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Volubilis, a Roman City in Morocco

The only residents of Volubilis now are the storks, nesting on ruined columns, and they leave in the summer. But two thousand years ago, this hillside city in north Morocco was an important outpost of the Roman Temple columns, with nesting storkEmpire, home to rich patricians. Volubilis, with 20,000 people, was an administrative city that produced grain and olive oil. Even after the Romans left, in the 3rd century C.E., it was occupied for another 1,000 years. But over time, earthquakes and Berber attacks took their toll, and in the 18th century, the sultan Moulay Ismail had hundreds of stones carted away for his immense buildings in Meknes.Volubilis was finally abandoned.

Triumphal arch, 127 C.E., built in honor of Emperor Caracalla and his mother, Julia DonnaYou can see traces of its former glory in the arched walls, columns, and mosaic floors that bake under the hot North African sun. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is Morocco’s most important archeological site and an open-air museum, well worth a visit.

With an excellent guide, we learned about the history of the place and the ruins of  public baths, the Triumphal Arch, the oil presses, aqueducts, basilica, numerous houses, even a brothel. However, with a map and a guide book, you can tour the place on your own and get a feel for what Volubilis once was. Walking the ancient streets, with weeds and lichen growing among the stones, you’ll sense what a far-off outpost this was from Imperial Rome, as well as a finely organized, Volubilis ruinswell-to-do city.

Some of the material excavated, including sculpted bronze heads, is now in the National Archeological Museum in the capital city of Rabat, but the mosaics are still in place, one of the chief attractions. Made from different types of colored tile, glass and stone, they are beautifully designed, depicting animals and mythological scenes. They lie under the open sky, as yet unsheltered, and are remarkably well-preserved.

Mosaic tile floor--tiger with pheasantVolubilis is a half-hour drive from Meknes and about 90 minutes from Fez. Taxis and guided day trips can be arranged through most hotels. There’s a visitor center at the site and a small admission fee is charged to enter the ruins area. It’s very hot in summer; spring and fall are best for visiting. Any time you go, take sunscreen, water and a hat.

The nearest town to Volubilis is quiet, serene Moulay-Idriss, about 3 miles away, sprawled across a Basilica ruins, Volubilishilltop. Scores of Muslim pilgrims come here to pay homage at the tomb of Moulay Idriss, who founded the first Islamic state in Morocco, in the 8th century.  He was a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and his tomb is revered. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the shrine.

Written by Marilyn McFarlane for

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