Volubilis, one of the finest sites to visit in Morocco, is one also one of the largest ancient ruins in Africa. The city is a partly excavated Berber and Roman city in Morocco situated near Meknas between Fes and Rabat and commonly considered as the ancient capital of the kingdom of Mauretania, founded in 3rd century B.C but the city developed from an Amazigh, then proto-Carthaginian, settlement before being the capital of the kingdom of Mauretania. The city gained a number of major public buildings in the 2nd century, including a basilica, temple and triumphal arch. Its prosperity, which was derived principally from olive growing, prompted the construction of many fine town-houses with large mosaic floors.
Most interestingly, the city remained inhabited for several hundred years even after the fall of Romans. Firstly, by the christians, then Awraba; a berber tribe and later on by the Muslim Idrisid dynasty.
The major contribution in its excavation is from French, during their rule over French Morocco between 1912 and 1956, but the excavations at the site began decades earlier. From 1830, when the French conquest of Algeria, began the process of extending French rule over much of northern, western and central Africa, archaeology was closely associated with French colonialism. However, the first excavations at Volubilis were carried out by the French archaeologist Henri de la Martinière between 1887 and 1892.
Prior to the Roman occupation, Volubilis covered an area of about 30 acres but under the Romans, the city was expanded considerably on a northeast-southwest axis, increasing in size to about 42 hectares (100 acres).
The city was supplied with water by an aqueduct that ran from a spring in the hills behind the city. The aqueduct may have been constructed around 60–80 AD and was subsequently reconstructed on several occasions. An elaborate network of channels fed houses and the public baths from the municipal supply and a series of drains carried sewage and waste away to the river to be flushed.
The Roman city walls stretch for 2.6 km (1.6 mi) and are average 1.6 m (5.2 ft) thick. Built of rubble masonry and ashlar, they are mostly still extant. The full circuit of walls had 34 towers, spaced at intervals of about one every 50 metres (160 ft), and six main gates that were flanked by towers. A part of the eastern wall has been reconstructed to a height of 1.5 metres (4.9 ft).
An early medieval wall stands to the west of the Arch of Caracalla; it was built after the end of the Roman occupation, apparently somewhere between the 5th or 6th centuries, to protect the eastern side of the city’s new residential area. It was oriented in a north-south direction and was constructed using stones looted from ruined buildings elsewhere in the abandoned areas of the city.
Olive was the backbone of the commerce in Volubilis as it was used to be a major producer of olive oil. The remains of buildings dedicated to olive pressing are still readily visible, as are the remains of the original presses and olive mills. Olive oil was central to the life of the city, as it was not just a foodstuff but was also used for lamps, bathing and medicines, while the pressed olives were fed to animals or dried out and used as fuel for the bathhouses.
There is also substantial evidence of the city being a lively commercial centre. No fewer than 121 shops have been identified so far, many of them bakeries, and judging from the number of bronzes found at the site it may also have been a centre for the production or distribution of bronze artworks.
Although only about half of Volubilis has been excavated, a number of prominent public buildings are still visible and some, notably a Basilica and a Triumphal arch, have been reconstructed. The buildings were mostly made from locally quarried grey-blue limestone and a large tumulus of an uncertain origin and purpose stands approximately in the middle of the excavated area, between the old and new parts of the city. Various theories have been advanced to explain it, such as that it was a burial site, a religious structure of some kind, a funerary monument or a monument to a Roman victory.
Houses to See
There are mainly three houses to visit: the “House of the Euphebus” right next to the triumphal arch; the “House of Orpheus”; one of the richest men at the time of Roman rule, to the south near the olive oil presses; and the “House of Dionysus” near the Decumanus Maximus (main street).
Two major public buildings are readily visible at the centre of the city; the Basilica and the Capitoline Temple. The basilica was used for the administration of justice and the governance of the city and is one of the finest Roman basilicas in Africa. Its building is 42.2 m (138 ft) long by 22.3 m (73 ft) wide and was a two-storey building.
Nevertheless, not much is known about the public buildings which existed in Volubilis, prior to the start of the 3rd century, as the buildings currently visible were built on the foundations of earlier structures.
Furthermore, the Capitoline Temple stands behind the basilica within what would originally have been an arcaded courtyard is the building which was of great importance to civic life as it was dedicated to the three chief divinities of the Roman state, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Civic assemblies were held in front of the temple to beseech the aid of the gods or to thank them for successes in major civic undertakings such as fighting wars.
Volubilis also possessed at least three sets of public baths. Some mosaics can still be seen in the Baths of Gallienus, redecorated by that emperor in the 260s to become the city’s most lavish baths. The nearby north baths were the largest in the city, covering an area of about 1,500 m2 (16,000 sq ft). They were possibly built in the time of Hadrain.
The Arch of Caracalla is one of Volubilis’ most distinctive sights, situated at the end of the city’s main street, the Decumanus Maximus. The arch is constructed from local stone and was originally topped by a bronze chariot pulled by six horses. The inscription on the arch reads:-
“For the emperor Caesar, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [Caracalla], the pious, fortunate Augustus, greatest victor in Parthia, greatest victor in Britain, greatest victor in Germany, Pontifex Maximus, holding tribunician power for the twentieth time, Emperor for the fourth time, Consul for the fourth time, Father of the Country, Proconsul, and for Julia Augusta, the pious, fortunate mother of the camp and the Senate and the country, because of his exceptional and new kindness towards all, which is greater than that of the principes that came before, the Republic of the Volubilitans took care to have this arch made from the ground up, including a chariot drawn by six horses and all the ornaments, with Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, procurator, who is most deeply devoted to the divinity of Augustus, initiating and dedicating it.”
Soon after the WWII, the excavations were resumed under the French and Moroccan authorities restoring several antiquities like, The Arch of Caracalla in 1930–34, the Capitoline Temple in 1962, the basilica in 1965–67 and the Tingis Gate in 1967. Apart from these, a number of mosaics and houses underwent conservation and restoration in 1952–55.
Today, many artefacts found at Volubilis can be seen on display in the Rabat Archaeological Museum.
Another prominent feature in the bucket of Volubilis is that, in the 1980s, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) organised three conferences to assess possible nominations to the World Heritage List for sites in North Africa. It was unanimously agreed that Volubilis was a good candidate for the list and in 1997 ICOMOS recommended that it be inscribed as “an exceptionally well preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire”, which UNESCO accepted.
Volubilis made all the way into the list of World Heritage Sites in 1997.
Both, foreign and Moroccan tourists travel to Volubilis to explore the site’s great historical significance. The Fes Festival of Sacred World Music, which takes place each June, features an annual concert at Volubilis held within the ancient Roman ruins. Moreover, the main area of Volubilis, and the only area that really attracts visitors, Moroccans and foreigners, is no more than 800 x 600 metres (measured by the walls). And if you carry a good guide book, none of the guides at the gate is needed. Much of the best excavations have been moved to the Archaeological Museum close to the royal palace in Rabat, but Volubilis offers ruins of quite good quality, and about 30 high quality mosaics that still stand in their original place.
There is an admission fee for entering the Volubilis of about 20 Moroccan Dirhams.
The site has produced a substantial amount of artistic material, including mosaics, marble and bronze statuary, and hundreds of inscriptions. Not only this but this site is also an outstanding example of an archaeological and architectural complex and of a cultural landscape bearing witness to many cultures (Libyco-Berber and Mauritanian, Roman, Christian and Arabo-Islamic) of which several have disappeared. Fortunately, the town remained abandoned for many centuries so the ruins remained in an excellent state of conservation and therefore it is an evergreen and worth seeing site which provides you a whole package of fun.