Volubilis: The Best Preserved Roman Ruins in Morocco

The Roman ruins of Volubilis are a striking sight, set in the ledge of a high plateau, some 33 kilometers north of Meknes. It is by far the most important Roman settlement in Morocco and the best preserved, having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. The scope of the ruins may well be familiar to you: it is the setting of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

The appeal of Volubilis can be combined with that of nearby Moulay Idriss to make an easy and excellent excursion from Meknes.

History

Tablets found on the site indicate that it was first settled in by Carthaginian traders in the 3rd Century BC. The Romans annexed Volubilis to the Empire around 45AD, when Emperor Claudius officially annexed North African Mauritania.

Volubilis was considered one of Roman Empire’s most remote and far-flung outposts. The imperial roads stopped here and despite successive attempts, Rome never managed to subdue the Berber tribes of the Atlas.

At its peak, Volubilis is estimated to have housed up to 20,000 people. What you see today are the ruins of 2nd and 3rd century AD buildings – impressive and affluent monuments that reflect its standing as a provincial capital. The land around here is some of the most fertile in North Africa: the city exported olives and wheat to Rome as well as wild animals, including lions and Barbary bears, for Roman games across the Empire.

Direct Roman rule lasted little over 200 years – the garrison withdrew in 285 AD. However, Latin was still spoken by the local population of Berbers, Jews, Christians and Greeks up to the seventh century. Volubilis continued to be inhabited and active well into the eighteenth-century, when its marble was plundered for Moulay Ismail palaces in Meknes. Its buildings were finally felled by the Lisbon earthquake in 1772.

Sights

Volubilis Entrance

The entrance to Volubilis (open daily from 9:00 – 12:00 & 14:30 – 18:00. Admission fee is 20dh) is through a gate in the city walls dating back to 168 AD. Just inside, there is a ticket office, a café and a small, open-air museum with different sculptural and altar remains from the site.

Less than half of the site has been excavated and archaeologists, funds permitting, continue to excavate and make the occasional exciting discovery. The best of these discoveries – including a superb collection of bronzes – are now in the Archaeology Museum in Rabat. Volubilis, however, still retains its brightly coloured mosaics and remains an impressive sight that gives a real sense of Roman city life.

The better known monuments are in the northern parts of the site, but let us follow the signposted itinerary, starting from the entrance gate at the south. The path from the museum and across the bridge over the Oued Fertassa leads to the residential quarters, a mixed area of housing and industry. Each building contains the remains of at least one olive press, which indicates the absolute importance of olive production in the city, much as the olive groves in the surrounding area today.

Volubilis Olive Press
House of Orpheus Volubilis

In the middle of the quarter is the House of Orpheus, a large complex of rooms that were part of a large mansion of one of the city’s richest merchants. It is divided into public and private sections, each with a separate entrance and interior court. You come first to the private rooms, designed around a small patio and decorated in a somewhat intact dolphin mosaic. Further inside are the public apartments, grouped around a large atrium, a reception hall and a half central court. You will also find here the mosaic that gave its name to the house, the Orpheus Myth.

Next to the House of Orpheus are the remains of Galen’s Baths, the city’s main public baths restored by the Emperor Gallienius in the second century AD. Although much broken and the mosaics fragmentary, they clearly show the highly developed underground heating system used in Roman baths. Immediately after the baths is an oil press (Oil Press 35), where you can see a reconstruction of the grinding mechanism used in the production of oil, including both grinding stones.

Just above the House of Orpheus are the city’s main public buildings – the Capitol, Basilica and Forum. The Capitol, the smaller of the buildings, dates back to 217 AD and was dedicated to the official state cult of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The large five-aisled Basilica to its side served as the courthouse while across the 1300-square metres forum were the court and stalls of the town’s market.

Volubilis Basilica
House of the Athlete Volubilis

Further north from city’s main public buildings, on the left and just before the Triumphal Arch, is the House of the Athlete also known as the House of the Acrobat. It has an impressive mosaic depicting an athlete presented with a trophy for winning a desultory race, a competition in which the rider has to dismount and leap back on his horse in full gallop.

The marble Triumphal Arch, right in the middle of town, was erected in 127 AD in honour of the Severian Emperor Caracalla and his mother, Julia Donna. The arch is surmounted by a bronze chariot and with its Corinthian columns remains an impressive monument. The hillock to the east provides a splendid view over the entire site.

From the Triumphal Arch, the ceremonial road, Decamanus Maximus, stretches up the slope to the northernmost gate, Tangier gate. The houses lining up the street from either side contain some of Volubilis’s finest mansions and mosaics.

Triumphal Arch Volubilis
House of Ephebus Volubilis

The first of these mansions is the House of the Ephebus. Its layout is very similar to the House of Orpheus, with a central court, private and public rooms and an olive press in the rear of the building. The finest of its mosaics is a representation of Bacchus being drawn in a chariot by panthers.

Next along is the mosaic-less mansion House of the Columns, named after the columns around its interior court. Adjoining this is the House of the Knight with an incomplete mosaic of Dionysos discovering the Ariadne naked and asleep on the beach at Naxos.

The couple of mansions in the next block feature excellent mosaics: the Labour of Hercules and Nymphs Bathing. The former is almost a comic caricature, recounting the Twelve Labours of Hercules – many of which are reputed to have occurred in Morocco.

Beyond this area and approaching the northernmost gate – Tangier gate – stands the palace of the Gordians, the former residence of the procurators who administered the city. Unfortunately, it stands today in ruins having lost its columns and mosaics to Moulay Ismail’s plundering mania.

Labour of Hercules Volubilis
Diana Bathing Volubilis

The best mosaics in Volubilis are saved to last. Cross to the other side of the Decumanus and head for the isolated cypress tree which marks the Cortege of Venus – the most memorable ensemble of mosaics in the entire site. There are two particularly outstanding mosaics here superbly handling erotic themes. The first is Diana Bathing and being glimpsed in her bath by the hunter Acteon. The Goddess turns him into a stag as punishment and he can be seen sprouting horns and about to be chased by his own hounds. The second mosaic is the Abduction of Hylas by the Nymphs, showing Hercules lover Hylas being seduced by two beautiful nymphs. A third mosaic, Venus in the Waves, is on display at Tangier’s museum. The bronze busts of Cato and Juba II were also found in this house and can be seen at Rabat’s museum.

Guides

There are guides at Volubilis itself who conduct one-hour tours of the site for around 120 dh. Most will conduct their tour in decent-enough English.

Alternatively, you can hire official guides in Fez or Meknes. They are very knowledgeable about the layout and history of the site and will be happy to show you around for their usual daily rates.

Getting to Volubilis

The simplest and quickest way to get to Volubilis from Meknes is to charter a grand taxi for the return trip. Ask the driver to drop you at Volubilis to explore the site for a couple of hours and then take you on to Moulay Idriss.

A cheaper alternative is to take a grand taxi to Moulay Idriss from the French Cultural Insititute just off Avenue Hassan II in Meknes Ville Nouvelle. From there, you can either walk between Moulay Idriss and Volubilis – only a short 4 kilometers – or hire a grand taxi to take you there.