A striking sight, visible for miles on the bends of the approach roads, the Roman ruins of VOLUBILIS occupy the ledge of a long, high plateau, 25km north of Meknes. Below their walls, towards Moulay Idriss, stretches a rich river valley; beyond lie the dark, outlying ridges of the Zerhoun mountains. The drama of this scene – and the scope of the ruins themselves – are undeniably impressive, so much so that the site was a key location for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ.
Except for a small trading post on an island off Essaouira, Volubilis was the Roman Empire’s most remote and far-flung base. It represented – and was, literally – the end of the imperial road, having reached across France and Spain and then down from Tangier, and despite successive emperors’ dreams of “penetrating the Atlas”, the southern Berber tribes were never effectively subdued.
In fact, direct Roman rule here lasted little over two centuries – the garrison withdrew early, in 285 AD, to ease pressure elsewhere. But the town must have taken much of its present form well before the official annexation of the Kingdom of Mauretania by Emperor Claudius in 40 AD. Tablets found on the site, inscribed in Punic, show a significant Carthaginian trading presence in the third century BC, and prior to colonization it was the western capital of a heavily Romanized, but semi-autonomous, Berber kingdom that reached into northern Algeria and Tunisia. After the Romans left, Volubilis experienced very gradual change. Latin was still spoken in the seventh century by the local population of Berbers, Greeks, Syrians and Jews; Christian churches survived until the coming of Islam; and the city itself remained active well into the seventeenth century, when its marble was carried away by slaves for the building of Moulay Ismail’s Meknes.
What you see today, well excavated and maintained, are largely the ruins of second- and third-century AD buildings – impressive and affluent creations from its period as a colonial provincial capital. The land around here is some of the most fertile in North Africa, and the city exported wheat and olives in considerable quantities to Rome, as it did wild animals from the surrounding hills. Roman games, memorable for the sheer scale of their slaughter (nine thousand beasts were killed for the dedication of Rome’s Colosseum alone), could not have happened without the African provinces, and Volubilis was a chief source of their lions – within just two hundred years, along with Barbary bears and elephants, they became extinct.
The entrance to the site is through a minor gate in the city wall – or through a break in the wall further down, depending on construction work – built along with a number of outer camps in 168 AD, following a prolonged series of Berber insurrections. The best of the finds, which include a superb collection of bronzes, have been taken to the Archeological Mueseum in Rabat, though Volubilis has retained in situ the great majority of its mosaics, some thirty or so, which are starting to show the effects of being exposed to the elements. The finest mosaics line the Decumanus Maximus, the main thoroughfare through Volubilis, but aside from those subjected to heavy-handed restoration, the once brightly coloured tiles have faded to a subtle palette of ochres and greys. Similarly, the site requires a bit of imagination to reconstruct a town (or, at least, half a town, for the original settlement was twice the size of what remains today) from the jumble of low walls and stumpy columns. Nevertheless, you leave with a real sense of Roman city life and its provincial prosperity, while it is not hard to recognize the essentials of a medieval Arab town in the layout.