Morocco 2017: Volubilis – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco. Today I visit a Roman era ruin outside of Fez.

Outside of Fez we reenter agricultural areas, marked by roadside produce stands with pyramids of fruits and potatoes towering over the edges of the bushel baskets that line the edge of the road.  Farmland is interspersed with ruins of stone or brick walls.  We arrive at the Roman ruin of Volubilis, the ruins of a 2nd century Roman outpost, renowned for its mosaic floors.

Volubilis was a caravansary for the Berbers and the capital of the Kingdom of Mauritania, before becoming an important Roman outpost after the Third Punic War in the 2nd century BCE. It marked the furthest reach of the Roman Empire into Africa. The city declined during the 8th century, with most of its inhabitants having converted to Islam and moved to the nearby city of Meknes.

In spite of its marble being stripped during the 18th century to build the sultan’s palaces in Meknes, Volubilis remains one of the best preserved Roman ruins in Morocco.  It was rediscovered during the French Protectorate in 1915, when excavation and restoration work began. Most of its artifacts have been moved to the Archaeological Museum in Rabat, which I hope to see on my next visit to Morocco.  Volubilis was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

We leave the parking lot and walk across an expansive concrete plaza – designed no doubt to gather large groups together for orientation before heading out onto the site. We hire a local guide, who is dressed in a long, loose, lime-green caftan over jeans and sandals, and a conical straw hat of a style I had seen older people wear on the outskirts of town. We head out under hot sun and a pale blue sky that has just enough wispy clouds to offer a contrast to the nearly 104 acres of ruins we are about to view.

The guide is great, and I wish I had brought my journal, even with the risk of it drawing my attention away from where my feet are going. There are placards along the way that I photograph, with information about the aqueducts that fed the city, and some of the homes that are named after images in their mosaic floors, including the “House of Venus,”  the “House of Bathing Nymphs,” and the “House of Big Game” with its lions and tigers in remarkable detail. A knowledge of French would be useful here, since that’s the language of choice for the markers and informational placards.

The House of Pillars

The “House of the Rider,” (Maison av Cavalier according to the carved stone marker) named after a bronze figure discovered there in 1910, was one of the larger homes at 1700 square meters.  The mosaics covered the floors of  the public areas of the homes (but not the private areas like kitchens and baths). The floors become more spectacular the closer we get to the King’s House.

I did not expect to see mosaic floors in such good condition, which is in sharp contrast to the remains of the walls that surround them. I had seen a section of a mosaic floor in a Roman exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, but it is entirely different to see them in context. In spite of being exposed to the elements, they are remarkably vibrant – a testament to the craftsmanship that went into their making. After I returned home, a friend of mine, Karen Seymour, shared that she was also astounded at the preservation of Roman-era mosaics she saw in the UK, and surmised that the Romans laid a substrate (just like we do now) which drained water away and discouraged plants from taking root.

We see the the remains of a bathing pool. Our guide points out a ‘jacuzzi’ – a large flat pool with a center stonework carved into backrests that would accommodate 10 people.  It served as a social center in the same way that hammams did in Turkey during the Ottoman period. Our guide tells us that the water for the jacuzzi was heated by underground pipes that ran under the ovens in the nearby bakery (shown at lower right). Talk about architectural multi-tasking!

At the furthest end of this settlement is the King’s Palace. Its huge circular mosaic floor covered a receiving room that must measure 20’x20′.

There’s also a square pool bigger than the living room of my house, overlooking a panorama of fields and orchards, and the Lower Atlas Mountains in the distance. It must have been incredible at sunset.

Here is the imposing Triumphal Arch of Caracella, built in 217 AD by the town council in honor of Emperor Caracalla and his mother Julia Domina as a thank you for granting the townspeople Roman citizenship and tax exempt status. It’s a popular place for photo ops, although some too-adventurous tourists are climbing up the gate, and getting yelled at (understandably) by the guides…

This slide show includes columns that mark the original thoroughfare in this outpost. Although Volubilis is best known for its mosaic floors. I find the view of the valley and the Lower Atlas Mountains equally striking.

The Southern Gate, which was originally flanked by bronze horses.

Back at the plaza, there’s a small museum with maps on the walls and a few cases of Roman artifacts which included bone buttons and needles, bronze pieces from horse trappings,  and a foot tall bronze figure of a boy, labeled “The Genius of Abundance.”  

In the next building is a display and sale of local products, mostly honey and packages of herbs from the nearby farms.   I am once again disappointed by the lack of a gift shop, and will have to shop for a book online.

Tasks for tonight include laundry – combining a shower with a soapy stomp on my red traveling coat, wringing it out in a towel and hanging it up to dry.  With all of my clothes clean and in various stages of drying, I head back down to the lobby to read up on what I expect to see in the souk tomorrow.  It’s another night of being on WIFI until the lobby lights go out.  I hope I’m not annoying the hotel staff… 

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