Volubilis: City of the Morning Glories

Volubilis bobs on a billowing green sea of grass. This is not Jerusalem or Athens, very much alive cities that just so happen to be built literally on top of the bones of dead ones. Rather, this far-flung Roman settlement in northern Morocco was born, lived, and died in a little over 1,500 years, a blink in terms of the Old World. And when the last Volubilan left, the city simply froze in time as it was where it stood.

The remaining colonnade along the Decumanus Maximus in Volubilis.

Of course, time isn’t exactly the kindest keeper. Nor were the generations that followed that used the city as a DIY quarry. And nor was the 9.0 earthquake that struck in 1755. Put it all together and it is amazing anything is left of Volubilis. But was is left astounds.

Near the modern city of Meknes and perched on a hill surrounded by farmlands, the city was always a capital, first of the native Berber kingdom of Mauretania, and then of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. Named for a local flower we now call a morning glory, Volubilis found initial fame as the entry depot for caravans coming in from the Sahara to the south. At its height, the city covered 100 acres, with 1.6 miles of walls encircling the perimeter.

But if Volubilis is the name, olives was the game (as it is for the region presently). The city grew so rich off the olive oil trade that not only did it surpass the caravan biz, a native upper class developed. We know this because they loved-loved-looooooooved to show off; Volubilis has some of the best Roman mosaics in Africa.

The mosaics of Volubilis: A gladiator on his victory lap…
…and a Muse plays for Hercules.

With wealth came prestige. Once the money began to flow, so did the water–a valuable commodity in a region falling on top of a desert. Aqueducts fed three baths, plus a public fountain for drinking. With the basics were squared away, it was on to the grand urban beautification projects, with a dash of Roman practicality thrown in.

The “lounging pool” of the North Baths in Volubilis.

Bisecting the business district, the Decumanus Maximus was the colonnaded spine of Volubilis. Lined with shops and merchants, it was the souk of its day, and, indeed, I found that the layout of marketplaces in latterday Meknes and Fes are direct descendants. But then things got really got fancy.

The Capitoline Temple of Volubilis. The columns of the Basilica can be seen through the door.

Dedicated to gods both earthly (the Emperor Macrinus) and immortal (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva), you cannot “not see” the Basilica and Capitoline Temple of Volubilis. Both form part of trio of monumental architecture that even today wows. Better days have been seen–the Temple is basically just a platform with columns and the Basilica is missing an entire side–but high arches and delicate pillars are no less majestic for it. My camera was throwing sparks. But note I said “trio.”

The Arch of Caracalla.

Also in the “you cannot not see it” category, the Arch of Caracalla is to Volubilis what the Arc de Triumphe is to Paris. Set at the far end of the Decumanus Maximus, it is in the very center of town, with the Basilica, Temple, and fountain on one side, the lower city behind it, the upper (rich) city and markets in front. It was the place to see and be seen. And it still is: The arch is probably the most emblematic photographic backdrop in the whole ruin.

The Romans pulled out 285 AD, yet Volubilis would tough it out another 700 years But time, tide, and, most of all, strategy were against it. Always a remote outpost, Volubilis didn’t have the defensive landscape that could have made its conquest a tougher fight. It was taken over and over again until the people just had it. By the 11th century, Volubilis was a distant memory. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the site was rediscovered and identified.

You can do Volubilis in about an hour, but this is a site that begs you to take your time. Also worth your time is the sleek museum highlighting finds and past digs. Combined, the city can easily swallow up a whole morning, and in the future, the afternoon. By that, I mean that this is still a “raw” site and that there is more to the city yet; most of the lower, plebeian quarter remains unexcavated.

I’ll just have to come back.

Morning glories still bloom in Volubilis.



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