The Kingdom of the West: Hercules at Volubilis

Hercules, the Greek Herakles, was a bit of a hit in ancient Morocco. Ancient writers, writing about the Phoenicians in North Africa, identified Hercules with the Phoenician god Melqart and there are reports of many temples across North Africa dedicated to Hercules.

At Volubilis, the best-known Roman site in Morocco, there are a few indications of the continuing allegiances to Hercules/Melqart into the Roman period. At the centre of the city stands the Basilica and the Capitol which is the site of the temple to the three main Roman deities; Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.


The people of Roman Volubilis were giving the proper respect to the Roman gods, but old habits die hard. At the side of the temple platform, almost unseen at the base of a door pilaster…


is this tiny little image of Hercules.


He’s holding a bag and his club and is nude, as befits all ancient heroes.

There’s another, similar but larger image on a stone block near the entrance to the site. In an area where a number of grave markers have been lined up, is this,


There’s no text on it, and I’ve no idea where it may have originally been found, but it’s certainly the same Hercules image, although he does look a bit less cut than the temple Hercules.

Just off the decumanus maximus is the House of the Labours of Hercules, so-named account of this mosaic.


The mosaic depicts the Twelve Labours, albeit in a rather naive style.

Here’s Labour Twelve – ‘Dog Walking’ (capturing the hell-hound Cerberus).


And Labour Six – ‘Duck  hunting’ (slaying the Stymphalian Birds).


Labour Seven – Capturing the Cretan Bull.


And the  Fifth Labour – Cleaning the Augean stable.


And here is Hercules’ earliest heroic task, killing the snakes sent by Juno to kill him in his cradle.


There are other references to Hercules around the ancient province. You can see one here.

The Heads: 97% sausage

I haven’t posted a music blog for a while. I have been to a few gigs this year, and some pretty good ones too, but I’ve been busy writing about Iran and Morocco.
So to inaugurate the 2016 MooseandHobbes music blah blah, it’s The Heads.😀 Whoop whoop.
The last time I saw them play was in September at Liverpool Psych Fest, and that was an absolute blast so I was well up for some more. This week I was looking at two gigs in two nights, in London and Manchester, so I  was gearing up for an onslaught.
First up, London. The Lexington, between King’s Cross and Angel, is where I saw The Heads before. That was a fun gig; loud and dancey. They also had lots of merchandise on the stall, in a variety of colours, so the HeadsHeads were in Nerdvana.
The set was totally funky and included a number of songs that are basically long jams. The last time I saw them they could have been charged with ABH but although this was, I think, the same setlist, this gig had more of a groove and less of a battering, opening with the extended build of Bedlam. I particularly enjoyed Quad and Cardinal Fuzz, but, loving a wig-out as I do, Stodgy brought a grin to my face. It’s amazing how different the same songs can sound.
At first I was thinking that it could have been louder (I always think this, so it’s not unusual), but by the end, me and my pal Jeremy were yelling at each other, so I think that the volume increased as the set went along.
As an aside, I was also struck by the make-up of the audience. I think that I only saw about 6 women in the whole place! Including me!! Maybe I was looking in the wrong place and all of the feminine elements were clustered together somewhere else. Odd.
The next day I was off up to Manchester for more action at The Ruby Lounge (and Romans too, but that’s another story). I met up with Leeds pals Ann (@ann_sequinworld) and Andy. Ann had done her leg in so was hobbling a bit, but was, otherwise, on good form.
They played the same set, but the gig was a bit of a different beast again. Higher volume and a much harder, edgier sound meant that, although the set was still pretty funky, it had considerably bigger teeth.
I don’t know who this chap is, but he had a setlist and a startled expression. Clearly, fame awaits him.
So how did these two gigs compare? Let’s look at the round-up:
  • London: more funkalicious, a bit quieter, ~97% sausage.
  • Manchester: harder, louder, lower sausage ratio. Maybe 65-70%.
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The Heads were due to be playing in Prestatyn the following night, at ATP Stewart Lee. This is one of those holiday camp festivals that I find a bit much (I won’t even try to explain why, they just don’t suit me), so I didn’t plan to go, even though the line-up is great. Judging by this couple of gigs, this last gig at ATP will probably be harder than a Honey Badger with a flick-knife. I just wish it wasn’t at Pontins.
And so I made my way back to London and crashed out. That was good. A couple of days of Total Heads was just what I needed to blast the cobwebs out of my brain.
Now, if only I could get a bit of Loop…

The Kingdom of the West: The fruits of the earth and the sea.

The Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana only occupied the very northern tip of what is now Morocco, from, roughly, Rabat in the south-west up to the northern coast and as far east as the Moulouya river, near the modern border with Algeria. The wealth of Roman Morocco was based on the production of commodities that the empire needed. Grain, olive oil, garum (fish sauce), all brought enormous wealth to the Phoenicians, the Romans and, later, the Byzantines.

Of the sites that I visited on my short sojourn to northern Morocco, two sites in particular provided evidence of the large-scale production of commodities for export; Volubilis and Lixus.

Volubilis is probably the best known Roman site in Morocco, visited by coachloads of tourists and schoolchildren. It has all the requisite Roman attractions for a major tourist site: Triumphal arch: tick; mosaics: tick; nicely paved roads: tick; temples and public buildings: tick. There is also a museum, but there’s nothing in it (a common occurrence in Morocco, apparently).


I was interested in all of those things, but also in these:


In one quadrant of the city, everywhere you look are the remains of olive presses, for the production of olive oil. I’ve seen these at other sites of course, SEE HERE, but not so many in one area.

If you’re looking out for these on your travels, look for the pressing bed, with the channels along which the oil runs:


And the tanks that the oil runs into.


Here it’s left to settle so the pith and skin and bits sinks to the bottom and the pure oil can be skimmed off and put into storage containers, like this dolium in the Musee Archeologique de Tetouan .


And all around there are the remains of mills and quern-stones for grinding wheat.


In a small building at around the centre of the excavated site, there is a reconstruction of an olive press.

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We don’t get to see elements like the beam and tethering ropes, organic elements that rarely survive in the archaeological record. We only see the stone elements.

North-west of Volubilis, out on the Atlantic coast is the town of Larache. Just up the road from the modern town, and on the bank of the Loukkos River is the ancient city of Lixus.  The city was settled by the Phoenicians in the 7th centurey BCE, but had been founded centuries earlier, in 1180 BCE, by a Berber king.


The new city of Larache from the old city of Lixus.

Ancient Greek writers cited Lixus as the site of the Garden of the Hesperides, the keepers of the golden apples (the same golden apples that Hercules was after).

When I visited, it wasn’t for the apples. It was for these:


These concrete-lined tanks were used for large-scale production of salt-fish and garum, the fermented fish sauce that was essential for Roman cooking. We’ve seen these before, in Tunisia.

Its situation just near the coast and on the bank of a major river, meant that fish formed a key commodity for the city and brought a great deal of wealth to it. There are loads of these tanks built in banks on the lower part of the site.


Over 100 of these tanks have been identified which confirms that this is no local cottage industry, but large-scale manufacturing for export.

Lixus is visited far less often than the better-known Volubilis, but I’d recommend it. The site is lovely, a hill by a river, with great views. The remains are great to see and there is quite a lot to look at, including an amphitheatre, baths, houses and temples. There were mosaics found at the site but these have been moved to the museum in Tetouan or covered over for protection.

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Unfortunately, the planned museum isn’t open (this seems to be a common occurrence in Morocco).

It can sometimes seem like Roman sites are remote and out of the way, because they are often situated away from modern cities, but the large-scale production of important commodities could only happen in a connected market economy. However remote a site might seem today, in the Roman period roads, sea and river routes and long-distance trade meant that even the furthest-flung corner of the empire could be important to the wider Roman world.

The Kingdom of the West: In the land of the giants

In ancient mythology, the land of Libya (North Africa) was ruled over by the giant Antaeus, son of the sea god Poseidon and the earth goddess Gaia.

This giant would challenge all-comers to a wrestling match to the death, and was never bested until he met the demi-god Hercules, stopping off in Africa to complete his 11th Labour. His remains, we are told, could be found under a hill near the location of modern Tangier, ancient Tingis.


There’s no sign, that I can see, of Antaeus but Tangier remains one of those places where worlds collide. Close enough to Europe for day-trippers to cross over on the ferry from Spain but still resolutely North African and, even more resolutely, Moroccan.


I wanted to try and see what bits of ancient North Africa I could find amongst the levels and levels of the later city; the modern harbour; 19th and 20th century colonial architecture; the apparently ageless kasbah so beloved of international spies and intriguers, the  English; the Spanish; the Portuguese. Where are the ancients?

Well, inevitably, some of them are in the the local museum. At the start of Twitter’s @MuseumWeek, what could be better than a visit to the Kasbah Museum?

I made my way through the winding streets and alleyways of the kasbah until I reached the gate nearest to the museum but, as seems to have happened so many (blasted) times before, the (bloody) museum was (bloody well) shut.  Since November. Not a word on the (flipping bloody blasted) websites (which I always check before I travel) (damn, blast and curse them).


Aaaand breathe.

Not one to be so easily dissuaded, I  continued upwards looking for the (flipping) ancients (blast them), until I reached these:


In the rocks, way up high on the cliffs overlooking the coast, is a cluster of graves, cut into the rocks by the Phoenicians.

This is clearly a popular tourist attraction, as there were loads of people there, milling around, taking selfies, that sort of thing.


This area is basically a cliff edge, so it’s the sort of visitor attraction that would make any right thinking Health & Safety Officer break out in a cold sweat.



Still, it’s well worth a look, if only to have a think about the relative positions of the living Phoenicians; down on the coast, bustling about and doing business, and the dead; high up on the cliffs, removed from the living but looking out over the sea that sustained them in life.


A short taxi journey from town is the Atlantic coast.


Here tourists, including me, flock to Cap Spartel, and the coast to the south of it, for the beaches, and to the Cave of Hercules for this shot.


It’s Africa! Do you see?

Actually, to me it looks like a person in a hat, shouting but, hey ho.


While on his way to carry out his 11th Labour, to steal the apples of the Hesperides, and after killing Antaeus, Hercules sheltered for the night in this cave.  Some Roman sources say that rather than climbing over the mountain that was nearby, he smashed through, joining the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and creating the Strait of Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules.


The cave is partially natural and partially man-made. The Berber people used to cut their mill-stones out of the walls of the cave, enlarging the inside in the process. You can see the marks left by this process all around the cave.


More recently, Def Leppard played a gig in the cave cos, you know, rrrrrock!


My attempts to get to the nearby Roman site of Cotta were foiled by the combined efforts of a disgruntled taxi driver and the Moroccan army. Bah.

A Persian Odyssey: Join the club

When I was visiting Iran, there were loads of things that I wanted to try to get to see. I mean loads. Far more than I could have hoped to actually get to see in reality. What can I say? It’s the triumph of hope over expectation but I do think that it’s better to try and fail than not to try at all.

Anyway, one of the many things on the neverending list was to visit a zurkhaneh.


zurkhaneh is a small gymnasium, also called a House of Strength. They have an octagonal pit in the middle in which a form of ritualized exercise called varzesh-e bastani is practiced. The exercises involve stretching, running, spinning, lifting iron bow-shaped weights called kabbadeh or kaman and swinging and tossing heavy wooden clubs called meels.

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At the start of the session, prayers are offered up and songs are sung. The exercises are carried out to the beat of drums, the chime of bells, and chanting. I couldn’t understand the words but I’m told that these are uplifting and morally fortifying chants and sayings.  There does seem to be a strong ritual element to this, alongside the social, physical and cultural aspects. The practice has actually been inscribed by UNESCO on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.


The meels are actually really heavy. A couple of the smaller ones were passed around for us to feel the weight and they’re even heavier than they look, so the men lifting and swinging these, and making it look easy, are really strong.




The club that we visited in Esfahan is just a small neighbourhood club but they’ve started letting visitors (including women) come along to watch part of the session and experience a little of this practice. I understand that it’s pretty popular in Iran and there was certainly a mix of ages present in this club, including this little boy (below), who had clearly been practicing hard because he was very good at it and knew all the moves*.


Some of the men who practice in the zurkhaneh go on to compete in the Iranian wrestling called Pahlevani and the images of the club’s champions are proudly displayed in the zurkhaneh. The older gentleman taking part when we were visiting (below, second from the right, in the long trousers) is an ex-champion. He’s in his 70s and can’t do everything any more, although he’s still in pretty good shape, but he was shown every due deference by all the other members of the club.




Our Iranian guide, Mohsen, also joined in, which I think was pretty brave of him. He has done this before but not for a couple of years. He was aching a bit the next day, and I’m not surprised.


I made a couple of little film clips which you can see on Youtube:

*The little boy didn’t stay in the main exercise space during the full session, as that would have been a bit unsafe for him. He was copying the exercises at the side.

More info:

A Persian Odyssey: Down with USA

Iran is famous for its checkered history with the US. The 1970s and 80s, when I was growing up, seemed to be full of kidnappings, embassy sieges, aeroplane hijackings,  and the like. Of course these didn’t always involve Iran but, for me, flying into Tehran had a real frisson of excitement and I was curious to know whether my experience of Iran would bear any resemblance to all those old news reports. Obviously I had no wish to be kidnapped, nor for my plane to be shot down, but I couldn’t help wondering how Iranians would respond to British tourists.

No need to worry. Iranians are fantastically warm, welcoming and friendly, and the people I met seemed genuinely delighted to see tourists visiting their country. They couldn’t have been nicer.

What is really fascinating is the difference between this warm welcome and the highly visible propaganda that can be seen on walls, billboards, posters and even on stamps. Some of this propaganda is pretty harsh so I’d like to just say right now that ordinary Iranians didn’t once express any of the sentiments seen in the propaganda.

With that in mind, please don’t allow these images to negatively impact on your views of ordinary Iranians.

On the walls and on the sides of buildings of Tehran, you can see some of the famous anti-USA propaganda  writ large. Here’s one I spotted from the bus.


And at the main junction at Valiasr Square this giant poster is a skit on the famous image of US troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima. The dead and dying people are Palestinians.


On my way to the Reza Abbasi museum, I spotted a whole bank of posters in the metro station.


You can even access some more anti-Israel and ‘Down with USA’ action by scanning this handy QR code. There’s a whole website


And although some of the restrictions on women in Iran are very obvious and public, their very important role in the Islamic Revolution is memorialized along with the men’s.


In Yazd, one of the wind towers had been sprayed with the ‘Down with USA’ motif.

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Whoever did this obviously had a stencil because there were loads of these on the walls just around the wind tower.

In the Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz is a small shop which sells bits and bobs and nice things, and the shopkeeper also has a file of collectible stamps for sale. Now I’m not a stamp collector, but I couldn’t resist having a little look at this ephemera, and I was in luck. He had quite a few propaganda stamps, illustrating controversial and even shocking events from the 1980s.


The Iran Hostage Crisis, AKA The Takeover of the US Spy Den, 1987.


The Iran Hostage Crisis, AKA The Takeover of the US Spy Den, 1987.


Operation Eagle Claw AKA Failure of US Military Aggression Against Iran, 1980.


The shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 AKA Disastrous US Missile Attack Against Iranian Air Liner, 1988.

This last one is pretty harsh, even compared to  what has gone before.

By the side of the road at the entrance to the tourist site of Parsagadae, just near the ‘Welcome to Parsagadae World Heritage Site’ sign is this:


 I make no comment.

A Persian Odyssey: water, water everywhere.

Water. The stuff of life.


Water is obviously a vitally important factor for life, and the need becomes even more pressing in areas where its acquisition is problematic. In desert regions, the possibilities for accessing water really all involve some element of human intervention. Rainfall is too sparce and/or erratic to rely on it for crop irrigation, to fill reservoirs for drinking, or to be available for washing, general cleaning or all the other many uses we put it to.


This is one of the features that I was most looking forward to seeing in Iran.

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Hmm. A hole in the ground by the side of the road.

But no! This is so much more than a hole in the ground. This is a bit of a qanat.

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When I was working on my masters dissertation, I came into contact with this technology almost immediately, but in Libya (which I was researching) they’re called foggaras.

Basically this is a method for tapping into aquifers and bringing the trapped water to the surface. It doesn’t work like a well; you don’t hoist water up, rather this is a method for releasing water trapped in rocks using gravity and the land contours.* The water source and its eventual place of use may be many many kilometres apart and, in parts of Libya, these systems extend over hundreds of kilometres.

The most visible feature of the qanat is the vertical shaft. On the ground surface we see the hole, sometimes lined with stones, tiles or plaster, with a ring-mound around it.

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Lines of these features snake off for miles into the distance, and they mark the line that the water is being carried in an underground channel from its source to the place where it emerges at the surface and can be utilized.


Water Museum

In the city of Yazd, there is a whole museum devoted to water.


The group that I was with wasn’t due to be visiting this museum, but I was very keen and as it is actually situated right near the main square, it was easy for me to nip in while the others had a little look in the shops and bought some extremely tempting-looking sweeties.

Although this was a flying visit, I was able to have a quick look in each room and see models of water technology used in the city and in the wider area. This models shows how the qanats work, bringing water from under the hills down to the city.

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One thing that I was amazed about was the use of water mills actually in the underground channels of the qanats.

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It is a huge engineering task to build these systems but they are actually very elegant and allow water to be used very efficiently.  Before the water reaches town it has been used for milling; in town water can be directed for drinking and for other industrial or domestic purposes; waste water is then finally directed towards field systems and cottage gardens to be used for irrigation purposes. Nothing is wasted. Sweet.

Ab-anbar and badgir

When the water reaches town, it is stored in large underground cisterns, Ab-anbars, which are kept cool by a system of wind towers, badgirs . The domes and towers can be seen all around the area.

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The wind towers work by catching prevailing winds and drawing the cool air down to the storage cistern, cooling the water stored there. Houses and other buildings also use the wind towers for cooling.

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Some private houses, especially the houses of wealthy merchants, in Yazd have their own private water supply. Smaller channels from the qanats bring water into the basement where is can be drawn off to be used for the household.

In this merchant house in Yazd, there is a small pool in the basement area which, I was told, was used for keeping fish for consumption, rather than for keeping drinking water. The water flows into the pool via the conduit on the left.

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The seats around the room made it a cool, relaxing space for members of the household to hang out in on hot days.

Yakh dan

Another key use of water in Iran has been for ice. In the area around Yazd in particular, these ziggurat-looking buildings can be seen on the edges of towns. These are yakh dan or ice houses.


Inside the building, there’s a lowered floor level and the thick, clay walls mean that the internal temperature is significantly lower than the external temperature. I went inside this one and, despite the heat outside, it was quite cold under the dome. The ice is brought from the mountains and can be kept for many months and used as required.

Persian Gardens

Iran is famous for its Persian Gardens and water is an integral element in the design and layout of these gardens.


Fin Gardens, Kashan

The idea of Persian gardens dates from the Achaemenid period and they are designed to represent paradise on earth. They were usually walled and included areas for relaxation, areas of light and shade, plants, including trees, indoor and outdoor areas and, of course, water.

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Golestan Palace, Tehran

The huge public square in Esfahan, Naqsh-e Jahan  or ‘Imam’ Square, features areas of grass, trees and large expanses of water with fountains. Even in this vast area, there is a relaxed feeling, with families and individuals strolling, relaxing and paying visits to the surrounding buildings.

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Imam Square, Esfahan

Visitors can also go on pony’n’trap rides, do a bit of shopping and visit a mosque.



*Wikipedia has quite a lot about qanats/foggaras here