Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Volubilis
Before looking into possible destinations for our recent trip to Morocco I had not even been aware that the striking Roman ruins of Volubilis lay among a lush river valley between Meknes and Fez. They are a highly recommended sight for anyone even casually interested in historical monuments. I decided to combine the UNESCO World Heritage Sight with a wander through the pretty village of Moulay Idriss that hugs the mountainside not far from the Roman settlement.
The Roman Empire in Northern Africa
Did you know that the Roman Empire stretched into North Africa? In fact it stretched from Morocco along the Northern Mediterranean coast into Egypt. Volubilis in Morocco was the Romans most remote base sited at the end of the Imperial Road and it only lasted over two centuries under Roman rule, as the local Berber tribes could not be defeated. Tablets found on site date back to the third century BC and even after the Romans left, Volubilis only changed gradually. Latin was still spoken well into the 7th century AD, even by many of the local Berber population.
Entrance to the Site
After getting lost in the warren of alleys in the pastel coloured of Moulay Idriss we were glad to escape into expanse of the high plateau, a prime spot for Romans to inhabit and build a town. Visiting in the calm cooler winter months meant that the crowds at Volubilis were at a minimum and there were no queues or waiting times to enter the vast but enclosed site. There is a small entrance fee, on our visit, 70DH for adults and 30DH for children under 12 years. The opening hours vary between the months due to the available daylight.
Before reaching the main excavations of the Roman ruins, we were led past a modern, archeological museum with a number of ancient artefacts collected from the site and too valuable or fragile to leave in place, the specimens included tablets and an extensive collection of bronzes. Screens and models displayed the life and history of the Romans in Volubilis. There were also some interesting showcases for kids to imagine what life must have been like over thousands of years ago under the rule of Rome.
Entering the Volubilis Ruins
After a short climb uphill, we entered the main part of the Volubilis ruins, only half of the original parts of the site still remain but even so the site stretches far and wide. Cresting the ridge it was easy to imagine why the Romans chose the elevated site with views over the fertile valley below as their base. In fact the area was probably a trading crossroads for years before they arrived.
The South Quarter
At first we noticed some low walls and a few low columns part of the south quarter, once a tight knitted suburban quarter with simple dwellings. However one building must have stood out among the basic structures, the house of Orpheus, the remains of the first luxury mansion we encountered. Of the once opulent building of a former merchant, a small patio decorated with intricate mosaics showing dolphins, gave us a glimpse of the wealth some Romans must have amassed during their lifetime. We could also make out remnants of the heating system, showcasing how far advanced the Roman Empire must have been at that time.
Once an Extensive City
Beyond the ruins the valley stretched out with fields of crops that perhaps were not so different from those ancient times. The extensive city was laid out along the ridge and the signs explained the different districts. We could see better preserved ruins in the middle where the original Senate house of Volubilis was. Acres and acres of sandy walls spread out from this both towards us, on each side and beyond rising to the remains of an entrance gate near the main road in the distance.
Intricate and Colourful Mosaics
Jerome was rather taken with the intricate design of the mosaic and on seeing that there were many more to be discovered in the maze of old building remains we decided to explore roughly following the trail that guides visitors around the site. Thankfully unlike similar sites in Europe the trail is just a guide and much of the rest can be explored freely although you are not allowed to climb on the walls and some more fragile parts are off limits.
Exploring the Ancient Building Remains
Leaving the dolphin behind we progressed through the buildings. Most were just the low crumbled remains of walls but here and there whole doorways or higher walls gave a good idea of the size and breadth of the dwellings or shops that they once were. It became something of a game to guess what each building might have been used for and then check on the helpful plaques that dot the site. In between the walls the remains of columns and other architecture features were also clearly preserved. One of the most impressive items we found was an ancient oil press surrounded by oil storage vats.
It was not long before we discovered some more mosaics at Volubilis. This time tiny, colourful tiles carpeted a floor displaying a variety of exotic animals. In one room there appeared to be a Roman zodiac on the ground. The richness of the tiles clearly showed then even if this was the end of the empires roads and a long way from Rome the Romans has a lifestyle that perhaps has only been exceed in the last hundred years.
Beyond this we reached the impressive arches that are visible in the centre of the site and flanked the area around the centre of the town. It is amazing to think that some of them have survived nearly 2000 years although some have clearly needed repairs. The Forum was the centre of Roman life and is also one of the better-conserved parts of the site.
Strolling Through the Opulent Quarter
Moving on in our search for the best mosaics we followed the long line of the original sewage and water systems built to feed the Volubilis. The pipes and channels are clearly still visible in many places. We soon found more amazing mosaics in this richer and more opulent quarter. The typical mansions in this district seemed to be fronted by shops and the merchants then had villas with many courtyards behind.
The Villa of Venus
The wide main street led us up towards the top entrance gate in the distance but a turn to the right brought us to another district of villas and perhaps the most beautiful of the mosaics we saw in the villa of Venus. The colours here still hinted at how it must have been an incredible artwork when first laid.
Keep Cool in the Heat!
Even in the winter the vast site bakes under the sun (always take enough water and sun protection) and despite some stops for a cooling drink from our pack we were also glad to wander back towards the entrance having covered all the main attractions and found the best of the mosaic artwork. A warning though the ice creams we treated ourselves to at the gate to cool off cost so much we could not believe it so watch for the rip off vendors in the car park!
Must Visit When in Fes!
We had all pleasantly enjoyed our wander through the impressive Volubilis. Exploring this ancient Roman city and ruins, we marvelled at how well it was all preserved. Combined with Moulay Idriss it certainly was a welcoming break from the hectic and frenzied medina in Fes.
Where we stayed:
The traditional, boutique style Riad Dar Gnaoua
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