Standing on a shallow slope below the Zerhoun mountain in Northern Morocco, the Roman ruins of Volubilis overlook a rolling fertile plain north of the modern city of Meknes. The area around Volubilis has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years, since the Iron Age and the Carthaginian period. The origins of its name are unknown but may be a Latinisation of the Berber word Walilt, meaning oleander, which grows along the sides of the valley.
The city lay within the kingdom of Mauretania and in 25 BC the Roman Emperor Augustus placed Juba II of Numidia on the Mauretanian throne. Educated in Rome and married to Cleopatra Selene II, daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Juba and his son Ptolemy were thoroughly Romanised and this is clearly reflected in the city’s design.
Volubilis was the administrative centre for Roman North Africa and became wealthy through its fertile lands which produced grain and olive oil for export. Another important trade was in wild animals such as bears, lions and leopards which were exported to Rome and other cities for gladiatorial combat in the Circus Maximus and similar arenas. At its peak in the late 2nd century, Volubilis had around 20,000 inhabitants and the surrounding region was also well inhabited, as shown by the more than 50 villas discovered in the area.
Ancient inscriptions show that Volubilis possessed an urban layout before the 3rd century BC. By that time, the Phoenicians had a presence there, as evidenced by the remains of a temple to the god Baal and finds of pottery and stones inscribed in the Phoenician language.
The Romans adapted and expanded the existing layout, introducing typical structures such as a forum, capitol and basilica. Near the end of the 2nd century the Emperor Marcus Aurelius ordered the construction of a 2.5 km circuit of walls with 8 gates and 40 towers. The Romans also added a great artery called the Decumanus Maximus which was between 6 and 20 metres wide. This street was lined with barrel-vaulted porticoes so that the inhabitants could walk along covered sidewalks. Water was brought in from a nearby spring to houses and public fountains via an aqueduct. Waste water and rainwater ran together in a deep main drainage canal.
The triumphal arch was built in 217 AD on a rectangular square where the city quarters converged. It bears an inscription which tells us that it was commissioned by the emperor Aurelius Antoninus. Built of local sandstone, the arch is 19 metres wide and 4 metres deep.
Volubilis was inhabited for a period of more than 1,000 years. The city was only finally deserted in the 18th century after an earthquake in 1755. Volubilis today is an extensive site with a variety of well-preserved and decorated buildings, including houses built for wealthy patricians as well as for less exalted inhabitants. In many of them the ground plan is still clearly visible and some still contain beautiful mosaics either with geometric patterns, mythological scenes or people and animals. There are also traces of craft workshops and commercial structures such as oil presses and bakeries.
Since 1997 Volubilis has been a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Text and photos Alun Harvey