The Mauritanian capital, founded in the 3rd century B.C., became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.
Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in a fertile agricultural area. Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.
Sitting in the middle of a fertile plain, the ruined Roman city of Volubilis is the best-preserved archaeological site in Morocco. Its most amazing features are the many beautiful mosaics preserved in situ, and it was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997. Volubilis is about 33km north of Meknes and can easily be combined with nearby Moulay Idriss Zerhoun to make a fantastic day trip from Meknes or Fez.
Only about half of the 40-hectare site at Volubilis has been excavated. The better-known monuments are in the northern part of the site, furthest from the entrance in the south.
In the heat of a summer day, the sun can be incredibly fierce, so bring a hat and plenty of water. Spring is the ideal season when wildflowers blossom amid the abandoned stones, and the surrounding fields are at their greenest. The best time to visit is either first thing in the morning or late afternoon; at dusk, when the last rays of the sunlight the ancient columns, Volubilis is at its most magical.
Although parts of certain buildings are roped off, you are free to wander the site at will. Just beyond the entrance gate lies a small on-site museum, which displays the ancient city’s most celebrated finds and includes some of the prized discoveries, such as some fine bronzes, although many remain in the Archaeology Museum in Rabat.
Although the least remarkable part of the site, the olive presses here indicate the economic basis of ancient Volubilis, much as the plentiful olive groves in the surrounding area do today – look for the flat presses and stone storage vats dotted about the site. Wealthy homeowners had private olive presses.
Next to the House of Orpheus are the remains of Galen’s Thermal Baths. Although largely broken, they clearly show the highly developed underfloor heating in this Roman hammam (look for the low arches). Opposite the steam room are the communal toilets – where citizens could go about their business and have a chat at the same time.
The Capitol, Basilica, and 1300-sq-meter Forum are, typically, built on a high point. The Capitol, dedicated to the Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, dates back to AD 218; the Basilica and Forum lie immediately to its north. The reconstructed columns of the Basilica are usually topped with storks’ nests – an iconic Volubilis image if the birds are nesting at the time of your visit. Around the Forum is a series of plinths carved with Latin inscriptions that would have supported statues of the great and good. Keep your eyes out for the carved stone drain-hole cover – an understated example of Roman civil engineering.
The marble Triumphal Arch was built in 217 in honor of Emperor Caracalla and his mother, Julia Domna. The arch, which was originally topped with a bronze chariot, was reconstructed in the 1930s, and the mistakes made then were rectified in the 1960s. The hillock to the east provides a splendid view over the entire site.
Houses with Mosaics
The House of Orpheus is the finest and largest home, containing a mosaic of Orpheus charming animals by playing the lute, and a dolphin mosaic in the dining room. Note the private hammam has a caldarium (hot room) with visible steam pipes, a tepidarium (warm room) and a frigidarium (cold room), as well as a solarium.
On the left just before the triumphal arch are a couple more roped-off mosaics. One, in the House of the Acrobat, depicts an athlete being presented with a trophy for winning a desultory race, a competition in which the rider had to dismount and jump back on his horse as it raced along. To the west of here is the House of the Dog, famed not for its mosaics but a lonesome rock plinth with a giant phallus carved into the top of it – this establishment was once a brothel for weary warriors who would stop off here after making it back to the triumphal arch after the battle.
From the arch, the ceremonial road, Decumanus Maximus, stretches up the slope to the northeast. The houses lining it on either side contain the best mosaics on the site. The first on the far side of the arch is known as the House of the Ephesus and contains a now-incomplete mosaic of Bacchus in a chariot drawn by panthers.
Next along, the House of the Columns is so named because of the columns arranged in a circle around the interior court – note their differing styles, which include spirals. Adjacent to this is the House of the Knight, also called House of the Cavalier/Rider with its incomplete mosaic of Bacchus and Ariadne. The naked Ariadne has suffered somewhat from the attentions of admirers.
The next four houses are named for their excellent mosaics: the House of the Labours of Hercules, the House of Dionysus and the Four Seasons, the House of the Nymphs Bathing, though the nymph mosaics are heavily damaged, and the House of the Wild Beasts. The first is almost a circular comic strip, recounting the Twelve Labours. Several of Hercules’ heroic feats were reputed to have occurred in Morocco, making him a popular figure at the time.
Some of the best mosaics are saved until last. Cross the Decumanus Maximus and head for the lone cypress tree, which marks the House of Venus, home of King Juba II. There are two particularly fine mosaics here, appropriately with semi-romantic themes. The first is the Abduction of Hylas by the Nymphs, an erotic composition showing Hercules’ lover Hylas being lured away from his duty by two beautiful nymphs. The second mosaic is Diana Bathing. The virgin goddess was glimpsed in her bath by the hunter Acteon, whom she turned into a stag as punishment. Acteon can be seen sprouting horns, about to be chased and devoured by his own pack of hounds – the fate of mythical peeping toms everywhere.
Hiring a guide
Information boards are much improved and explain in English, French, and Arabic what you’re actually seeing. It’s well worth hiring a guide, especially if you’re pressed for time. If you prefer to wander on your own, allow at least two hours to see the essentials. The official guides await near the entrance to the site and conduct good one hour tours for about Dh250. Insist on getting one that speaks your language fluently.
Getting to Volubilis
The simplest and quickest way to get to Volubilis is to hire a grand taxi for the return trip. A half-day outing from Meknes should cost Dh350, with a couple of hours at the site and a stop at Moulay Idriss Zerhoun (worth an overnight stay in itself). The same trip from Fez (about twice the distance) will cost about Dh1000.
A cheaper alternative is to take a shared grand taxi from Meknes to Moulay Idriss Zerhoun (Dh10; ask for Zerhoun), and then hire a grand taxi to take you to Volubilis (Dh30 complete hire, one way). If the taxi waits for you and takes you back to Meknes, the cost is Dh120. If you don’t arrange in advance to be taken back, simply ask the guardian at Volubilis car park to find you a taxi. Note that shared taxis to Moulay Idriss only run from near the Meknes Institut Français.
If the weather isn’t too hot, it’s a lovely one-hour walk (one way) between Moulay Idriss Zerhoun and Volubilis. Alternatively, trot down on a donkey arranged through Dar Zerhoune in Moulay Idriss Zerhoun (Dh150, one hour), and take a taxi back.