The History of Volubilis

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 and Khoumane.

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 accurate.

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, particularly olives.

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 Latin language.
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 II.

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 century.

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 Heritage site.