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Visiting Volubis

Published Tue 11 May 2010 01:10 (+1200)
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Columns of the forum & basilica on Volubilis's hill
Columns of the forum & basilica on Volubilis's hill

I'm glad that I wasn't so badly sick I couldn't go out and see Volubis, as it was one of the highlights of the Morocco tour for me. The relatively well-preserved Roman city dates from the first millenia and remained largely intact for hundreds of years.

The Romans pulled out of the area at the end of the 3rd century AD, but people kept living there; in fact many of the buildings were occupiable right up to the enormous Lisbon earthquake in 1755.

Still, it's the best-preserved Roman ruins in Africa, in fact I suspect that when reconstructed it'd have been one of the better in the region had not a fair bit of the decent stone been taken away to build Moulay Idris's palace (no hard feelings – the Romans ripped other people's buildings to bits for materials too) – and there's still a good amount left to see there now.

From where you park the car, you can see the still-standing collonades of the forum and temples silhouetted against the sky:

Many ruined buildings
Many ruined buildings

Although the surrounding plain still had a lot of green (by Moroccan terms), the short walk up into the center of the ruined town was pretty dry and scrubby when we were there in Autumn, but if you're there in Spring you might get a more lush view – the Romans didn't tend to build their cities in crappy places, and this one was well-sited to look over and take advantage of the agriculture possible in the area (olives!).

As you get closer you start to see the scale of the place; even though only some of it has been excavated, and despite the destruction I mentioned earlier, it's not just the ruins one or two buildings left, it really is a town's worth.

The forum
The forum
Inscribed plinths around the forum
Inscribed plinths around the forum

The town's center has the forum, altar, and basilica. The forum is a lot smaller than I imagined towns having – more like the size of a room than a big square. The waist-height square stone columns surrounding it were all inscribed, most of them present and largely readable. About the only time I've wished I could read Latin…

The basilica
The basilica

Immediately next to the forum is the basilica, which would have originally been a grand two-storeyed building. One storey of one side remains, and one of the arches at the end of the other side, to give you an idea of how big the whole was.

Ceremonial altar
Ceremonial altar

Behind the basilica in this photo there's a space with the sacrificial altar in the middle; the polytheism of the time included Christianity and worship of other gods would have continued side-by-side with Christian worship in the later years.

Capitol columns with stork's nest
Capitol columns with stork's nest

The altar is immediately at the bottom of the steps of the capitol – love the stork nest neatly made on top of one of the re-erected columns. Where they've got incomplete fragments of a column, arch, or building, they've deliberately used a different stone to fill in so that you can tell what's the original and what's a reconstruction – great idea I think.

Ionic column
Ionic column

I thought of my great and sadly-departed Riccarton High School history and classics teacher, Graham Warburton, as I wandered around trying to identify the architectural bits and pieces we had to study hard! Found some good Ionic and Corinthian columns…

Triumphal Arch
Triumphal Arch

The triumphal arch at the end of the long processionway into town was also interesting, still standing cheerfully and with some of the decorative carving still visible despite slow erosion from this exposed site over the many centuries since it was commissioned by Marcus Aurelius.

Covered aqueduct
Covered aqueduct

The inscription at its top describes his generous buttering-up of the town's inhabitants – a few years tax-free. The warm glow evidently didn't last long enough to avoid that Wikipedia page quoting a historian “He spent his reign traveling from province to province so that each could experience his ‘rapine and cruelty.’”

The main street is impressively broad, though it would have been lined with shops and stalls. That's a covered aqueduct running down the middle – there's also an uncovered channel down the side. One for water in, one for sewage out, I think.

The communal loos.  Where are you and where is the poo?
The communal loos. Where are you and where is the poo?

You can see the ruins of some baths – a bit vague – and of the public loos – in much better condition… but I still can't get my head around how they used to use them, presume there's some floor missing! There's even some clay plumbing visible in one house – they were the lucky ones, most people used lead pipes which greatly shortened the lives of the Romans due to the inevitable lead poisoning resulting.

Ancient floor mosaics
Ancient floor mosaics

Scattered around the site are a number of very large floor mosaics, in remarkable condition especially given that they are exposed to the elements. Thankfully Morocco's climate doesn't pour too much rain or hash wind on them, but I dunno how long they can really last unprotected.

They range from classy ancient fables, the seasons, and gods, through to depictions of people playing drinking games – the second there has a guy riding an ass backwards. Wonder if that's where we get the term from…

Signs point to brothel
Signs point to brothel

Finally, as far as entertainment, they haven't found the theatre yet, but there's these pointing the way to the brothel:

Wandering around Volubilis was one of the highlights of the trip for me, so I'd definitely recommend it if you like ancient stuff! If you are in Morocco in Spring it is apparently very pretty, if you are there in Summer it will be very very hot :).

From Volubilis we headed towards Fez, stopping at a man-made lake on the way.