Rising from the fertile plain north of the city of Meknes in Morocco stands the remains of the Roman city of Volubilis. Volubilis was the capital of the Roman state of Mauretania which passed to Roman control after the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C. It remained under Roman control until it fell to rebellious Berber tribes in 285 A.D. Other pressures on the empire prevented Rome from retaking the city and they basically gave up on it. The town remained occupied until the 11th century when Fez became the predominant center of power in the Islamic dynasty in Morocco.
The city was virtually intact until the mid 18th century when a large earthquake destroyed pretty much everything and the rulers in Meknes took the stones for building material. A lot still remains and it’s fascinating.
Now regular readers will recall that Kongo is a docent at the Getty Villa in Malibu, a copy of a Roman villa that was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Scampering about the ruins gave this classical simian an opportunity to see up close much of the architectural details he’s been lecturing about for the past year.
In this large villa, Corinthian columns with twisted flutes create an inner peristyle garden with a pool. The stones would have been covered with plaster and likely had frescoes painted on them.
The basilica was the center of activity in town. In Roman times a basilica was a center of business and legal activities. Note the typical construction technique of using bricks and stone to create the facade which would then be covered in cement and white-washed.
Running above the arches of the basilica was egg and dart motif. To the Romans, egg and dart represented life and death–something they spent a lot of time writing and philosophizing about.
Volubilis’ importance and wealth came from olives. In the plain surrounding the city there are still hundreds of thousands of olive trees, some very ancient, that still produce fruit used for cooking. The Romans also used olive oil for heating and to provide light in their olive oil lamps.
The olive barons used presses like the one above to make the oil which was then packed across the mountains to the coastal city of Tingis near modern day Tangiers and exported across the Mediterranean to Rome and other cities.
These wealthy Romans had beautiful villas in Volubilis with intricate mosaic floors which can still be seen in place.
The triumphal arch in Volubilis was built in A.D. 217 to honor the Emperor Caracalla, who himself was from North Africa and had recently extended citizenship to the residents of Roman provinces.
Originally, the arch was topped with a bronze chariot pulled by six horses and statues of nymphs poured water into the basins at either side of the arch.
Facing the basilica is one of five temples found in Volubilis. It was dedicated to Jupiter and contained an altar where appropriate sacrifices could be made by the local haruspex. (See Kongo’s blog about Roman sacrifices here.)
Behind the alter is this column with a nesting stork making a home on the Corinthian lintel.
No Roman city would be complete without its baths and Volubilis had several. Above you can see the remains of a Roman bath at the north side of the city. Water was brought into town via the aqueduct which passed nearby.
The aqueduct brought water to Volubilis from snow melt and mountain springs near the city. It ran alongside the main north/south axis and the street, known as Decumanus Maximus. Actually, most Roman towns had a Decumanus Maximus and the layout of Roman cities were remarkably similar. Like their villas and public buildings, Romans built around lines of axis and one side was a virtual mirror image of the other. Roman cities were laid out like Roman army camps. Very orderly. Very precise. Volubilis follows this pattern.
Kongo could have stayed here all day. The more he looked around the more he found and he kept getting separated from his group as he stopped to figure out what he was looking at and imagine how it looked 2000 years ago.
A few miles from Volubilis is the holy city of Moulay Idriss. This is an important city to modern Morocco because this is where, in 789, Moulay Idriss brought Islam to Morocco and founded the dynasty which still rules the country today.
Travel safe. Have fun!