Presenting Volubilis, ancient capital of Berber Morocco

The second field trip in my Moroccan Cultural Heritage course (the first was to the cave houses of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam) was to Volubilis, Morocco’s premier archaeological site. All too often, in school textbooks and in tourist guidebooks, Volubilis is presented as a Roman city. This is not an accurate designation. Walili, Latinized as Volubilis, was an important Berber city for several centuries prior to Roman rule, and it remained an important city many centuries after the Romans withdrew. The purpose of the excursion on Saturday 14 Feb. was to explore Volubilis as a historic Moroccan city, a place integral to this country’s cultural heritage, rather than as a foreign place, of interest mainly to tourists.

View of the monumental civic center of Walili/Volubilis (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the monumental civic center of Walili/Volubilis (ph. Eric Ross)

Walili was a thriving town already in the third century B.C.E. It was the capital of the Mauritanian kingdom of the Bocchus dynasty (roughly 118-33 B.C.E.) and was probably also the occasional royal residence under Juba II (25 B.C.E-23 C.E.). It had several Amazigh (Berber) temples and sanctuaries and contained a royal tumulus of uncertain attribution.

The Romans annexed the Amazigh kingdom of Mauritania in 40 C.E. Included as a municipum of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana (named after its capital, Tangier), Walili/Volubilis acquired many Roman characteristics over the subsequent 250 years. Thus it is better described as a “Romanized” city rather than a Roman one. There are many complete and quite spectacular Roman cities in North Africa (Timgad, Lepcis Magna), but Volubilis is not one of them. The population of Volubilis spoke Tamazight throughout the era of Roman rule. Latin speakers and ethnic Romans would have been few and far between in the little provincial town. Though ethnically and linguistically Berber, Volubilis was apparently as cosmopolitan as any other part of the empire; inscriptions in Tifinagh (Lybian), Punic (Phoenician-Carthaginian), Hebrew, Greek and Latin have been discovered there.

Reconstruction of Volubilis in the early 3rd century C.E. Legend:

Reconstruction of Volubilis in the early 3rd century C.E. Legend: 1) city walls, 2) Tangier Gate, 3) Decumanus Maximus, 4) West Gate, 5) Temple of Jupiter, 6) Chapel of Venus, 7) Basilica, 8) Forum, 9) Baths of Gallien, 10) Baths of the Tangier Gate, 11) House of Orpheus, 12) House of the Columns, 13) Palace of Gordian, 14) necropolis, 15) columbarium, 16) aqueduct, 17) fountain, 18) potters’ quarter, 19) Arch of Caracalla. (source: Géo Magazine, #312, Feb. 2005, p. 51)

Though Roman rule in Volubilis lasted for less than a fifth of the city’s history, most of the visible archaeological remains there date from this period. There are two reasons for this. First, the Romans used monumental architecture to consolidate their rule and institutions in all the cities of their empire. Their stone masonry has survived in the archaeological record far better than other building types. Secondly, when the French archaeologists excavated Volubilis in the early 20th century they deliberately exposed and promoted the Roman layer. The French saw themselves as the inheritors of the Romans in North Africa and openly portrayed their empire as a continuation of that of the Romans. Post-Roman layers of the city were considered accretions and removed while layers lying beneath the Roman-era buildings were left unexplored in order not to destroy the Roman layer.

04 Volubilis plan_crop

Plan of the site of Volubilis. Legend: 1) Tangier Gate, 2) Decumanus Maximus, 3) Temple B, 4) Arch of Caracalla, 5) House of the Columns, 6) Basilica, 7)  Temple of Jupiter, 8) Forum, 9) House of Orpheus. (source: Grande Encyclopedie du Maroc: Culture, Arts et Traditions vol. 1, 1987, p. 157)

Professor John Shoup’s Development Policy class and Jake Warga’s Photography students joined my group for a three hours exploration of two main neighborhoods of the Romanized city: the monumental civic center and the patrician neighborhood.

Civic center of Volubilis, showing the capitol complex, the forum, the basilica and the triumphant arch.

Civic center of Volubilis, showing the capitol complex, the forum, the basilica and the triumphant arch.

The heart of the city consists of a forum with adjoining temples, a basilica, a capitol complex dedicated to Jupiter, and several baths (thermes). This was already the civic and political center of the Amazigh city prior to Roman rule but it was given a monumental make-over in the first and second centuries C.E.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter. (source: Grand Encyclopedie du Maroc)

Reconstruction of the Capitol complex, with the Temple of Jupiter and lateral chapels. (source: Jean-Luc Panetier, Volubilis: une cité du Maroc antique, 2002, p. 78)

Jupiter was the imperial god of the Romans. They instituted his worship in all the lands they conquered. They usually did this by associating Jupiter to the principal god of the various provinces and cities they ruled: hence we find Jupiter-Zeus in Greece and Jupiter-Amon-Ra in Egypt. In Volubilis, the precinct of the Temple of Jupiter also housed temples to a number of Amazigh gods in chapels under the lateral porticoes. The identities of most these local deities have not been ascertained.

Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Temple of Jupiter is elevated on a plinth above the forum and the basilica. It thus reproduces the geography of Rome itself, where the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline overlooked the Forum and its basilicas.

15 basilica (57)

The Basilica, showing the facade of arches facing the forum. (ph. Eric Ross)

The basilica as seen from the Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The basilica as seen from the Temple of Jupiter. (ph. Eric Ross)

The basilica in Volubilis had two lateral aisles flanking a central nave with an apse at each end. After the end of Roman rule, when the building was no longer needed to house a bureaucracy, it was converted into a church. A large baptismal font in the floor attests to this. Volubilis thus offers an excellent showcase for the architectural continuity between imperial basilicas and Christian church design. The curia (municipal council) is believed to have met in a hall adjoining the basilica to the east. To the west, the basilica opened widely onto the forum and the principal Berber sanctuary (Sanctuary D). The forum is quite small but contains a rostrum and numerous stone pedestals where bronze statues of local grandees used to stand.

The Arche of Caracalla, at the foot of the Decumanus Maximus. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Arch of Caracalla, at the foot of the Decumanus Maximus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Two blocks north of the forum is the Arch of Caracalla (reigned 198-217 C.E.). This awkward-looking arch is surely the most ostentatious monument to have been erected in the city. It was built to commemorate Emperor Caracalla’s tax remission–one wonders if the tax money that paid for it couldn’t have been better spent. Its current configuration is the result of some hasty rebuilding by the French archaeologists. Pieces of the original masonry that didn’t quite fit were left piled against near-by walls. It really ought to be dismantled and reassembled properly.

The monumental center of Volubilis is actually quite limited in terms of structures and functions and this distinguishes the place as a small provincial city, especially when compared to the empire’s major cities. Conspicuous by their absent in Volubilis are the grand structures of entertainment one would expect in even the smallest Roman city. No theater, circus or coliseum was ever built there.

View of the colonnaded Decumanus Maximus. (ph. Eric Ross)

View along the colonnaded Decumanus Maximus to the Arch of Caracalla. (ph. Eric Ross)

Three arches of the arcade along the Decumanus Maximus were reerected. Professor John Shoup leads students in the foreground. (ph. Eric Ross)

Three arches of the arcade along the Decumanus Maximus were re-erected by archaeologists. Professor John Shoup leads students in the foreground. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Tangier Gate, at the top of the Decumanus Maximus, marks the northern extremity of the city. From there a road led to Tangier, the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Tangier Gate, at the top of the Decumanus Maximus, marks the northern extremity of the city. From here a road led to Tangier, the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana. (ph. Eric Ross)

The patrician neighborhood of Volubilis was laid out along the Decamanus Maximus, stretching up a slope northeast of the civic center. Provisioned with fresh running water through a system of aqueducts, this is where the wealthy landowners built their large houses.

Atrium of the House of the Columns (ph. Eric Ross)

Atrium with large circular pool in the House of the Columns (ph. Eric Ross)

Private garden in the House of the Columns. (ph. Eric Ross)

Private garden with lobed fountain in the House of the Columns. (ph. Eric Ross)

Atrium of the House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Atrium with lobed fountain in the House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Pool in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Pool in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Fountain and triclinium in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Lobed fountain and triclinium in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Modeled on the Roman domus, Volubilis’ Patrician houses were of a single story and ordered around an atrium at the front and a secluded garden court at the back. Many also had their own private bath.

Caldarium (hot room) of the bath in the House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Caldarium (hot room) of the bath in the House of Orpheus. The brick hypocaust beneath the floor was heated with hot air from the boiler room. Hot air was then channeled through pottery flues embedded in the walls. (ph. Eric Ross)

The patricians’ houses of Volubilis are particular in that they contain olive presses, wine presses and grinding stones for flour. Ordinarily, Roman landowners relegated these agricultural activities to their country villas. Apparently, the landed elite of Volubilis did not have country homes and so made oil, wine and flour in their townhouses. This is yet another indication of just how un-Roman the “Roman” city of Volubilis was.

Mosaic of Diana and Acteon, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of Diana and Actaeon, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of Hylas and the nymphs, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of Hylas and the nymphs, House of the Procession of Venus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Volubilis is famous for two art forms: bronze statuary and mosaics. The bronzes (the ephebe, the bust of Juba II, the dog) are all in the Archaeological Museum in Rabat. None can be seen on site. Not so for the mosaics thought. The patrician houses all contain marvelous specimens of second and third century mosaics.

Mosaic of the labors of Hercules, in the exedra of the house of that name. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of the labors of Hercules, in a triclinium of the house of that name. (ph. Eric Ross)

The colorful central panels of these mosaics were produced in workshops in Iberia (Spain) and Gaul (France) and exported throughout the empire in ready-to-assemble kits. The black and white floor patterns which surround them however were laid by local artisans. Some of these patterns are still woven into Middle Atlas carpets today.

Mosaic around the atrium, House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic around the atrium, House of the Labors of Hercules. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of the four seasons and four muses, House of Dionysus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of the four seasons and four muses, House of Dionysus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Unfortunately, none of the mosaics in Volubilis are protected from the elements. They are exposed to the sun and the rain and are in a very poor state. Colors have faded, lichens and weeds are growing and the matrix is cracking. Puddles form on them after each rain. Urgent restoration work and preventative measures need to be taken if these mosaics are to survive another generation.

Mosaic of dolphins, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of dolphins, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of aquatic creatures, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of aquatic creatures, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of North African fauna, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosaic of North African fauna, House of Orpheus. (ph. Eric Ross)

After the end of Roman rule, not only did the bureaucracy evaporate, the tax system ceased functioning as well. The water system which made the patrician neighborhood such a fashionable place to live collapsed (that’s what happens when the rich refuse to pay tax) and it was abandoned. The monumental civic center too was abandoned and the whole city moved south, down the slope towards Oued Khoumane, the last secure source of water. As was so often the case elsewhere, the citizens of later Volubilis used the abandoned monuments of earlier Volubilis as a quarry, increasing the ruination.

Moulay Idris Zerhoun, on a hilltop above Volubilis, is the successor to the ancient city. It grew around the tomb of Idris I. (ph. Eric Ross)

The town of Moulay Idris Zerhoun, on a hilltop above Volubilis, is the successor to the ancient city. It grew around the tomb of Idris I. (ph. Eric Ross)

Nonetheless, Volubilis remained a prosperous and industrious little town long after the end of Roman rule c. 285 C.E. When Idris b. ‘Abd Allâh arrived in Morocco in 786, a refugee fleeing ‘Abbâsid persecution, Volubilis was still an important city and it is where he chose to settle and begin organizing a new state. Volubilis was thus the first Idrisid capital. A new civic center, consisting of Mosque, palace and hammam (bath) was built in the lowest part of the city, on the bank of the Oued Khoumane. This early Islamic complex has been excavated by archaeologists but one must climb over much bramble and thorn to reach it, so I did not take the group there on this excursion. It is Idriss II who moved the capital to a new city, Fez, in 808 (see this post on Morocco’s imperial cities). From then on we can say that Volubilis really started to decline. The small town on the bank of Oued Khoumane eventually became a village, with plowed fields, orchards and pasture where streets and buildings used to be. The ruins were still used as quarry, notably by Moulay Ismail (1672-1727) for the construction of his palace city in nearby Meknes, and the Arch of Caracalla could still be seen standing, at least until the great earthquake of 1755 brought it down.

A new visitor’s center has been built in Volubilis but the museum has yet to open. It is a beautiful modern building which hugs a slope. Quite incomprehensibly though, this structure was built on part of the archaeological site, inside the historic walls. A large swathe of the Oued Fertassa ravine was dug out and much concrete laid in complete disregard for the most elementary practices of archaeological site management. Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of eight in Morocco, but site management falls well short of what such sites require.

The new visitor's center and museum, not yet open, were built within the archaeological site of Volubilis. (ph. Eric Ross)

The new visitor’s center and museum, not yet open, were built within the archaeological site of Volubilis. In the background is the town of Moulay Idris, on the slopes of Zerhoun Mountain. (ph. Eric Ross)

The vistor's center/museum cantilevers over an exhibit of stellae and pedestals. (ph. Eric Ross)

The visitor’s center/museum cantilevers over an exhibit of stellae and pedestals. (ph. Eric Ross)

Beautiful museum building. When will it open? (ph. Eric Ross)

Beautiful museum building. When will it open? (ph. Eric Ross)

Our happy group of students spent three hours on the site, took lots of pictures, and asked lots of questions. To the extent they now see Volubilis as a Moroccan place, as meaningful to their history and culture, and not just as a place for tourists, I judge the visit to have been successful.

Stopped by the cops. Our bus driver had to produce about a dozen different official-looking documents. This delayed our arrival at the site by half an hour. (ph. Eric Ross)

Stopped by the cops. Students take in the springtime air as our bus driver produced about a dozen different official documents justifying our legality and road-worthiness. This delayed our arrival at the site by half an hour. (ph. Eric Ross)

There was only one small hitch, when on the trip out our bus got pulled over by gendarmes so that its various and sundry registration papers and permits could be verified. This cost us half an hour.

Charcoal smoke rises from grills in Boufekrane, where we stopped for a hearty well-deserved lunch on our return to Ifrane. (ph. Eric Ross)

Charcoal smoke rises from grills in Boufekrane, where we stopped for a hearty well-deserved lunch on our way back to Ifrane. (ph. Eric Ross)

On the way back from Volubilis the group stopped for lunch at Boufekrane, renowned in these parts for its string of truck-stop restaurants.

Our next excursion will be to the historic city of Fez.

Suggested reading

  • Jean-Luc Panetier, Volubilis: une cité du Maroc antique, Paris: Maisonneuve-Larose/Editions Malika, 2002
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About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in architecture, cities, field trips, teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Presenting Volubilis, ancient capital of Berber Morocco

  1. Rajae says:

    Cheers to proper sourcing even in blogs. I mean the space between the p. and the actual page number.

  2. Pingback: Visiting restoration projects in Fez | Eric Ross, academic

  3. Charles O. Cecil says:

    Eric:

    Many thanks for adding this dimension–the Berber one–to my understanding of Volubilis. I am really glad to have read this.

    With best wishes,

    Chuck Cecil

    Charles O. Cecil

    Cecil Images

    4318 Louis Place

    Alexandria, Virginia 22304

    U.S.A.

    http://www.cecilimages.com

    Tel: 703-504-6956

    E-mail: chuck@cecilimages.com

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