Majestic mosaics, mighty aqueducts and ruined temples under the relentless African sun… Josh Ferry Woodard reports from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Volubilis in Morocco.
Many Roman emperors wanted to “penetrate the Atlas” but Volubilis was as far as they got. This dramatic ancient Roman ruin site set on the shallow slopes of Mount Zerhourn, overlooking the vast fertile Wadi Khoumane plateau is one the Roman Empire’s most remote and far-flung frontier settlements – second only to a small trading outpost on an island off the coast of Essaouira. It is situated close to the Moroccan imperial city of Meknes, 150 miles inland from Tangiers.
During its heyday in the 2nd century AD, Volubilis was a thriving city home to over 20,000 people. Homes and public baths were fed water from complex underground aqueduct networks, government administration took place in majestic public buildings such as the Capitol, the Basilica and the Forum and luxury mansions were adorned with magnificent mosaics.
…our tour leader Hamed brought the city back to life with vivid depictions of Roman life. He took us through poorer areas of the town where workers would use stone presses to produce olive oil by day and visit brothels by night.
Volubilis was an important source of wheat and olives for Rome. And large populations of wild animals – including lions – from the surrounding hills were shipped to the capital for use in extravagant sacrificial ceremonies. However, the sheer remoteness of the settlement meant that it was hard to defend and local Berber tribes took the town towards the end of the 3rd century.
Today Volubilis, complete with its triumphal arch as grand as the Brandenburg Gate, public bathhouses with phallic imagery more explicit than the Washington Memorial and crumbling columns reminiscent of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, is a UNESCO World Heritage site home to a modest café, some toilets and a small team of knowledgeable guides.
…he showed us mansions where strategically placed courtyard water fountains were used to reflect light and illuminate four rooms at a time…
I visited the archaeological site on a particularly unforgiving Moroccan summer afternoon. My water bottle soon ran dry (did I drink it or did it evaporate?) in the scorching heat but my imagination ran riot as our tour leader Hamed brought the city back to life with vivid verbal depictions of Roman life. He took us through poorer areas of the town where workers would use stone presses to produce olive oil by day and visit brothels by night, he showed us mansions where strategically placed courtyard water fountains were used to reflect light and illuminate four rooms at a time and he sprinkled water on dry floor tiles, transforming washed-out ochre tones into vibrant shades of golden yellow.
I’m afraid I can’t beam Hamed to your desktop, but I hope my photos at least will help you travel back in time and space to this remote African outpost…
Josh was invited on a 10-day Moroccan Explorer Adventure by Topdeck Travel. The trip included half-board hotel accommodation and private transfers throughout. You can also read about his adventures in the Kasbah of Rabat, or check a report of his entire adventure on his own blog The Tiny Traveller.