Morocco's ancient city of Volubilis rises again

After decades of decay, custodians of the closely guarded ancient city have turned the page and are bringing back the tourists.
Tuesday 14/08/2018
Tourists walk through the ruins of the ancient Roman site of Volubilis. (AFP)
Prosperous path. Tourists walk through the ruins of the ancient Roman site of Volubilis. (AFP)

Situated in a fertile plain at the foot of Mount Zerhoun, the sprawling remains of Volubilis -- Morocco's oldest Roman site -- have survived pillage and long periods of neglect.

After decades of decay, however, custodians of the closely guarded ancient city have turned the page and are bringing back the tourists. The site, nestled among olive groves near the city of Meknes, has a new museum and visitors’ centre and has been attracting hundreds of thousands of guests.

They stroll along the main artery lined with porticos and the remnants of vast mansions, whose mosaic floors testify to a prosperous past. A triumphal arch, a classic symbol of Roman architecture, sits at the top of what once was the main compound.

Known in Arabic as "Oualili," the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. The ancient city has "known several civilisations, from the Mauritanian era to the Romans through the Islamic period," said Mohamed Alilou, a topographer and assistant conservator of the site.

Volubilis was founded in the third century BC by a Moorish community, before being annexed by the Roman Empire in 42AD. At its peak, it would have included as many as 15,000 inhabitants.

Threatened by civil wars across the empire, the Romans evacuated the city in 285. It didn't regain its splendour until the arrival of Arab conquerors in the seventh century. In the eighth century when the Idrisid dynasty erected the city of Fez as its capital, Volubilis fell once more into disuse.

At the end of the 17th century, Sultan Moulay Ismail sent thousands of slaves to plunder Volubilis's marble columns for the construction of his palace in Meknes.

"On the track leading from Volubilis to Meknes, we found capitals (of columns) abandoned by slaves, who fled when they learnt that Moulay Ismail was dead," said Alilou, who has been watching over the site for more than 30 years.

Excavations at Volubilis began in 1915, along with research programmes and restoration work. Renewed interest in the site brought with it looting, especially during French colonial rule from 1912-56.

One particularly striking case in 1982 made headlines when a marble statue of Bacchus -- the Roman god of wine -- disappeared. In a desperate bid to find the relic, King Hassan II dispatched gendarmes who "interrogated, abused and beat" peasants who "didn't know Bacchus from Adam and Eve," Moroccan press reports from the time stated.

The statue was never found.

"The people here are still traumatised," said a resident of nearby Moulay Driss Zerhoun.

Moroccan media frequently warn that the country's heritage -- archaeological finds, mosaics and ancient coins -- is being looted but in Volubilis, Alilou said, looting is a thing of the past.

Today "the site is fenced off and well-guarded," he said. "We have a team of 14 guards who work day and night, cameras are everywhere."

Mustafa Atki, another Volubilis conservator, said the issue of looting was "sometimes exaggerated"

Since the opening of its museum in 2013, the ancient city has attracted several hundred thousand visitors a year. "In 2017, for the first time we passed the 300,000 mark," said Atki.

Alilou said the ancient city covering 17 hectares has yet to reveal all of its secrets.

"One-third of the site, especially the western quarter built in the Islamic era, has not been excavated," he said.

(Agence France-Presse)