Three kilometers to the west of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, one of the best-known spiritual centers of Morocco, on the edge of a vast plain that slopes down from the Zerhoun hills, lie the ruins of the town of Volubilis. The site is a triangular plateau between the valleys of the Oueds Fertassa and Khoumane.
The name of Volubilis is known both from the ancient texts and from the epigraphy of the town. It probably derives from the Berber word ‘Oualili’, the name of the Oleander plant, a flower that grows in abundance near the oued Khoumane. In Arab sources and on the early Arab coinage of the site the name was changed back to ‘Walila’. From the nineteenth century onwards the ruins were known as ‘Ksar Faraoun’, the castle of the Pharaohs.
Sporadic occupation of the site from the Neolithic period onward was favoured by its well-defended position, the abundance of water in the two oueds, and particularly by the agricultural potential of the surrounding countryside; the plains are ideal for cereal agricultural while the Piedmont zone of the Jebel Zerhoun is still used for arboriculture, particularly olives. The town itself may date as early as the third century B.C.E., for an inscription in Punic names members of a Mauretanian family who held the post of suffete, a quasi-hereditary. However, the earliest archaeological evidence comes from the middle of the second century B.C.E. This reveals a small town defended by a rampart built of mud bricks on stone footings:
it seems to have covered around 12 hectares. Most of its buildings and all of its streets were covered by later structures. In this period we know of a large sanctuary with a plan typical of Punic and North African cities, with a central altar and chapels against the walls. Two other temples belong more clearly to the classical tradition.
A dynasty of Mauretanian kings is known from the second century B.C.E., ruling over a kingdom that included the northern part of Morocco and the western half of Algeria. However, the king whose presence is most linked to Volubilis was Juba II, son of Juba I.
Juba II was brought up in Rome and married to the orphaned princess, Cleopatra Selenus, daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Augustus named him king of Mauretania, and although his capital was at Caesarea (Cherchel in Algeria) his reign, (25 B.C.E. – 23 C.E.) was clearly a flourishing period for the town of Volubilis.
Caligula’s murder of Juba’s son Ptolemy in Rome in 40 C.E. brought an end to the independent kingdom of Mauretania. The Roman army crushed the revolt led by Ptolemy’s freedman, Aedemon,that followed this assassination and the old kingdom was divided in two, Mauretania Caesariensis to the east, with its
capital at Caesarea, and Mauretania Tingitana to the west, with its capital at Tingi (Tangiers). Volubilis, which seems to have aided the Roman side, was elevated to the rank of municipium, governed no longer by suffetes but by duumvirs, or annual magistrates. Inscriptions tell us of the order of decurions and of the duumvirs who replaced the suffetes in the city government. We know little of the city in this period. However, over the ruins of the old city wall is built a large tumulus whose function is imperfectly understood: various hypotheses have been advanced, of which the most probable is as a monument commemorating the Roman victory.
Under Roman rule, the town quickly grew to 40 ha. Major monuments were constructed: new temples, baths, and civic buildings. The aqueduct that fed the first baths was built between 60 and 70 C.E.
The urban landscape was formed of houses with shops along their facades, bakers, and, in the third century oil pressing complexes. These last are so numerous that they suggest that the olive was one of the principal riches of the town. The private houses with their rich mosaics give us much information on the domestic architecture and the artistic life of Volubilis. Like the rest of the population, the elite of the town were probably Berbers, the original inhabitants of the area.
In 168-169, under the emperor Marcus Aurelius city walls were constructed, including eight monumental gates flanked by towers. Further additions came under the Severans, when a new monumental center was created, including the capitoline temple, built by the emperor Macrinus in 218 C.E., the civil basilica and the reorganized Forum. The Arch of Triumph dates to the emperor Caracalla, of the same dynasty. It celebrates his grant of Roman citizenship and tax relief.
For reasons still imperfectly understood, the reorganization of Diocletian in 285 C.E. led the Roman army to abandon the southern part of Mauretania Tingitana, including Volubilis. Even so, life in the city continued to thrive during the fourth century, with members of the élite embellishing their houses with new mosaics, such as those in the House of Venus. They may, indeed, have appropriated bronze statues from the civic center – a possible interpretation of the find of beautiful busts of Juba I and Cato in that house. However, early in the fifth century the town seems to have been hit by an earthquake. The houses collapsed, entombing and thus preserving a significant collection of bronze statues now visible in the site museum and in Rabat.
The city was probably abandoned for almost a century and a half. Towards the end of the sixth century a new population, the Awraba tribe, settled in the western part of the town A new city wall was built separating the inhabited area from the old city center, now occupied by cemeteries. Near the Arch of Caracalla was found a cemetery from which comes a series of Christian funerary inscriptions which cover the period between 599 and 655 C.E. These testify to the Christianisation of the Romano-Berber population, and the continuous use of the Latin language.
In the late seventh or early eighth century a new settlement was built just outside the northwestern city gate. This comprises houses and, perhaps, a mosque. That it was occupied by Muslims is confirmed by a ring with the inscription ‘Bismillah.’
During the next century numerous coins were struck at Walila, found most commonly in this extra-mural settlement. We may presume that the Awraba tribe converted to Islam during this period.
The site becomes important with the arrival of Idris I, a descendent of Ali, and thus of the prophet Muhammed. After the defeat of the Alids by the Abbasids at the battle of Fakhkh, Idris fled to the Maghreb al-Aqsa and arrived in Walila in 788 C.E., where he was welcomed by the chief of the Awraba tribe and proclaimed imam. From here, he extended his rule by conquering all of Northern Morocco, and founded the town of Fes.
He was assassinated at Volubilis in 791 C.E., apparently poisoned by an Abbasid secret agent, and was succeeded by his posthumous son, Idris II. The town was not abandoned for some time after this period. In 818 C.E. it welcomed refugees, known as the Rabedis, who had revolted in a neighbourhood in Cordoba. Some occupation seems to have lasted until the Almoravid period, in the eleventh century. After several centuries of apparent abandonment, a brief reoccupation of the town occurred under the Merinids in the fourteenth century. But the town was ultimately displaced by the hill-top town of Moulay Idris, the most important pilgrimage site in Morocco.
Archaeological excavations began in 1915 and continue to this day. They have exposed a large part of the town (more than 20 ha.), but much remains to be excavated, particularly in the area occupied in the post-Roman period.
The efforts of the Moroccan authorities – the Conservation of the site of Volubilis, the Direction for Cultural Heritage and the National Institute for the Sciences of Archaeology and Heritage – towards the upkeep and restoration of the site were crowned in 1997 by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Take a train to Meknes from Casablanca, Rabat, Fez or Tangiers. From Meknes take a ‘Grand Taxi’ to Moulay Idris and get off at the crossroads below the town. It is a three-kilometer walk to the site. You can ask the taxi to take you all the way, but agree on the price first.
By motorway: to Meknes Est. Follow the road to Moulay Idris. The site is on the left; 3 km. beyond the crossroads leading up to Moulay Idris.
By the highway: take the road to Sidi Kacem; passing by Nsallat Beni Amar, the follow the road to the ‘col de Zagouta’ towards Moulay Idris Zerhoun. The site lies on your right three km before the turn-off to Moulay Idris.
By motorway: to Rabat and then towards Fez. Get off at Meknes Est and follow the road to Moulay Idris. The site is on the left; 3 km. beyond the crossroads leading up to Moulay Idris.
By the highway: take the coast road to Asilah, then Larache and Souk el Araba. Head for Sidi Kacem passing through Mechra Bel Ksiri. From Sidi Kacem take the road leading to Fiz, then turn off at the col de Zagouta in the direction of Moulay Idris. The site lies on your right three km before the turn-off to Moulay Idris.
You’ll need to pay a small admission fee of 70 dirhams, and official guides are available for hire at the entrance to the complex for 120 dirhams.
The site is the result of a collaboration between the INSAP and UCL. It was conceived by Guy Hunt and Elizabeth Fentress in 2002. Its current incarnation was designed by Dan Taylor (email@example.com).
Texts by Jared Benton, Abdelkader Chergui, Elizabeth Fentress, Corisande Fenwick, Abdelfetah Ichkhakh and Hassan Limane.
Translations by Elizabeth Fentress and Hassan Limane.
Bibliography by Helen Dawson, Elizabeth Fentress, Raluca Lazarescu and Marie Middleton.
Le site est le résultat d’une collaboration entre INSAP et UCL. Il a été conçu par Guy Hunt et Elizabeth Fentress en 2002. Sa forme actuelle est du à Dan Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Textes de Jared Benton, Abdelkader Chergui, Elizabeth Fentress, Corisande Fenwick, Abdelfetah Ichkhakh et Hassan Limane.
Traductions d’Elizabeth Fentress et Hassan Limane.
Bibliographie de Helen Dawson, Elizabeth Fentress, Raluca Lazarescu et Marie Middleton.