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History & Heritage


Morocco : The 1001 Rises and Falls of Volubilis Roman city

Founded in the third century BC, the city of Volubilis is the most important ancient site in Morocco. The city has survived the rhythm of the greatness and decay of the peoples, who lived in the Mediterranean basin. After dark centuries of plundering, the site is experiencing a new lease on life thanks to the ever-increasing number of tourists who come to admire its arches and marble columns.

The ancient city of Volubilis stands in the heart of a fertile plain, in the north of Meknes region, nestled among the olive groves at the foot of Mount Zerhoun. This architectural pearl is full of archeological treasures telling the stories of the long centuries the city has crossed and the many civilizations that have succeeded one another. Despite the dark years of decadence, abandonment and looting, the site is today getting a new lease on life thanks to the hard work of the guards and researchers to preserve the place.

“A place of permanence of the societies who inhabited the extreme Maghreb”

This criterion is the one UNESCO has chosen to inscribe the site to the World Heritage list in 1997. Indeed, since its development during the third century BC, until its final abandonment in the seventeenth century – after Sultan Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif died -, the city has seen many civilizations have passing and settling there, who have flourished and collapsed through the centuries. From the first Berbers to the Muslim dynasties, over the Moors, Romans and Christians, all left their prints to give Volubilis incomparable charm and cosmopolitan wealth.

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Suffering from setbacks caused by its own greatness

Behind this main artery lined by porticoes, remnants of large mansions or its triumphal arch, some of the Roman urban symbols, no one can ignore the past splendor of the city. First capital of the vast kingdom of Mauretania – which stretched from the east of Algeria to the Atlantic Ocean and was bordered to the south by the Atlas -, it became an agricultural metropolis very prosperous among the Romans, the city counted then more than 15,000 inhabitants. It suffered its first setbacks in 285 AD when, threatened by the civil wars that then waved the entire Western Empire, the city was evacuated.

Volubilis, also called “Oualili” in Arabic, will only regain its splendor three to four centuries later with the arrival of the Arabs and just before falling in the shadow of Fez, the new capital of the Idrisid dynasty. And it is the beginning of a long dark period for Volubilis, which had then been visiting only by looters, who came to strip the city of its thousands of ornaments, its marble, its mosaics, its statues. The interest in the city had never been as strong during these dark centuries as during the French colonial presence from 1912 to 1956, when the city recorded its peak in lootings, even though archaeological excavations had started.

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The century of preservation, and of resurrection

Thanks to the relentlessness of the site’s guards and the influence of international regulations with the UNESCO label, the site has gradually been able to equip itself with fences, cameras and a real guard watching 24 hours a day these millenary stones. At their sides, teams of researchers and archaeologists are somehow the new inhabitants of Volubilis. They have worked tirelessly since 1915 to discover what the city still has to reveal from past civilizations and offer us artistic and architectural treasures. And their work is far from over since about a third of the site is still buried.

Great prospects to enrich the already well-stocked windows of the museum which opened in 2013. A certain opportunity for the 300,000 visitors in 2017, to renew the experience and contemplate new Moorish, Roman, Carthaginian, Berber or Arab … Or simply to walk on these 42 hectares between the basilica, the capitol, in the old thermae or in the shade of this lush vegetation, which may still echo the events of the past.

Published on 24 September 2018