It was time for the harvest and the inhabitants of Volubilis were busy in their fields. This was the prime moment for a local tribe to attack the rich administrative center. As the Roman soldier saw them creep closer to the city, he sighed. This wasn’t the first time Volubilis was attacked, and he supposed it would not be the last… He wondered: why was this site so important to Rome?
Volubilis is an archaeological site near Meknes, a city in the north central part of Morocco. From the archaeological record, this site is known to have been occupied for a long period of time, from prehistoric times all the way till the Islamic period. Nevertheless, the best-known occupants of Volubilis are the Romans, who acquired the city when they added the Kingdom of Mauretania to their empire. The Roman city eventually fell into ruins, and it was only during the early 20th century that the city’s former glory came to light, as a result of archaeological excavations conducted by the French. Today, Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco.
Part of the Volubilis ruins. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Volubilis is located at the foot of the Jebel Zerhoun. This site is reckoned to have already been occupied during the prehistoric period. Subsequently, this area came to be inhabited by the Phoenicians and then the Carthaginians. During the 3rd century BC the city was established as the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania. The rulers of Mauretania eventually became Roman client kings, but they lost their kingdom in around 44 AD, when it was absorbed by the Roman Empire under Emperor Claudius.
A Prosperous City
Following the annexation of Mauretania, the Roman city of Volubilis was founded, which became an important metropolis and the administrative and economic center of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. One of the factors that made Volubilis economically important was the high fertility of the lands surrounding the city. This was suitable for the production of olives and grain, which were exported to Rome in large quantities. Other agricultural produce identified by archaeobotanical studies carried out at the site include grapes, figs, and melons.
A reconstructed Roman olive press in Volubilis. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )
Roman rule of Volubilis lasted till the end of the 3rd century AD, following the period known as the Crirs of the Third Century. After the Romans abandoned the city, they did not attempt to recapture it, as it would have been too expensive to do so, and the region was too difficult to defend. Nevertheless, the city continued to be inhabited for many centuries after the withdrawal of the Romans. Moreover, the city’s role as an administrative center was maintained until the 11th century, when it was superseded by the foundation of the nearby city of Fez.
During the 17th century, Volubilis was pillaged by Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, the second ruler of the Moroccan Alaouite Dynasty. Marble columns and beautiful architectural elements were removed from the ancient Roman city to decorate the king’s palaces in his capital, Meknes. In 1755, Portugal was struck by the Great Lisbon earthquake. The magnitude of this earthquake was so strong that it caused damage and destruction in Morocco. Volubilis was one of the Moroccan cities severely affected by this disaster, and it has been suggested that it was responsible for the city’s final abandonment.
Capitoline Temple, Volubilis. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
In 1912, Morocco became a French protectorate, and Volubilis began to be excavated by French archaeologists three years later. The excavation of the site continued in the following decades, and as a result, many vestiges of the ancient Roman city were revealed. Some of the Roman remains that can be seen today include the city’s Decumanus Maximus (the main street with an east-west orientation that divides the city in half), behind which many houses of the wealthy may be found, the Capitoline Temple, as well as a number of other temples, and olive presses.
Decumanus Maximus in Volubilis. (Christian Rosenbaum/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Another distinct Roman structure is the Arch of Caracalla, a triumphal arch located on one end of the Decumanus Maximus. The arch that visitors see today is not exactly the same as the original Roman one, but a reconstruction that was made by the archaeologists during the 1960s. This is also the case for some of other prominent public buildings and some of the elite houses. In 1997, Volubilis was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Arch of Caracalla at Volubilis (looking southwest) . ( CC BY SA 3.0 )