Outpost of Empire: Volubilis, Morocco

3 04 2020
morocco, volubilis morocco

Standing in front of Corinthian columns.

After lunch, we drove out to Volubilis. This ancient Roman city is the finest archeological site in Morocco. At its peak in the 2nd Century A.D., it spread out over 100 acres and had a population estimated at 20,000. What we see today looks to be Roman, but that belies the many waves of kingdoms and cultures that made this city home. It is often referred to as a Berber city as well.

Before the Romans, it was founded in the 2nd Century B.C. as the capital of Mauritania. It became a Roman client state in the 1st Century B.C. and then was annexed by Rome in 44 A.D. And after the Romans, in 787, it became the capital of Idris I, the first king of the Idrisid dynasty. Eventually it fell back into local tribal ownership. It was continuously populated under various rulers until the 1755 Great Lisbon Earthquake leveled it, along with many cities and towns in southern Europe and North Africa.

Volubilis enjoys status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the numerous cultures that lived here. For over 1,000 years, it was inhabited by Berbers, Arabs, Romans, Mauretanians, Libyans, Jews, Moors, as well as Aftrican and Christian cultures. Archeologists have unearthed evidence of all these cultures.

When we arrived the day had turned dry, warm and bright. The city sits on a hillside and has an uninterrupted view of the surrounding area. Wending our way through the ruins, the extent of the city became apparent. There were baths, rest rooms, an industrial size olive press, elaborate halls, a sewer under the main street, and intricate tile floors depicting elements of daily life, as well as tales of the Gods and Hercules.

Another reason this city was selected as a World Heritage site is its integrity. After 1755, it was essentially abandoned and left alone. So what the architects found was as pristine as it had been for centuries.

All three types of columns were evident – Doric, Iambic and Corinthian. Corinthian are more fancy and detailed at the the top. For Iambic, the top looks like a a sheet of paper with rolls on either end. Doric are the simplest, with the top kind of looking like a chopped off inverted pyramid (I don’t have images for those).

Many of the structures contained elaborate tile floors depicting images of gods, stories of the gods, and pictures of animals.

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Not sure what’s going on, but there is a man, horse, and I think lion

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Here, a man riding a horse backwards

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Hercules wrestling snakes

The mosaics even contained evidence of just how far away influence had come. There was a swastika – a religious icon of divinity and spirituality from Hinduism.

The size, history and significance of Volubilis was a lot to comprehend. We had time in the bus to consider, as our destination for the night was Fez.




Meknes, Morocco – Morocco’s Ancient Imperial Capital

31 03 2020
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The “Thursday Gate”

We arrived in Meknes and hiked our gear to our hotel. Meknes seems to be another well-kept Moroccan city. Roads were smooth and traffic manageable. Meknes is a former capital of the country. Walking to dinner, the sunset foretold another day of perfect weather lay ahead.

meknes morocco at sunset

Meknes, Morocco Sunset

Our plan for the day would split our time with part of the day in Meknes, an afternoon stroll through the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, and then wind up in Fez. With so much to cover, I’m publishing one post for Meknes and another for Volubilis.

First thing in the morning we stopped at a cliffside viewpoint. The city’s history is dominated by the ruthless rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727), who made it his capital. The city’s lengthy walls, blended Moorish-Spanish architecture and huge gates are marks of his power. He built a huge underground prison where humans went in – not out. And he abolished the sales of slaves not so that the slaves could go free, but they would all be his own and work on his projects. Most of his slaves were Christians. Legend says he fathered 1,000 children.

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The tour then visited Bab El-Khemis, a.k.a. the Thursday Gate. This 17th-Century gate brings the visitor to the medina – which has 19 gates and is inside a 19 km wall. Watching the gate, I was amazed at the birds living there. I actually identified crows, swifts, sparrows, pigeons, cuckoos, starlings, storks, egrets and even small raptors living in the many holes in its wall.

We then began a lengthy morning walk. We came to an old reservoir which was overlooked by ramparts of Dar el Makhzen Palace, built by Sultan Moulay Ismail and still used today. We’d do a long walk along the walls of this palace. We also examined the “roof,” which is actually at street level, of Ismail’s notorious Habs Qara prison – which was estimated to contain 60,000.

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Just as at the Thursday Gate, I witnessed at least a dozen species of birds living in the palace walls.

Next, we tested our legs walking the 1,000 year old medina. Like others we saw, it is a challenge to navigate, and has entrances / doors / arches leading to wonders inside. This one was not as busy as some.


It was here that we had our much anticipated camel burger lunch! Actually, I really enjoyed it. Our restaurant seemed to be actually part of someone’s home, and we entered via one of those doors.

After lunch, we emerged into the open air Place el-Hedim. It is a large square with a buzz of activity from fruit sellers to a place selling thousands of tajines. Later, a snake charmer and monkey handler set up.

Then, it was off to Volubilis for some time in Ancient Rome.