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