Ancient Lixus is one of the oldest – and most continuously – inhabited sites in Morocco. It had been settled in prehistoric times, long before the arrival of Phoenician colonists around 1000 BC, under whom it is thought to have become the first trading post of North Africa. Later, it was in turn an important Carthaginian and Roman city, and was deserted only in the fifth century AD, two hundred years after Diocletian had withdrawn the empire’s patronage. There are remains of a church from this period, and Arabic coins have also been found.
As an archeological site, then, Lixus is certainly significant, and its legendary associations with Hercules add an element of mythic allure. The ruins lie upon and below the summit of a low hill on the far side of the Oued Loukos estuary, at the crossroads of the main Larache–Tangier road and the narrow lane to Larache beach. A track, worth climbing for the panoramic view alone, wends up to the amphitheatre area, where there are mosaics. The ruins are interesting rather than impressive, and only around a quarter of the site has been excavated.Read More
A visitor’s centre was being constructed at the time of writing but currently the site is not effectively enclosed and therefore always open and accessible. A notice by the roadside at the entrance explains the site with a useful map board. The Lower Town, spreading back from the modern road, consists largely of the ruins of factories for the production of salt – still being panned nearby – and garum fish sauce. The factories seem to have been developed in the early years of the first century AD and they remained in operation until the Roman withdrawal.
A track, some 100m down the road to Tangier, leads up to the Acropolis (upper town), passing on its way eight rows of the Roman theatre and amphitheatre, unusually combined into a single structure. Its deep, circular arena was adapted for circus games and the gladiatorial slaughter of animals. Morocco, which Herodotus knew as “the wild-beast country”, was the major source for these Roman venations (controlled hunts), and local colonists must have grown rich from the trade. Until 1998, the baths built into the side of the theatre featured a remarkable mosaic depicting Neptune’s head on the body of a lobster; unfortunately, the mosaic was irreparably damaged when the gardien’s son tried to dig it up to sell, and just about a third of it remains.
Climbing above the baths and theatre, you pass through ramparts to the main fortifications of the Acropolis – a somewhat confused network of walls and foundations – and temple sanctuaries, including an early Christian basilica and a number of pre-Roman buildings. The most considerable of the sanctuaries, with their underground cisterns and porticoed priests’ quarters, were apparently rebuilt in the first century AD, but even then retained Phoenician elements in their design.
Lixus and Hercules
Lixus and Hercules
The legendary associations of Lixus – and the site’s mystique – centre on the Labours of Hercules. For here, on an island in the estuary, Pliny and Strabo record reports of the palace of the “Libyan” (by which they meant African) King Antaeus. Behind the palace stretched the Garden of the Hesperides, to which Hercules, as his penultimate labour, was dispatched.
In the object of Hercules’ quest – the Golden Apples – it is not difficult to imagine the tangerines of northern Morocco, raised to legendary status by travellers’ tales. The site, too, seems to offer reinforcement to conjectures of a mythic pre-Phoenician past. Megalithic stones have been found on the Acropolis – they may have been linked astronomically with those of Mzoura – and the site was known to the Phoenicians as Makom Shemesh (City of the Sun).