Saturday, May 21, 2016


On our second full day in Morocco, we left Fes and went on a day-long excursion to three sites: Volubilis, Moulay Idris, and Meknes. Prior to planning this trip, I hadn't heard of any of them. 

We were in Morocco in March, and the productive farming area around Fes looked like the Emerald City of Oz:

Our guide had our driver stop for a break at Sidi Chahed dam and reservoir, which was created under the previous king's reservoir building spree in the 1990s. It is located about 20 miles from the cities of Fes and Meknes, supplies 30 million gallons of tap water to Meknes, and provides irrigation water for many surrounding farmlands.

This man appears to be cleaning up brush with a rudimentary rake. There is a shocking lack of farm machinery all over Morocco:

"Coincidentally," there were some farmers/vendors at the place where we stopped to get a view of the reservoir, and there was great pressure to taste their samples and look at their handmade goods.  We ended up buying two hand-crocheted hats. I have no idea what I'm going to do with them, but I felt the need to buy something from the vendors.

As we continued on our journey, we saw our first of what would be many stork nests balancing on some fortunate homeowner's roof vent.  Apparently it is good luck to have storks select your house for their own domicile. As they mate for life and use the same nest year after year, I'm not sure how thrilled I would be about this new, messy adornment. What do the residents do about the need for venting?

We eventually arrived at Volubilis, which I can't say without thinking of the word "volubility." The Latin word volubilis means "winding, revolving, rolling, and turning." Another meaning is "changing and mutable." The word "volubility" means "characterized by a continuous flow of words; glib; talkative; fluent."  We did feel the "continuous flow" at Volubilis, both in the narration of our knowledgeable guide and in the never-ending ruins that rolled and turned across over 100 acres of the wide valley.

However, the real reason this area is named "Volubilis" is because that is the French word for "morning glory," a ubiquitous wild vine found weaving its way through the city ruins:

Fertile farm lands that surround the stone city make it obvious why people would want to settle here:

The two triangle patches at the base of the distant hills are the sacred city of Moulay Idris, which I will cover in my next post:

Volubilis was founded in the 3rd century BC by Berbers, although pottery dating back to 5,000 BC has been found on the site. Later this area became an important Roman outpost, and it was the Romans who built most of the structures. It is actually the most extensive Roman ruins in Morocco. Because of its isolation and the fact that no one has lived here for a thousand years, it is considered an especially prime archaeological site, possibly the best in Northern Africa, and was named a World Heritage Site in 1997.

Hassan passed us off to a guide who is an archaeologist at the site, and he led us on a walking tour. He knew a lot about the history and the ruins, but he went a little too fast and we felt rushed. It's a huge place, and we did the whole thing in an hour.

The thing I liked the most at Volubilis was the wide variety of incredibly well-preserved mosaics. This is the first set that we saw:

The Tree of Life motif has been around for a long, long time:

The mosaic is even better preserved than those two elderly tourists sitting in front of it:

The design reminds visitors that once upon a time, elephants and tigers used to roam North Africa:

This mosaic surrounding a pool in the House of Orpheus looks like it could be the decking for a very posh modern swimming pool:

It was fun to wander around the ruins and try to imagine the people who built this place and lived out their days among these stone walls:

There is one of them now! Oh wait, maybe not.

A lot of restoration occurred during the French occupation of 1912 to 1956. Without the French, this place would probably still be a crumbling heap of stones. Here is the reconstruction of an old Roman olive press:

Like other ancient Roman cities we have visited (such as Jerash, Jordan, which Volubilis reminded me of), there was a large area devoted to a bathhouse, this one dedicated to Emperor Gallienus (218-268 AD):

There were only a few other tourists at the site when we visited (the big bonus of traveling in March), and the quiet solemnity of the site was almost eerie. The weight of time long gone is heavy in a place like this:

And yet, new life always finds a way to force its way through the crumbling past:

Narcissus were everywhere

One of the most spectacular ruins at Volubilis is the Temple of Jupiter, the imperial god of the Romans:

Long shadows drift like the trains of royal robes down the temple steps:

View from another angle:

On the other side of an intervening courtyard called "The Forum" is a magnificent ruin known as "The Basilica":

Looking up at the inside of the arch:

Every picture of this particular part of Volubilis that I've seen includes this stork nest. The happy couple must have had permanent resident status here for many years:

Like Jupiter and Juno, they gaze down at the plebeians coming and going below:

There's one of those commoners now:

Do you think this is a lot of stork pictures? I have about 700 more if you ever want to come over and see them.

With not a single piece of machinery in sight, even the distant farms feel like they are from another century:

Stacks of stones are scattered like soldiers on a broad battlefield:

Vestiges of a once thriving city remind me of Western ghost towns:

The Arch of Caracalla is located at the end of Volubilis's main thoroughfare, the Decumanus Maximus. This arch was built in 217 AD to honor the Roman emperor of the time, Caracalla, who was himself a North African and had extended citizenship to the Roman provinces in this area. Originally, the gate was topped by a bronze chariot pulled by six horses, which I imagine to look somewhat like the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin:
This gate was reconstructed by the French between 1930 and 1934. They pieced together the inscription at the top of the arch (shown below), which reads, in part:
"For the emperor Caesar, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [Caracalla], the pious, fortunate Augustus, greatest victor in Parthia, greatest victor in Britain, greatest victor in Germany . . . holding tribunician power for the twentieth time, Emperor for the fourth time, Consul for the fourth time, Father of the Country, Proconsul . . . the Republic of Volubilitans took care to have this arch made . . . ."
Too bad the Republic of Volubilitans didn't take care to provide body guards for Caracalla, who was assassinated before the gate was even finished.

The other end of the Decumanus Maximus is the Tingis Gate at the northernmost part of the ruins. From here, the road continues on to Tangier:

Next we ran across a few more mosaics. It's mind-boggling to me that a) they were able to re-piece and restore these works of art after so many centuries, and b) now they let visitors walk all over them. In the US these would be under UV-protected glass with a electric security fence around them.

Anyway, this first one is in what is called the "House of the Acrobat." It shows a man riding backwards on a donkey:

I'm not sure where ancient Volubilitans went fishing, but it looks like they caught some Big Ones:

Our next stop was The House of the Rider.  There were several of these signs written in both Arabic and English scattered among the ruins--very helpful:

And look! There is the rider! He has been riding in planes, cars, trains, ships, balloons, etc.:

Our next stop was the House of Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest (aka the god of wine, ritual madness, and fertility):

This mosaic shows Dionysus discovering a sleeping Ariadne:

 There are several other absolutely amazing mosaics nearby:   

 Some have not weathered the weather or the visitors as well as others:

Next is the House of the Labors of Hercules. The structure in the center was once a fountain:

A mosaic shows the eponymous labors:

Pillars and stone walls were everywhere we turned. Hey, maybe HERCULES put them there!

If I squinted just a bit, I could imagine myself standing in a gothic cemetery:

Like all time travelers, eventually we began to make our way back to the worm hole that had taken us back in time 2000+ years . . .

. . . and leaving the shadowy past behind us . . . 

. . . we returned to 2016 and our air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven vehicle.

. . . at least for a while. It's hard to stay firmly planted in the 21st century on a visit to Morocco.


  1. I'm glad we were able to do Volubilis. Like you, I'd never heard of it or its surrounding towns. Unlike Jerash, in Jordan, Volubilis felt lived-in, like ordinary people lived there, because of all of the little squared building foundations built next to each other. It was much more than just the monumental architecture which is what usually stands out so much.

  2. That's a lot of ruins to cover in just one hour. I would want at least a full day to inspect everything. Reminds me of Balbeck in Lebanon.

  3. I get annoyed with the messy robins who insist on building nests on my front door wreathe every few years. I think I'll pass on the stock nest and take my chances with luck.
    Those tiled floors are amazing. Like you, I was always a little freaked out that tourists could stomp around them in Jerash and other places. I guess they've survived this long--what's another million feet on them?