economic crisis. The proceedings of that get-together were published and can be downloaded here.

The context for this weekend’s dialog between academics and clerics is just as pressing. The post-9/11 world is characterized by extreme expressions of violence. Mass murders have become spectacular media events. Regimes are overthrown in displays of disproportionate “shock & awe.” Drones wantonly rain death on innocents from the skies. Arms sales are booming. Discourse on the web and in social media has become hateful and threatening (never read the comments). Violence is far more pervasive in the world now than at any time since WWII, and much of it is somehow associated with Islam; in the name of God, violent extremist who profess Islam go into mosques to kill Muslims as they pray. Not only is peace not being given a chance (I took a moment while in New York to visit Strawberry Field across from the Dakota Building where John Lennon was murdered), it doesn’t even seem to be an option any more. It’s as if it’s been taken off the menu. A whole generation of young people have come of age in the meantime. Our present age of extreme violence in act and in rhetoric is all they have known. This could prove disastrous to the world they are inheriting. How can we oppose the violence of our times? How can we take the space, our “public sphere,” back from saber-rattling, war-mongering and jihadism? How can we put peace back on the menu?

In contrast to warfare, which has a very ancient pedigree as an object of study in both theory and practice, as a political idea peace is a relative newcomer. Historically, religion has been the only sphere of human inquiry to develop the concept of peace. Because of their great geographic scope over centuries, this is particularly important in the case of the main “world” religions. This is why academics and clerics need to talk.

This conference aimed at presenting the theories, concepts and practices of peace in the  Islamic traditions of Senegal in particular, where a successful “peace tradition” has developed and thrives–there is talk of a “Senegalese model.” What can we learn from this? Over two days, clerics and academics assembled in Dakar and in New York City to share perspectives and experiences. On Sunday morning a joint panel discussion was held via satellite.

My contribution to the work shop consisted of tracing an ethical principle of nonviolence from Al-Hajj Salim Suware, founder of the Jakhanké clerical tradition in the 12th century, to modern Sufis: Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké (1853-1927) and Tijani sage Tierno Bokar Tall (1875-1939). All three thinkers categorically rejected violence, and armed jihad in particular. Their teachings have become the consensus, not just among clerics but throughout society, and this peace tradition is holding up very well.

Clerics and academics have something else in common, students. Our students and taalibes are our greatest assets. They are important to the issue of world peace not just because they are the “citizens of tomorrow” but because they are active world citizens now. They have grown up in a violent post-9/11 world of “culture wars” and “civilizational” conflict. For the most part, they don’t like it. We need to trust them. They are very good at articulating the kind of planet they want, and at communicating with each other. Our role as educators consists not only of presenting them with ideas but of empowering them as social actors. Clearly though, academics and clerics have only just begun the discussion.

Some words of wisdom from West African Sufis

Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké, 1853-1927

Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké, 1853-1927

This is how Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba responded when in 1886 Lat Dior, deposed king of Cayor and leader of resistance to French occupation, asked for advise on how to pursue the conflict:

“I am sure that if you manage to free yourself from your soldiers, to distance yourself from your weapons and horses, in recompense you would find something better and would know peace and tranquility…” (Serigne Bachir Mbacké. Les bienfaits de l’Eternel ou la biographie de Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké. Khadim Mbacké trad. Publication de l’IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop: Dakar. 1995: 62)


And here is one of Tierno Bokar Tall’s aphorisms:

Tierno Bokar Tall, 1875-1939

Tierno Bokar Tall, 1875-1939

“When will men realize that panting war horses and weapons that spew deadly fire and destruction can only destroy material beings, never the principle of evil which inhabits souls which lack any sense of charity. Evil is like a mysterious breath. When one kills a man inhabited by evil violently or with weapons, the principle of evil rebounds out of the cadaver which can no longer be inhabited and it enters the murderer through his dilated nostrils, where it then takes new root and grows even stronger. Evil must be combated with weapons of Good and Love. When love destroys evil, evil is definitively killed. Brutal force only buries the evil it wants to destroy for a while. Know that evil is a tenacious seed. Once buried it grows stealthily. It germinates and reemerges stronger than before.” (Amadou Hampaté Bâ. Vie et enseignement de    Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 1980: 159-60).

Suggested readings

  • Ba, Amadou Hampaté (1980), Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara, Editions du Seuil, Paris.
  • Ba, Amadou Hampaté (2008), A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, Translated by Jane Fatima Kasewit, Edited by Roger Gaetani, World Wisdom Publisher.
  • Babou, Cheikh Anta (2007), Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853-1913, Ohio University Press, Athens.
  • Diouf, Mamadou (editor) (2013), Tolerance, Democracy and Sufis in Senegal, Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Dumont, Fernand (1969). “Amadou Bamba, apôtre de la non-violence.” Notes africaines. #121, pp. 20-24.
  • Sanneh, Lamine (1989). The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics: A Religious and Historical Study of Islam in Senegambia. New York City: University Press of America.
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Attending a geography conference in Ankara

Ankara Kale croppedI have spent the break between the Spring and Summer semesters in Turkey. First, I attended a geography conference in Ankara, after which I was invited to Konya to give a presentation.

This year’s EuroGeo Conference was held in Ankara. Yes, European geographers know very well that Ankara isn’t in Europe. The point this year is that EuroGeo teamed up with Coğrafyacılar Derneği, the Turkish association of geographers, to hold a join conference and annual congress. This was hosted at Gazi Üniversitesi.

A few AUI colleagues decided to hold a panel discussion there on teaching Liberal Arts geography in Morocco. My presentation was entitled: “Teaching Geography to Students who Hate Geography.” The other participants on the AUI panel were my friends Dr. Abdelkrim Marzouk and Dr. John Shoup.

Left to right: the author, Dr. John Shoup & dr. Abdelkrim Marzouk at the opening session ofthe EuroGeo conference in Ankara, May 2015. (ph. Eric Ross)

Left to right: the author, Prof. John Shoup and Prof. Abdelkrim Marzouk at the opening session of the EuroGeo conference in Ankara, 21 May 2015. (ph. Eric Ross)

Apart from the conference proper, I really enjoyed seeing Ankara again. It is my home town. I was born there over 50 years ago, when it had about 500 000 inhabitants. It is about ten times bigger today, with skyscrapers and shopping malls and a subway system and expressways and lots and lots of traffic. Growth has been particularly spectacular–one might even say devastating–over the past 15 years as Turkey’s economy has boomed. Not just Ankara, large and small cities all over the country are being radically transformed. Old historic neighborhoods near city centers are being systematically destroyed to make way for higher density apartment blocks.

After Ankara, I was invited by Prof. Arzu Taylan of the Department of Urban Planning at Selçuk Üniversitesi in Konya–the city of Jalal al-Din Rumi–to give an informal presentation on Sufi principles in the urban design of Touba, Senegal.

The author presenting at Selçuk Üniversitesi, Konya, 26 May.

The author presenting on Touba at Selçuk Üniversitesi, Konya, 26 May.

Being in Konya, I took advantage of my stay to visit Rumi’s tekke (zâwiya and tomb).

View of the Mevlana Tekke in Konya. Jalal al-Din Rumi is buried beneath the blue-tiled dome. (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the Mevlevi Tekke in Konya. Jalal al-Din Rumi is buried beneath the exquisite blue-tiled dome. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mevlana Jalal al-Din's richly adorned tomb chamber. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mevlana Jalal al-Din’s richly adorned tomb chamber. (ph. Eric Ross)

I also visited the mosque and tomb of his most discreet teacher and beloved disciple, Shams-i Tabrizi.

The mosque & tomb of Şemsi Tebrizi in Konya (ph. Eric Ross)

The mosque & tomb of Şemsi Tebrizi in Konya (ph. Eric Ross)

Catafalque of Şemsi Tebrizi (ph. Eric Ross)

Catafalque of Şemsi Tebrizi (ph. Eric Ross)

Otherwise, I put my vacation time to good use (joindre l’agréable à l’utile) by visiting archaeological sites close to Ankara and Konya. These included Hattuşa, capital of the Hittite empire…

View of Lower City of Hattuşa (ph. John Shoup)

View of the Lower City of Hattuşa, with reconstructed section of the city’s wall (ph. John Shoup)

Efletunpinar, the sacred spring shrine of the Hittites…

View of the fountain in Efletunpinar, the sacred spring of the Hittites (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the fountain at Efletunpinar, the sacred spring of the Hittites (ph. Eric Ross)

and Çatal Hüyük, the oldest city yet unearthed (thrived ca. 7000 BCE).

The excavations at Çatal Hüyük are protected by large sheds (ph. EricRoss)

The excavations at Çatal Hüyük are protected by large sheds (ph. EricRoss)

Many layers of houses have been excavated at Çatal Hüyük (ph. Eric Ross)

Many layers of houses have been excavated at Çatal Hüyük (ph. Eric Ross)

Trips to Turkey are always heart-warming for me (see this post about a previous field trip), not just because I was born there, and not just because I love Turkish cuisine, but because of the country’s rich cultural heritage. From Neolithic and Bronze-age sites, to Seljuk Sufi shrines, to imperial Ottoman architecture, every site is maintained in an impeccable state. Visitor center displays and information booklets in multiple languages are provided at all sites. Local museums are well maintained and even tourist gift shops offer a range of quality items for sale. Morocco can learn much from Turkey’s administration and maintenance of heritage sites.

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Visiting restoration projects in Fez

As the semester progresses, I continue to take the Moroccan Cultural Heritage class into the field (for previous class trips, check these posts on the cave houses of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam and on Volubilis). On Saturday 28 March we toured historic Fez visiting a variety of buildings currently under restoration (check this post on Morocco’s imperial cities).

The astronomical observatory of Qarawiyin Mosque (left) is currently being restored (ph. Eric Ross)

The astronomical observatory of Qarawiyin Mosque (left) is currently being restored (ph. Eric Ross)

Mr. Aziz Miziane of ADER-Fès (Agence pour la dédensification et la réhabilitation de la médina de Fès) agreed to spend his Saturday showing the students various restoration projects, most of which are located in the Qarawiyin quarter, and explaining the challenges they pose.

Main streets in residential neighborhoods barely allow two pedestrians to pass each other (ph. Eric Ross)

Main streets in residential neighborhoods are barely wide enough for two pedestrians to pass each other (ph. Eric Ross)

Firstly, the historic urban fabric is extraordinarily tight. Residential alleys are often barely one meter wide, and sometimes considerably narrower. This means that all construction material must be delivered by donkey or wheelbarrow and that rubble and other unwanted material must be removed by these means as well.

Wooden braces prevent the outer walls of houses from collapsing into this dead end alley (ph. Eric Ross)

Wooden braces prevent the outer walls of houses from collapsing into this dead-end alley (ph. Eric Ross)

Some of the buildings being restored are grand or prestigious, like madrasas (law colleges) and funduqs (caravansarys, trading hostels). Sufficient government funds are allocated for state-of-the-art restoration involving authentic materials and craftsmanship. Others however are ordinary houses inhabited by working-class families with few resources of their own. The government allocates about 80,000 MAD to such projects but this is far from sufficient to cover all the costs. Families restore their houses as best they can given their budget, and compromises are inevitable (for example, use of cement brick and cement mortar, mass-produced tile instead of true zellij).

Inner courtyard of the Berqa Funduq, whose restoration has just been completed (ph. Eric Ross)

Inner courtyard of the Berqa Funduq, whose restoration has just been completed (ph. Eric Ross)

Sometimes the restoration work is conducted as a matter of urgency. Over the course of the last 70 years or so residential density in the old city more than doubled. Many of the old houses have been re-built or enlarged with additional floors. The weight of these upper floors has weakened ground floor walls. The winter rains are particularly destructive as water seepage causes walls to collapse.

Restoration of this funduq is still very much work-in-progress (ph. Eric Ross)

Restoration of this funduq is still very much work-in-progress (ph. Eric Ross)

Despite the daunting task of seeing to the soundness of the over one hundred thousand buildings which make up the historic urban fabric of Fez, ADER-Fès has chalked up an impressive array of successes. The students were shown some of the most recent ones.

Restoration of the Chamma'in (candlemakers') Funduq is very near completion (ph. Eric Ross)

Restoration of the Chamma’in (Candlemakers’) Funduq is very near completion (ph. Eric Ross)

The restoration of several funduqs is now nearing completion. These historic commercial spaces will once again be given over to commerce, mostly as workshops and sales outlets for traditional urban crafts (tailoring, leather-work, copper-work, cabinet-making, book-binding…).

Oued Boukhareb as it flows out from under Recif Square. At this point it is an open sewer but a project is under way to clean it up and restore it as a river. (ph. Eric Ross)

Oued Boukhareb as it flows out from under Recif Square. At this point it is an open sewer but a project is under way to clean it up and restore it as a river. One Fassi poet once compared the Boukhareb to the delicate arm of a bride, the bridges standing for her silver bracelets. (ph. Eric Ross)

Other types of buildings currently being restored include hammams (bath houses, too dark to photograph), the Aïn Azliten tanneries (sorry, no photos of the work-in-progress allowed) and neighboring Dar Dammana (guest house of the Ouazzaniya Zawiya).

AUI grad students Ali Taimoum, Sawsene Nejjar, Walter Spain and Ajsha Kester

AUI grad students Ali Taimoum, Sawsene Nejjar, Walter Spain and Ajsha Kester asked terrific questions about the living architectural heritage of Fez during the day-long excursion (ph. Eric Ross)

Great fun, and the semester isn’t over yet. Our next excursion will be to Casablanca.

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Teaching a seminar on contemporary Senegalese Sufism

Tsukuba 2I am in Tsukuba, Japan, this week, teaching a seminar on contemporary Senegalese Sufism. A former student of mine, Matsubara Kosuke, is now a professor of urban planning at the University of Tsukuba. This Japanese university and Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane have a solid partnership, one part of which consists of short-term faculty exchange. Two AUI professors, Dr. Jack Kalpakian and Dr. Ahmed Rhazaoui, have come here in the past. This year it is my turn.

I am delighted to be here on several counts. First, being invited by a former student who is now a professor himself is a milestone of sorts in my career. Secondly, I actually teach about Tsukuba in my Economic Geography course. Created through the merger and relocation of several older institutions in 1973, Tsukuba is the original “techno-pole,” an R & D “science city” where government, academia and private enterprise collaborate in both fundamental and applied research.  To give readers of this post some idea of the place, in my time off I have been given a tour of JAXA, Japan’s space agency, and have been outfitted with a Cyberdyne robot exoskeleton in a shopping mall. Thirdly, I rarely get a chance to discuss my Senegalese research in the classroom. Being invited to do so in a week-long seminar half way around the world only adds to the pleasure.

Tsukuba 1Tsukuba is much as I expected it would be. A true college-town, the university campus and the city merge seamlessly into each other. The place offers a textbook example of post-war high-modern architecture and urban planning. Leafy green parkland dotted with lakes and ponds twists through the urban fabric. Pedestrian and bicycle flows are segregated above the automobile traffic. University buildings are grouped around open plazas with fountains. The campus is bicycle-friendly, handicapped-friendly and wheelchair-accessible throughout.

Tsukuba 3This visit has also allowed me to meet up the three AUI graduate students who are studying here this year, also part of the partnership between the two universities.

AUI grad students

AUI grad students Idriss Chaer, Abdelouahad Damsiri and Abdelfattah Kadiri have taken well to student life at Tsukuba.

I am presenting my work on Senegal to a diverse group of students: a mix of Japanese and internationals, some undergraduates and a few graduates, some studying Urban Planning, others majoring International Studies. The order of my presentations has been as follows:

  • Monday: introductory presentation on Senegalese history and the socio-cultural development of Islam there.
  • Tuesday: development of the “pénc and grid” urban design model from the 17th century till today. Read more about this here and here.
  • Wednesday: The role of the Sufi arboreal archetype in the urban design of Touba and the legacy of Senegambian palaver trees. Read more about this here and here.
  • Thursday: The development of the Catholic figure of Jesus within the practices of the Layène Sufi order of Cape Vert. Read more about this here.
  • Friday: The globalization of Touba through the practices of expatriate Murid disciples. Read more about this here.

University of Tsukuba students will now have one week to respond to this material.

Eric Ross, cyborg academic

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Of heartlands and pan-regions: mapping the spheres of influence of the great powers in the age of world wars

The second map display in my Geopolitics class this semester (for the first, see this post on geopolitical zoology) dealt with the core geopolitical theories of the 1900-1945 period. This was an era of intense rivalry between what were then known as “the great powers,” an era that will forever be remembered for its destructive world wars.

4004 Haushofer Pazifischen_cropThis era also marked the apogee of geography as a scholarly discipline, and of geographers as public intellectuals. Geographers were the quintessential “experts” of that age. They claimed to have factual, objective knowledge of all places and peoples. After all, over the course of the previous half century geographers had penetrated the darkest continents, mapped the wildest rivers, and climbed the snowiest peeks. They had enabled the spread of European empires and facilitated the mineral prospection of Western companies in every clime. Geographers were respected for their knowledge, and their knowledge was solicited by the most powerful political, military and economic institutions of the day. This became particularly evident during both world wars when the top geographers of the warring states sat in the inner cabinets of their respective governments and served as expert councilors during treaty negotiations. The four brief bios below will illustrate this point.

Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947)

Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947)

Sir Halford Mackinder gained his field credentials by being the first white man to climb Mount Kenya (1895). He was a founding member of the British Geographical Association (1893), and a founding member (1895) and later director (1903-1908) of the London School of Economics. In 1910 he was elected to the British Parliament as a Unionist Party candidate. He served as British High Commissioner to South (White) Russia between 1919 and 1920 and was knighted by King George V upon his return. He was appointed Chairman of the Imperial Shipping Committee (1920-1945) and then of the Imperial Economic Committee (1926-1931). He was also informally associated with the establishment of the grand-daddy of all conservative think tanks, the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs (aka Chatham House) in 1920.

Paul Vidal de la Blache ()

Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918)

Paul Vidal de la Blache gained his field credentials in the Orient (Athens, Egypt, Palestine, 1866-1870). He was the co-founder of the academic journal Annales de géographie (1891). In 1910 he was asked by French Prime Minister Aristid Briand to develop a new regional administrative system for the Republic. In 1917 he was appointed to co-chair the Comité d’études, a ministerial think tank tasked with preparing the post-war map. That year he also published La France de l’Est (Lorraine-Alsace) which set out France’s war aims regarding the border with Germany. He died shortly before the end of the war.

Isaiah Bowman ()

Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950)

Isaiah Bowman gained his field credentials mapping the Peruvian Andes (1912). Director of the American Geographical Society (1915-1935), he spearheaded the project to map all of Latin America at 1/1,000,000 at the request of US mining and oil companies. When the US entered WWI he became the chief territorial adviser to President Woodrow Wilson and was appointed to the (in)famous “Inquiry,” a think tank of academics assembled by the President to advise on US war aims. Founding Director of the Council on Foreign Relations (1921) and then its Vice-President (1945-1949), Bowman also served as president of Johns Hopkins University (1935-1948). When the US entered WWII he was appointed by Franklyn Delano Roosevelt to serve as territorial adviser to the State Department.

Karl Haushofer (1869-1946)

Karl Haushofer (1869-1946)

Karl Haushofer pursued a career as a military geographer and gained his field credentials in the Far East. Sent by the German High Command to observe the Japanese Army and its imperial administration (1909-1910), he traveled extensively through the Japanese territories of Korea and Manchuria. He returned to Germany to defend a thesis on Japan’s position in the world (1913). He was the founder of the academic journal Zeitschrift für Geopolitik (1924). Much has been made of the supposed “Institut für Geopolitik” he was said to have established at the University of Munich (it didn’t exist). His student Rudolph Hess introduced him to Adolf Hitler while the latter was serving time in Landsberg Prison in 1923. Much too has been made of their six-hour meeting as the future dictator was writing Mein Kampf at the time (beware while searching for him on the web, Haushofer has become an occult genius guru figure for neo-nazi groups). Haushofer had a rocky relationship with the Nazis once they came to power. An old-school Catholic Conservative married to a “half-Jewess,” he found their ideology and tactics vulgar and he never joined the Party. He broke with the Nazi regime definitively in 1941 when Germany invaded the USSR. Interviewed by Edmund Walsh following Germany’s defeat in 1945, he was deemed not to have been implicated in war crimes and was not brought to Nuremberg to stand trial alongside Nazis.

These four geographers were the top geographers of their generation in their respective countries (I discussed a few others: Friedrich Ratzel, Rudolf Kjellén and Alfred Mahan in class as well). All four were politically conservative and deeply committed to the imperial pretensions of their respective states. Their expertise was sought after by the practitioners of statecraft, to the point where by WWII they had become household names, academic “superstars” in today’s terms. They directed the national geographical institutions of their respective countries and were forceful in promoting the teaching of geography in national public schools. Consequently, their ideas were widely known. The type of geography they promoted was deeply nationalistic, unabashedly imperialist, and often highly militarized. Today it is considered to be deeply flawed because it was essentialist, positivist, racist and environmentally deterministic. Theirs is a completely discredited branch of the discipline. Few geographer today work with their theories.

Nonetheless, the geopolitical theories of the 1900-1945 era were hugely important in their day. No survey of Geopolitics, as a state practice or an academic discipline, can ignore them. I presented two of these theories to the class.

Mackinder’s Heartland Theory

The first iteration of Mackinder's heartland theory: the Pivot Area conceived of in 1904.

The first iteration of Mackinder’s “Heartland” theory: the Pivot Area conceived of in 1904.

Halford Mackinder developed his theory of a Eurasian “heartland” over forty years. He first proposed it in an address on “The Geographical Pivot of History,” delivered to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904 (subsequently published in the The Geographical Journal, vol. 23, #4, 1904). He proposed that History and the exercise of power at the global scale in the 20th century could be understood as the product of the peculiar geography of a “pivot” in Siberia and Central Asia. This “pivot” was characterized by the fact that it was eternally immune to sea power; great Siberian rivers all ran north into the ice-bound Arctic Ocean which the British navy could not penetrate, while Central Asia had land-locked river basins equally beyond its reach. Therefore, this pivot era could not be controlled by sea-power. In the age of the rail—the trans-Siberian railway was just being completed—this inaccessibility (to the British navy) rendered the “pivot” not only impregnable but turned it into a threat to the exercise of sea-power over the Eurasian landmass that surrounded it (Central Europe, the Middle East, India, China). A lot of ink has been squandered on this theory since 1904. Mackinder himself revised it twice: first at the close of WWI (Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, 1919) and then again during WWII (“The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” in Foreign Affairs, vol. 21, #4,  1943). It proved a seminal theory for US strategists during the Cold War and is clearly the geopolitical scheme behind George Orwell’s novel 1984 (published in 1948).

No-one should begrudge Sir Halford Mackinder for not having taken air power into account in his “pivot”  (later re-labeled as the “heartland”) theory. It was based on the dichotomous sea-power/land-power theory which Alfred Mahan had proposed in 1887 (a theory also used by the top World Historians of the time: H.G. Wells and Arnold Toynbee). After all, the airplane had just been invented when the “Geographical Pivot of History” was published in 1904. What beggars belief is the fact that 40 or 80 or 100 years later the central premise of the geographical impenetrability of an Asian “heartland” was still taken seriously as a basis for analysis of world power. Air power anyone? Long-range bombers? Intercontinental ballistic missiles? Drones? The career of Mackinder’s “heartland” theory is truly a testament to the power of ideology over science, and of the vapidity of “geopolitics” as a social scientific discipline.

Haushofer’s Pan-Regions Theory

One ofseveral representations of Haushofer's "Pan-Regions" theory

One of several representations of Haushofer’s “Pan-Regions” theory

Karl Haushofer developed his theory of pan-regions by analyzing the growth of the American and the Japanese empires in the period prior to WWI. According to his analysis, the world was dominated by four industrial heartlands: Western Europe, Russia, Japan and the United States. Each needed the resources (minerals, fuels, labor, markets) of vast continental hinterlands in order to thrive. The US had already established its “sphere” in Central and South America (established by the Monroe Doctrine and Theodor Roosevelt’s Corollary). Russia had already established its territorial empire across Siberia and Central Asia. Japan was in the process of creating a sphere for itself in the Far East (what we call today Asia-Pacific), where it faced the entrenched interests of the British, French and Dutch overseas empires. The Western European sphere had been established in Africa and South Asia but its two historic metropoles, Britain and France, were no longer competitive with the growing manufacturing power of Germany—Germany must replace these two older empires and establish its own pan-region in Europe-Africa-South Asia.

Japanese WWII representation of its Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere"

Japanese WWII representation of its “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere”

The pan-regions theory found great favor among intellectuals and practitioners of statecraft in Germany and Japan in the 1920s-1930s. In fact, Haushofer was convinced that Germany could only succeed in establishing a pan-region for itself, at the expense of the existing British and French empires, if it came to an accommodation with the other three industrial heartlands: Russian, Japan and the US. Germany’s non-aggression treaty with the USSR (August 1939) and its Axis Pact with Japan (September 1940) seemed to vindicate his theory and set Germany on the road to victory in WWII. However, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and its reckless declaration of war against the US later that year shattered Haushofer’s life’s work.

1940 Italian map representing the US hegemony in the Americas (in an art deco esthetic). By this time strategic thinkers in the US were looking well beyond this established pan-region.

1940 Italian map representing (in art deco graphics) US hegemony in the Americas. By this time strategic thinkers in the US were looking well beyond this established pan-region.

Not surprisingly, British and French geographers and statesmen were not at all seduced by Haushofer’s pan-region theory. Neither was the Soviet leadership. As for the United States, which had effectively created a pan-region for itself by WWI, by the 1920s it was already looking beyond the Americas at a global regime of “liberal internationalism” (Isaiah Bowman’s concept) characterized by unfettered investment and free trade—neoliberal globalization avant la lettre. Like Mackinder’s “heartland,” Haushofer’s “pan-regions” has had a long life, which is not over. The “Eurasian heartland/pan-region” current in Russian geopolitical thinking (Aleksandr Dugin’s “Fourth Political Theory”) owes much to these earlier theories.

No geographer should lament that the discipline has fallen out of the high-tone limelight. Today’s geopolitical “experts” are not geographers: Aleksandr Dugin and Samuel Huntington (“The Clash of Civilization?,” Foreign Affairs, 1994) are political scientists, Thomas Barnett (“The Pentagon’s New Map” Esquire Magazine, 2004) is a military analyst, Robert D. Kaplan (“The Coming Anarchy,” The Atlantic, 1994) is a journalist. They can all draw scary maps but none is a geographer.


Political cartoon web catch illustrating the imperial brutality of the Entente Cordiale.

Geographers no longer provide grand master-narratives of global power, and for good reason. We have learned the hard way that the reality of this power is far messier–and bloodier–than the narratives let on, and that no grand narrative is ever divorced from the great power it is describing. Today’s geographers are far more likely to critique geopolitical discourse, past and present, than to contribute to it. If, in retrospect, the two grand geopolitical narratives of the early 20th century described above look wonky and quaintly Edwardian, they allow us to better see the flaws and limitations of the equally bombastic grand geopolitical narratives of today.


Suggested readings

The geopolitical writings of the 1904-1945 era present a fascinating collection of virulently nationalist, imperialist, racist and fascist theorizing, if one has the stomach for it. There has been much excellent recent scholarship about it.

Some primary sources

  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer (1987), The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. New York: Dover Publications (first published in 1890).
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer (1902). Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.
  • Ratzel, Friedrich (1896). “The Territorial Growth of States.” In Scottish Geographical Magazine (12), pp. 351-361.
  • Mackinder, Halford. J. (1904). “The Geographical Pivot of History.” In The Geographical Journal, vol. 23, #4, pp. 421-437.
  • Mackinder, Halford. J. (1919). Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction. London: Constable & Co. (reprinted in 2012 by Forgotten Books).
  • Mackinder, Halford. J. (1943). “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.” In Foreign Affairs, vol. 21, #4, pp. 595-605.
  • Vidal de la Blache, Paul (1917). La France de l’Est (Lorraine-Alsace), Paris: Armand Colin (republished in 1994 by La Découverte with an introduction by Yves Lacoste).
  • Bowman, Isaiah (1921). The New World: Problems in Political Geography. New York City: World Book Company.
  • Bowman, Isaiah (1942). “Geography vs. Geopolitics.” In Geographical Review, vol. 32, #4, pp. 646-658.
  • Chéradame, André (1925). Les causes lointaines de la guerre. Evreux: Ch. Hérissey.
  • Haushofer, Karl (2002). An English Translation and analysis of Major General Karl Haushofer’s “Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean: Studies on the Relationship between Geography and History”. Edited by Lewis A. Tambs. Translated by Ernst J. Brehm. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
  • Spykman, Nicholas J. (1938). “Geography and Foreign Policy I & II.” In The American Political Science Review, vol. 32, #1, pp. 28-50 & #2, pp. 213-236
  • Spykman, Nicholas J. (1939). “Geographic Objectives of Foreign Policy I & II.” In The American Political Science Review, vol. 33, #3, pp. 391-410 & #4, pp. 591-614.
  • Spykman, Nicholas J. (1942). “Frontiers, Security and International Organization.” In Geographical Review, vol. 32, #3, pp. 436-447.
  • de Seversky, Alexander P. (1942). Victory through Air Power, New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Walsh, Edmund (1948). Total Power: A Footnote to History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Some excellent recent scholarship on the geopolitics of that era

  • Arrault, Jean-Baptiste (2008). “Une géographie inattendue: le système mondial vu par Paul Vidal de la Blache.” L’Espace Géographique, vol. 37, #1, pp. 75-88.
  • Blouet, Brian W. ed. (2005). Global Geostrategy: Mackinder and the Defense of the West. London & New York: Frank Cass publishers.
  • Dodds, Klaus & David Atkinson, eds. (2000). Geopolitical Traditions: A Century of Geopolitical Thought. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Kearns, Gerard (2009), Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Murphy, David Thomas (1997). The Heroic Earth: Geopolitical Thought in Weimar Germany 1918-1933. Kent: Kent State University.
  • O’Tuathail, Gearoid, Simon Dalbi & Paul Routeledge, eds. (2006). The Geopolitics Reader (2nd Edition). London & New York: Routledge.
  • Smith, Neil (2003). American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Presenting Volubilis, ancient capital of Berber Morocco

The second field trip in my Moroccan Cultural Heritage course (the first was to the cave houses of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam) was to Volubilis, Morocco’s premier archaeological site. All too often, in school textbooks and in tourist guidebooks, Volubilis is presented as a Roman city. This is not an accurate designation. Walili, Latinized as Volubilis, was an important Berber city for several centuries prior to Roman rule, and it remained an important city many centuries after the Romans withdrew. The purpose of the excursion on Saturday 14 Feb. was to explore Volubilis as a historic Moroccan city, a place integral to this country’s cultural heritage, rather than as a foreign place, of interest mainly to tourists.

View of the monumental civic center of Walili/Volubilis (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the monumental civic center of Walili/Volubilis (ph. Eric Ross)

Walili was a thriving town already in the third century B.C.E. It was the capital of the Mauritanian kingdom of the Bocchus dynasty (roughly 118-33 B.C.E.) and was probably also the occasional royal residence under Juba II (25 B.C.E-23 C.E.). It had several Amazigh (Berber) temples and sanctuaries and contained a royal tumulus of uncertain attribution.

The Romans annexed the Amazigh kingdom of Mauritania in 40 C.E. Included as a municipum of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana (named after its capital, Tangier), Walili/Volubilis acquired many Roman characteristics over the subsequent 250 years. Thus it is better described as a “Romanized” city rather than a Roman one. There are many complete and quite spectacular Roman cities in North Africa (Timgad, Lepcis Magna), but Volubilis is not one of them. The population of Volubilis spoke Tamazight throughout the era of Roman rule. Latin speakers and ethnic Romans would have been few and far between in the little provincial town. Though ethnically and linguistically Berber, Volubilis was apparently as cosmopolitan as any other part of the empire; inscriptions in Tifinagh (Lybian), Punic (Phoenician-Carthaginian), Hebrew, Greek and Latin have been discovered there.

Reconstruction of Volubilis in the early 3rd century C.E. Legend:

Reconstruction of Volubilis in the early 3rd century C.E. Legend: 1) city walls, 2) Tangier Gate, 3) Decumanus Maximus, 4) West Gate, 5) Temple of Jupiter, 6) Chapel of Venus, 7) Basilica, 8) Forum, 9) Baths of Gallien, 10) Baths of the Tangier Gate, 11) House of Orpheus, 12) House of the Columns, 13) Palace of Gordian, 14) necropolis, 15) columbarium, 16) aqueduct, 17) fountain, 18) potters’ quarter, 19) Arch of Caracalla. (source: Géo Magazine, #312, Feb. 2005, p. 51)

Though Roman rule in Volubilis lasted for less than a fifth of the city’s history, most of the visible archaeological remains there date from this period. There are two reasons for this. First, the Romans used monumental architecture to consolidate their rule and institutions in all the cities of their empire. Their stone masonry has survived in the archaeological record far better than other building types. Secondly, when the French archaeologists excavated Volubilis in the early 20th century they deliberately exposed and promoted the Roman layer. The French saw themselves as the inheritors of the Romans in North Africa and openly portrayed their empire as a continuation of that of the Romans. Post-Roman layers of the city were considered accretions and removed while layers lying beneath the Roman-era buildings were left unexplored in order not to destroy the Roman layer.

04 Volubilis plan_crop

Plan of the site of Volubilis. Legend: 1) Tangier Gate, 2) Decumanus Maximus, 3) Temple B, 4) Arch of Caracalla, 5) House of the Columns, 6) Basilica, 7)  Temple of Jupiter, 8) Forum, 9) House of Orpheus. (source: Grande Encyclopedie du Maroc: Culture, Arts et Traditions vol. 1, 1987, p. 157)

Professor John Shoup’s Development Policy class and Jake Warga’s Photography students joined my group for a three hours exploration of two main neighborhoods of the Romanized city: the monumental civic center and the patrician neighborhood.

Civic center of Volubilis, showing the capitol complex, the forum, the basilica and the triumphant arch.

Civic center of Volubilis, showing the capitol complex, the forum, the basilica and the triumphant arch.

The heart of the city consists of a forum with adjoining temples, a basilica, a capitol complex dedicated to Jupiter, and several baths (thermes). This was already the civic and political center of the Amazigh city prior to Roman rule but it was given a monumental make-over in the first and second centuries C.E.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter. (source: Grand Encyclopedie du Maroc)

Reconstruction of the Capitol complex, with the Temple of Jupiter and lateral chapels. (source: Jean-Luc Panetier, Volubilis: une cité du Maroc antique, 2002, p. 78)

Jupiter was the imperial god of the Romans. They instituted his worship in all the lands they conquered. They usually did this by associating Jupiter to the principal god of the various provinces and cities they ruled: hence we find Jupiter-Zeus in Greece and Jupiter-Amon-Ra in Egypt. In Volubilis, the precinct of the Temple of Jupiter also housed temples to a number of Amazigh gods in chapels under the lateral porticoes. The identities of most these local deities have not been ascertained.

Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Temple of Jupiter is elevated on a plinth above the forum and the basilica. It thus reproduces the geography of Rome itself, where the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline overlooked the Forum and its basilicas.

15 basilica (57)

The Basilica, showing the facade of arches facing the forum. (ph. Eric Ross)

The basilica as seen from the Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The basilica as seen from the Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The basilica in Volubilis had two lateral aisles flanking a central nave with an apse at each end. After the end of Roman rule, when the building was no longer needed to house a bureaucracy, it was converted into a church. A large baptismal font in the floor attests to this. Volubilis thus offers an excellent showcase for the architectural continuity between imperial basilicas and Christian church design. The curia (municipal council) is believed to have met in a hall adjoining the basilica to the east. To the west, the basilica opened widely onto the forum and the principal Berber sanctuary (Sanctuary D). The forum is quite small but contains a rostrum and numerous stone pedestals where bronze statues of local grandees used to stand.

The Arche of Caracalla, at the foot of the Decumanus Maximus. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Arch of Caracalla, at the foot of the Decumanus Maximus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Two blocks north of the forum is the Arch of Caracalla (reigned 198-217 C.E.). This awkward-looking arch is surely the most ostentatious monument to have been erected in the city. It was built to commemorate Emperor Caracalla’s tax remission–one wonders if the tax money that paid for it couldn’t have been better spent. Its current configuration is the result of some hasty rebuilding by the French archaeologists. Pieces of the original masonry that didn’t quite fit were left piled against near-by walls. It really ought to be dismantled and reassembled properly.

The monumental center of Volubilis is actually quite limited in terms of structures and functions and this distinguishes the place as a small provincial city, especially when compared to the empire’s major cities. Conspicuous by their absent in Volubilis are the grand structures of entertainment one would expect in even the smallest Roman city. No theater, circus or coliseum was ever built there.

View of the colonnaded Decumanus Maximus. (ph. Eric Ross)

View along the colonnaded Decumanus Maximus to the Arch of Caracalla. (ph. Eric Ross)

Three arches of the arcade along the Decumanus Maximus were reerected. Professor John Shoup leads students in the foreground. (ph. Eric Ross)

Three arches of the arcade along the Decumanus Maximus were re-erected by archaeologists. Professor John Shoup leads students in the foreground. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Tangier Gate, at the top of the Decumanus Maximus, marks the northern extremity of the city. From there a road led to Tangier, the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Tangier Gate, at the top of the Decumanus Maximus, marks the northern extremity of the city. From here a road led to Tangier, the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana. (ph. Eric Ross)

The patrician neighborhood of Volubilis was laid out along the Decamanus Maximus, stretching up a slope northeast of the civic center. Provisioned with fresh running water through a system of aqueducts, this is where the wealthy landowners built their large houses.

Atrium of the House of the Columns (ph. Eric Ross)

Atrium with large circular pool in the House of the Columns (ph. Eric Ross)

Private garden in the House of the Columns. (ph. Eric Ross)

Private garden with lobed fountain in the House of the Columns. (ph. Eric Ross)

Atrium of the House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Atrium with lobed fountain in the House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Pool in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Pool in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Fountain and triclinium in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Lobed fountain and triclinium in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Modeled on the Roman domus, Volubilis’ Patrician houses were of a single story and ordered around an atrium at the front and a secluded garden court at the back. Many also had their own private bath.

Caldarium (hot room) of the bath in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Caldarium (hot room) of the bath in the House of Orpheus. The brick hypocaust beneath the floor was heated with hot air from the boiler room. Hot air was then channeled through pottery flues embedded in the walls. (ph. Eric Ross)

The patricians’ houses of Volubilis are particular in that they contain olive presses, wine presses and grinding stones for flour. Ordinarily, Roman landowners relegated these agricultural activities to their country villas. Apparently, the landed elite of Volubilis did not have country homes and so made oil, wine and flour in their townhouses. This is yet another indication of just how un-Roman the “Roman” city of Volubilis was.

Mosaic of Diana and Acteon, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of Diana and Actaeon, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of Hylas and the nymphs, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of Hylas and the nymphs, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Volubilis is famous for two art forms: bronze statuary and mosaics. The bronzes (the ephebe, the bust of Juba II, the dog) are all in the Archaeological Museum in Rabat. None can be seen on site. Not so for the mosaics thought. The patrician houses all contain marvelous specimens of second and third century mosaics.

Mosaic of the labors of Hercules, in the exedra of the house of that name. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of the labors of Hercules, in a triclinium of the house of that name. (ph. Eric Ross)

The colorful central panels of these mosaics were produced in workshops in Iberia (Spain) and Gaul (France) and exported throughout the empire in ready-to-assemble kits. The black and white floor patterns which surround them however were laid by local artisans. Some of these patterns are still woven into Middle Atlas carpets today.

Mosaic around the atrium, House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic around the atrium, House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of the four seasons and four muses, House of Dionysus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of the four seasons and four muses, House of Dionysus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Unfortunately, none of the mosaics in Volubilis are protected from the elements. They are exposed to the sun and the rain and are in a very poor state. Colors have faded, lichens and weeds are growing and the matrix is cracking. Puddles form on them after each rain. Urgent restoration work and preventative measures need to be taken if these mosaics are to survive another generation.

Mosaic of dolphins, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of dolphins, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of aquatic creatures, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of aquatic creatures, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of North African fauna, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of North African fauna, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

After the end of Roman rule, not only did the bureaucracy evaporate, the tax system ceased functioning as well. The water system which made the patrician neighborhood such a fashionable place to live collapsed (that’s what happens when the rich refuse to pay tax) and it was abandoned. The monumental civic center too was abandoned and the whole city moved south, down the slope towards Oued Khoumane, the last secure source of water. As was so often the case elsewhere, the citizens of later Volubilis used the abandoned monuments of earlier Volubilis as a quarry, increasing the ruination.

Moulay Idris Zerhoun, on a hilltop above Volubilis, is the successor to the ancient city. It grew around the tomb of Idris I. (ph. Eric Ross)

The town of Moulay Idris Zerhoun, on a hilltop above Volubilis, is the successor to the ancient city. It grew around the tomb of Idris I. (ph. Eric Ross)

Nonetheless, Volubilis remained a prosperous and industrious little town long after the end of Roman rule c. 285 C.E. When Idris b. ‘Abd Allâh arrived in Morocco in 786, a refugee fleeing ‘Abbâsid persecution, Volubilis was still an important city and it is where he chose to settle and begin organizing a new state. Volubilis was thus the first Idrisid capital. A new civic center, consisting of Mosque, palace and hammam (bath) was built in the lowest part of the city, on the bank of the Oued Khoumane. This early Islamic complex has been excavated by archaeologists but one must climb over much bramble and thorn to reach it, so I did not take the group there on this excursion. It is Idriss II who moved the capital to a new city, Fez, in 808 (see this post on Morocco’s imperial cities). From then on we can say that Volubilis really started to decline. The small town on the bank of Oued Khoumane eventually became a village, with plowed fields, orchards and pasture where streets and buildings used to be. The ruins were still used as quarry, notably by Moulay Ismail (1672-1727) for the construction of his palace city in nearby Meknes, and the Arch of Caracalla could still be seen standing, at least until the great earthquake of 1755 brought it down.

A new visitor’s center has been built in Volubilis but the museum has yet to open. It is a beautiful modern building which hugs a slope. Quite incomprehensibly though, this structure was built on part of the archaeological site, inside the historic walls. A large swathe of the Oued Fertassa ravine was dug out and much concrete laid in complete disregard for the most elementary practices of archaeological site management. Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of eight in Morocco, but site management falls well short of what such sites require.

The new visitor's center and museum, not yet open, were built within the archaeological site of Volubilis. (ph. Eric Ross)

The new visitor’s center and museum, not yet open, were built within the archaeological site of Volubilis. In the background is the town of Moulay Idris, on the slopes of Zerhoun Mountain. (ph. Eric Ross)

The vistor's center/museum cantilevers over an exhibit of stellae and pedestals. (ph. Eric Ross)

The visitor’s center/museum cantilevers over an exhibit of stellae and pedestals. (ph. Eric Ross)

Beautiful museum building. When will it open? (ph. Eric Ross)

Beautiful museum building. When will it open? (ph. Eric Ross)

Our happy group of students spent three hours on the site, took lots of pictures, and asked lots of questions. To the extent they now see Volubilis as a Moroccan place, as meaningful to their history and culture, and not just as a place for tourists, I judge the visit to have been successful.

Stopped by the cops. Our bus driver had to produce about a dozen different official-looking documents. This delayed our arrival at the site by half an hour. (ph. Eric Ross)

Stopped by the cops. Students take in the springtime air as our bus driver produced about a dozen different official documents justifying our legality and road-worthiness. This delayed our arrival at the site by half an hour. (ph. Eric Ross)

There was only one small hitch, when on the trip out our bus got pulled over by gendarmes so that its various and sundry registration papers and permits could be verified. This cost us half an hour.

Charcoal smoke rises from grills in Boufekrane, where we stopped for a hearty well-deserved lunch on our return to Ifrane. (ph. Eric Ross)

Charcoal smoke rises from grills in Boufekrane, where we stopped for a hearty well-deserved lunch on our way back to Ifrane. (ph. Eric Ross)

On the way back from Volubilis the group stopped for lunch at Boufekrane, renowned in these parts for its string of truck-stop restaurants.

Our next excursion will be to the historic city of Fez.

Suggested reading

  • Jean-Luc Panetier, Volubilis: une cité du Maroc antique, Paris: Maisonneuve-Larose/Editions Malika, 2002
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