Three kilometers to the west of Moulay
Idriss Zerhoun, one of the best-known spiritual centers of Morocco,
on the edge of a vast plain that slopes down from the Zerhoun
hills, lie the ruins of the town of Volubilis.. The site is
a triangular plateau between the valleys of the Oueds Fertassa
The name of Volubilis is known both from
the ancient texts and from the epigraphy of the town. It probably
derives from the Berber word 'Oualili', the name of the Oleander
plant, a flower that grows in abundance near the oued Khoumane.
In Arab sources and on the early Arab coinage of the site
the name is transformed into 'Walila'. From the nineteenth
century onwards the ruins were known as 'Ksar Faraoun', the
castle of the Pharaohs.
Literary sources give us some information,
although much of it is brief and sometimes erroneous. Pomponius
Mela refers to it as a modest city, while the elder Pliny
places it equidistant from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
Finally, the Antonine Itinerary places Volubilis 144 Roman
miles from Tingi (Tangiers) and 4 miles from the last of the
towns in the interior, Tocolocida - both distances are very
Sporadic occupation of the site from the
Neolithic period onward was favoured by its well-defended
position, the abundance of water in the two oueds, and particularly
by the agricultural potential of the surrounding countryside;
the plains are ideal for cereal agricultural while the piedmont
zone of the Jebel Zerhoun is still used for arboriculture,
The town itself
may date as early as the third century B.C.E., for an inscription
in Punic names members of a Mauretanian family who held the
post of suffete, a quasi-hereditary magistrate, over four
generations. However, the earliest archaeological evidence
comes from the middle of the second century B.C.E. This reveals
a small town defended by a rampart built of mud bricks on
stone footings: it seems to have covered around 12 hectares.
Its plan may have already been a regular one, but we have
little evidence for this, for most of its buildings and all
of its streets were covered by later structures. In this period
we know of a large sanctuary with a plan typical of Punic
and North African sites, with a central altar and chapels
against the walls. Two other temples belonging more clearly
to the classical tradition.
A dynasty of Mauretanian kings is known from the second century
B.C.E., ruling over a country that included the northern part
of Morocco and the western half of Algeria. However, the king
whose presence is most linked to Volubilis was Juba II, son
of Juba I. He was brought up in Rome and married to the orphaned
princess, Cleopatra Selenus, daughter of Cleopatra and Mark
Antony. Augustus named him king of Mauretania, and although
his capital was at Caesarea (Cherchel in Algeria) his reign,
(25 B.C.E. - 23 C.E.) was clearly a flourishing period for
the town of Volubilis. However, Caligula's murder of his son
Ptolemy in 40 C.E. brought an end to the independent kingdom
of Mauretania The Roman army crushed the revolt that followed
the assassination led by Ptolemy's freedman, Aedemon, and
the old kingdom was divided in two, Mauretania Caesariensis
to the east, with its capital at Caesarea, and Mauretania
Tingitana to the west, with its capital at Tingi (Tangiers).
Volubilis, which seems to have aided the Roman side, was elevated
to the rank of municipium, governed no longer by suffetes
but by duumvirs, or annual magistrates.
We know little of the city in this period: However, over the
ruins of the city wall is built a large tumulus whose function
is imperfectly understood: various hypotheses have been advanced,
including a funerary monument and a monument commemorating
the Roman victory.
The town quickly grew to 40 ha. Major monuments were constructed:
new temples, baths, and civic buildings. The aqueduct that
fed the first baths was built between 60 and 70 C.E. The urban
landscape was formed of houses with shops along their facades,
bakers, and, particularly, oil pressing complexes. These last
are so numerous that they suggest that the olive was one of
the principal riches of the town. The private houses with
their rich mosaics give us much information on the domestic
architecture and the artistic life of Volubilis. Like the
rest of the population, the elite of the town were probably
Berbers, the original inhabitants of the area.
In 168-169, under the emperor Marcus Aurelius city walls were
constructed, including eight monumental gates flanked by towers.
Further additions came under the Severans, when a new monumental
center was created, including the capitoline temple, built
by the emperor Macrinus in 218 C.E., the civil basilica and
the reorganized Forum. The Arch of Triumph dates to the emperor
Caracalla, of the same dynasty. It celebrates his grant of
Roman citizenship and tax relief.
For reasons still imperfectly understood, the reorganization
of Diocletian in 285 C.E. led the Roman army to abandon the
southern part of Mauretania Tingitana, including Volubilis.
The inhabitants gradually shifted the city center to the western
part of the town. After the aqueduct broke down, they may
have been constrained to use water from the Oued. A new city
wall was built separating the inhabited area from the old
city center, now occupied by cemeteries. Near the Arch of
Caracalla was found a cemetery from which comes a series of
Christian funerary inscriptions which cover the period between
599 and 655 C.E. These testify to the Christianisation of
the Romano-Berber population, and the continuous use of the
The islamisation of the population was already underway before
the arrival of Idriss I, as pre-idrissid coins found on the
site show. Idriss himself arrived after he was driven out
after the massacre of the Shiites by the Abassids in 788 C.E.
A descendent of Ali, Idriss fled to the Maghreb al-Aqça,
where he was welcomed by the chief of the Aouraba tribe and
proclaimed commander of the faithful. From there, he extended
his rule by founding the town of Fes. He was assassinated
at Volubilis in 791 C.E., and was succeeded by his son, Idris
The town was not abandoned for some time after this period.
In 818 C.E. it welcomed refugees, known as the Rabedis, who
had revolted in a neighbourhood in Cordoba. Occupation seems
to have lasted until the Almoravid period, in the eleventh
Archaeological excavations began in 1915 and continue to this
day. They have exposed a large part of the town (more than
20 ha.), but much remains to be excavated, particularly in
the area occupied in the post-Roman period.
The efforts of the Moroccan authorities - the Conservation
of the site of Volubilis, the Direction for Cultural Heritage
and the National Institute for the Sciences of Archaeology
and Heritage - towards the upkeep and restoration of the site
have been crowned in 1997 by its designation as a UNESCO World