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Volubilis, Morocco



Volubilis, Morocco

From Roman Colony to Birthplace of a New Islamic State

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: As a uniquely significant development in the history of the Islamic world empire, the independent state we call Morocco was created around 788 CE in Volubilis. This is now a long-abandoned small town in the northwestern corner of the country. Today it attracts visitors because of the ruins of the Roman colony, which Volubilis was from around 40 to 285 CE. Before that, it had been settled since the 3rd century BCE by the semi-nomadic Imazighen, the people commonly referred to as Berbers, who still constitute the majority of Moroccans. Volubilis was their name for the place, Oualili, which in their language, Tamazight, means oleander. How could one miss exploring so much of Morocco in a truly historic site?


Roman Colony

On October 22, 2016, I stood on the “Decumanus Maximus,” which was the main street of the “Republic of Volubilitans” in 217 CE. Facing southwest, I focused on The Arch of Caracalla, built in that year by the governor of the city of Volubilis, which is in today’s state of Morocco, to honor the Roman emperor Caracalla and his mother Julia Domna. Behind me was the Tingis Gate, the north-eastern entrance to Volubilis, constructed in 168 CE, according to a coin that had been intentionally placed in its stonework by the builders.

The dedicatory inscription on the top of the Arch in Latin, gave a flavor of the time:

“For the emperor Caesar, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [Caracalla], the pious, fortunate Augustus, greatest victor in Parthia, greatest victor in Britain, greatest victor in Germany, Pontifex Maximus, holding tribunician power for the twentieth time, Emperor for the fourth time, Consul for the fourth time, Father of the Country, Proconsul, and for Julia Augusta [Julia Domna], the pious, fortunate mother of the camp and the Senate and the country, because of his exceptional and new kindness towards all, which is greater than that of the principes that came before, the Republic of the Volubilitans took care to have this arch made from the ground up, including a chariot drawn by six horses and all the ornaments, with Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, procurator, who is most deeply devoted to the divinity of Augustus, initiating and dedicating it [Note 1].”

Caracalla, himself a North African, had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces, including Volubilis. By the time this Arch was finished, however, both Caracalla and Julia had been murdered by a usurper. The Arch itself, as well as other buildings in Volubilis, all came to lie in ruins in the course of time. The city was deserted by the 14th century. Even its name was forgotten eventually and it was now referred to by the Arabic speaking people of the region as Ksar Faraoun (Pharaoh’s Castle), a legend that imagined it was built by the ancient Egyptians. The building materials still left on the site were used in the 17th century to construct, in nearby Meknes, the capital of a different Empire, the Moroccan Alaouite Dynasty. Whatever was left was further destroyed by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

It is a tribute to archeology that the site, which was definitively identified as that of the ancient Volubilis in the late 19th century, is now considered as “an exceptionally well preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire,” as UNESCO describes it on its World Heritage Sites [Note 2]. The lack of urban development in the surrounding areas makes the site a good representation of what the ancient Romans saw. The abandonment of the town for several centuries after them, ironically, helped ensure that its ruins remain in a good state of conservation.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered about half of the site. French archaeologists had begun their work as early as 1887, before the project was officially commissioned by the French military governor of Morocco in 1915.  During the regime of The French Protectorate in Morocco (1912-1955), Moroccans generally associated these archaeological efforts with French colonialism. The French dismissed such protests by blaming it on “the Islamic sense of history and architecture” which “found the concept of setting off monuments entirely foreign [Note 3].”  After Morocco regained its independence from France in 1956, however, the Moroccan authorities joined the archaeological excavations of Volubilis; since 2000 they have conducted the work in collaboration with the University College London.

What I was seeing, of course, was largely a reconstruction. A comparison with a picture of the Arch of Caracalla taken in 1887  made this clear. Only small portions of the two sides of the Arch, no more than a third of their heights, were standing. The top was missing; several broken stones that bore the dedicatory inscription were lying in the dirt underneath. I accompanied a fellow visitor from the U.S. who became my guide in reviewing the restoration of the landmark buildings of the site, an art which had been his life-long profession. He pointed out the many areas where restoration was done by bricks to distinguish them from the original. This was best shown in the reconstructed column of the Basilica.

The Judiciary Basilica which was the seat of the magistrates and housed the court of law was an imposing monument. Its interior was divided into three parts, framed by Corinthian columns. Excavations suggest that it may have been built as early as the second half of the 1st century CE.

The Basilica is located to the east of the Forum. The trapezium-shaped Forum was the center of the “political, administrative and economic life” of Volubilis, a sign told us. This was an area of 1300 square meters (14,000 sq ft), located at the heart of the town. The Forum was once graced with statues dedicated to emperors, magistrates and other elite men and women of Volubilis. Of these statues, only the pedestals have remained in situ. Also now in ruins are the shops that once lined the western side of the Forum.

On the east side, however, south of the Basilica, the Capitoline Temple still stands.   This is a monumental temple dedicated to the Roman Capitoline triad, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. It has a single Corinthian-columned cella, housing the hidden cult images, reached by thirteen steps . According to an inscription found on the site, the temple was reconstructed in 218 CE, but most of what we were seeing today is the result of restoration since the middle of 20th century.

In the monumental sector of Roman Volubilis the urban design is clearly a Hippodamian system. This is a relatively flat sloping area, in the north-eastern part of the city, thus allowing the application of the grid plan which Hippodamus of Miletus, “the father of European urban planning,” had recommended five centuries before Christ. For the rougher hilly area covering the southern and western parts of Volubilis, the Romans adopted a terraced plan.

The Baths of Gallienus, named after the emperor Gallienus according to an inscription found on the site, was one of the four large public baths in Volubilis, which, as in other Roman towns, were an essential part of the social life. The Gallienus baths -redecorated by that emperor in mosaic to become the city’s most lavish- covered 330 square meters (3552 sq ft) and were composed of the bathing rooms , an exercise room, a changing room and latrines.

The hot rooms in the interior of the largest public baths, the northern baths, showed stone seats in the round and were heated “by ovens from which hot air passed underneath the pavements and up through the walls through pipes made of hollow bricks. Brick pillars supported the floors of the hot rooms, creating spaces (hypocaust) for the circulation of the air [Note 4].”

These are the only baths of that era in North Africa. The earliest Volubilis baths were fed by an aqueduct which brought water from a large spring to the northeast. Later, secondary channels supplied water for the larger houses, the baths and the public fountains. The aqueduct terminated at the largest fountain in the city center, bordered by the public latrine. A series of drains carried sewage and waste away and flushed it in the river.

Two rivers provided the larger amount of water: the Fertessa River crossed Volubilis from the east and Khoumane River bordered it from the south and the west.  Abundance of water helped to create a vast fertile plain around Volubilis. The grains which grew here supplied some 16 bakery shops and 20 mills discovered in the city. This and the existence of 58 olive oil-pressing complexes in Volubilis, as well as some 105 other shops which have been discovered, attest to a thriving economy. The oil presses and the shops were often joined with the houses, as well as lining up the sides of Decumanus and the Forum.

Olive oil was clearly one of the major sources of wealth for the town. In addition to being a foodstuff, it was used for bathing, in lamps and medicines.  The pressed olives were fed to animals or dried out and burned as fuel for baths. There were separate buildings for olive pressing, and some of the houses had their own olive presses. The production of transport amphorae (a jar with two handles and a narrow neck), from the end of the 2nd century BCE, facilitated the early growth of the oil trade.

As other Roman towns, Volubilis was circled with a wall for security. Built in 168-169 CE, the 1.6 mile (2.6 km) circuit of walls had numerous semicircular towers. There is no evidence, however, that Roman Volubilis experienced any actual security threat. The main gate of the wall, at the Decumanus Maximus, indeed, functioned unlike the usual Roman Porta Praetoria which faced the suspected enemy; Volubilis’s gate, instead, was the entrance to the road which apparently served more to facilitate commerce with Tingis (today’s Tangier) at Gibraltar, the most significant city in the region, 144 Roman miles (213 km) away.

Among other items, the large number of bronze artworks discovered in Volubilis especially suggests that it produced enough of them to export. The prosperity which was derived from such trade as well as olive and grains growing, and safeguarded by security, resulted in the construction of many large houses in Volubilis. These were behind the Decumanus Maximus, and of a type different from the pre-Roman houses of Volubilis. They were the domus, the type occupied by the upper classes in Rome, adapted to Africa: instead of the atrium, there was a peristyle with columns circling it, and the private rooms grouped together around that courtyard.

Some of those grand houses have been partially restored or reconstructed. In one, a bronze statue was discovered. Named after the statue, the “house of the rider,” it covered 1,700 square meters (18,000 sq ft) . Still another house is called “the house of the bronze bust.” Indeed, many bronze sculptures have been found in Volubilis.  A collection of them in Morocco’s Rabat Archaeological Museum is considered among the best of the ancient Mediterranean world, marked by an aesthetic particularly representative of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean arts.

The sculptures in marble, as well as bronze, used to adorn gardens and fountains showed the refinement of Roman Volubilis’s homes. The merchants and other settlers who lived in them also decorated their reception rooms with sumptuous mosaics. The mosaics, especially on the floors, have survived the ravages of time much better. Roman Mosaics, which existed throughout the Roman empire since the 2nd century BCE, were constructed from geometrical blocks of tiles (tesserae) placed together to create the shapes of figures and patterns. Materials for tesserae came from natural stone, with cut brick and pottery adding colors. Romans used mosaics to depict mythological scenes and divine characters as well as portraits, geometric patterns and designs. Volubilis houses contained many examples.

One is called the house of the acrobat  “in reference to its mosaic representing the parody of a horseman riding a donkey backward ,” while holding a cup in his outstretched hand.  It is a humorous mosaic, but it is called a possible representation of Silenus who was also known as Bacchus or the wine God Dionysus. Bacchus is represented in the mosaic of another house, the house of the ephebe with a cupid, encountering the sleeping Ariadne, the immortal wife of the wine-god Dionysus.

The twelve labors of Hercules, among the most popular myths of ancient Greece, are depicted in the mosaic of the next house, including the slaying of the Nemean Lion, and the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra . The dining room of another villa on the edge of the town, looking out across the fertile plains, showcases a floor with the mosaic of Orpheus playing a lute in the center. He is surrounded with wild African animals. Fish and sea animals are the subjects of another house’s floor mosaic. In still another villa a fisherman is portrayed in the mosaic .

One plate of mosaics displays symbols with mythological and historical significance for the Romans. These include the Gordian knot and Swastika. In the Roman mythology, borrowed from the Greeks, the Gordian knot symbolized a difficult problem that could be solved only by a bold action, based on the story of the knot tied by Goridus, the king of Phrygia in Asia Minor [Note 5]. Roman Swastika, on the other hand, might have been rooted in Mithraism, the religion practiced in Rome from the 1st century to the 4th century.  In some legends associated with Mithraism, Swastika is the four-horse chariot of Mithra turning the cosmos around a fixed center on clockwise direction.

The influence of Greek architecture was notable in Volubilis’s columns and their capitals. In the House of Columns, so called because of the diversity of columns (fluted, plain and spiral) forming its peristyle , a full spiral column with a Corinthian capital was still standing . Many other columns were decapitated. Some of those capitals are collected in a Volubilis museum which is on the site. If the artisans who made these artistic crowns and columns had been imported, the stones for them were local, from quarries nearby. The grounds in Volubilis were still covered with broken stones of the many structures which had been erected there, although the marble is long gone – most used in the lime kilns of the Arabs who came several centuries later.

On cold days, the Romans sent their slaves to warm up their stone latrine before their use, our local guide said, “and that is the origin of the expression ‘bench-warmers’.” This was the sort of comment that caught the attention of even those tourists who by now seemed to have seen enough “ruins”. Indeed, who were the peoples who occupied the Roman Volubilis? The guide did not specify who the “slaves” were, but offered that “at its peak, by the 2nd century, Volubilis had approximately 20,000 inhabitants.”

The archaeological vestiges of the site, much of it now in the Rabat Museum, bear witness to several civilizations. Epigraphic evidence, combined with the ruins of structures, indicate the influence of Mediterranean, Libyan Punic and African as well as Roman cultures in Volubilis. A chapel dedicated to the goddess Venus had existed in here: the goddess who shares significant attributes with its earlier models, the Greek Aphrodite, the Phoenician Astarte, the Babylonian Ishtar and even Egyptian Goddess Isis. In Volubilis’s many shrines, apparently, all the traditional Roman gods were once represented, as were Mithras, Isis, and the other Eastern and divinities, and the Judaic tradition.

Berbers (Imazighen, Moors)

The Volubilitans who were not from Rome, as noted before, were made Roman citizens in 217.  They were mostly members of a tribe that had ruled the area as part of the kingdom of Mauretania from the 3rd century BCE . Their affiliated mauretanian tribes of Baquates and Macenites occupied the territories to the east and the south of the city up to the Middle Atlas Mountains, and another mauretanian Bavares tribe lived in today’s Moroccan- Algerian frontier zones at the Mediterranean. These tribes, ruled by kings, often formed confederations.

Their descendants still populate the area today. The world refers to them collectively as Berbers. Despite the disparaging connotation of “the absence of culture,” my Berber Moroccan interlocutor told me, “we don’t mind that name.” Hashim, who was associated with the Volubilis’s Visitor Centre & Museum, added “but we prefer to call ourselves Amazigh which means free or noble man.” Amazigh (plural Imazighen), he explained, is related to the words tizzit, meaning bravery and aze, meaning strong. It is also a cognate of the Tuareg word for noble, amajegh. All of Northwestern Africa has been inhabited by Berbers from at least 10,000 BCE, and some of them, in other countries, use different terms such as Kabyle or Chaoui.

As we continued our conversation, Hashim reminded me that the word Berber was derived from Greek barbarous, meaning non-Greek-speaking, but also with the connotation of foreign and barbaric. He added that the related Latin barbarus or barbaria was used by the Romans only in the Byzantine times; it seems to have become current only in the 10th century through the works of Arab writers. (It has been used in English since the 19th century as a replacement for the earlier Barbary.) During the Arab conquest of Hispania, Arab Chroniclers of the mid-8th century referred to the same people as the Mauri (from Mauretanian). Since the 11th century, this term, becoming Moros in Spanish and Moors in English, has been used to refer, variously, to the Berbers and Arabs of Andalusia, the North Africans, and the Muslims in general.

The semi-nomadic (and pastoralist) Imazighen’s settlement in Volubilis began in the 3rd century BCE -the site had been inhabited from at least 5000 years earlier, as indicated by the pottery found there. The Imazighen named their town Oualili after the Berber word for oleander, a plant which, our guide reported, grows in abundance near Khoumane River. Over the next century, Oualili came to be influenced by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who had also settled nearby along the coast of the Mediterranean since the 6th century BCE. Pottery and stones inscribed in the Phoenician language have been found in Volubilis as well as a temple to the Punic god Baal.

From the late 2nd century BCE, the independent kings of Mauretania, which included Volubilis, became Roman vassals. Rome’s involvement was perhaps a part of its strategic plans for control of the Mediterranean.  In 25 BCE, Rome appointed Juba II the ruler of Mauretania. Juba II’s reign, (25 BCE – 23 CE) was an especially flourishing period for the town of Volubilis. In 40 CE the Romans, crushed the revolt that followed the assassination of Mauretanian king Ptolemy, and brought an end to the kingdom of Mauretania, dividing it into two Roman provinces . Volubilis, apparently awarded for having aided the Roman side, was elevated to the rank of a municipality, governed by annual magistrates.

The only ruins of significance from this period of Volubilis is a large tumulus over the ruins of the city wall, which might have been a funerary monument commemorating the Roman victory. The town quickly grew in the first century from 15 hectares in size to 42 hectares (100 acres). Civic buildings, temples and baths as well as house were built.  An aqueduct to provide water was constructed between 60 and 70 CE. The new city walls were completed in 168-169.  The Capitoline temple was finished by 218 along with a new monumental center. The Basilica and the reorganized Forum, and Caracalla’s Arch of Triumph, and the stately homes with peristyles and pools and the great mosaics all date to the same period, 193-235 CE. From then on, only minor changes were made in the Roman Volubilis. Around 285 CE, Emperor Diocletes ordered the Roman administration and the army to vacate Volubilis  in a reorganization that abandoned the southern region in favor of the northern coastal posts of Sale, Mogador and Loukos.

Volubilis fell to local tribes. It was never retaken by Rome which now deemed it too remote and indefensible on the border of the Empire. The inhabitants gradually moved to the west of Caracalla’s Arch, perhaps constrained to use water from the Khoumane River after the aqueduct broke down, apparently due to an earthquake in the 4th century that caused extensive damage. They erected a new protective wall around the 5th century, separating the old city center which eventually became cemeteries.

Three Christian funerary inscriptions have been discovered there, covering the period between 599 and 655 CE. They indicate the Christianization of the Romano-Berber population, as well as the continuing use of the Latin language. Next to the old basilica, we saw a ditch which apparently had been a place for the ritual of baptism in that era . Christianity had spread rapidly in this region in the 4th and 5th centuries but it was extinguished when the Arabs conquered it in the 7th century.

Arab Conquest

In 670, Oqba Ibn Nafi [Note 6] led an Arab army of the Damascus-based Muslim Umayyad Caliph, Muawiyah I, into North Africa. “According to medieval tradition,” he continued on to Volubilis where he fought the local Berber tribes [Note 7].

In 698, the reigning Umayyad Caliph (Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan) appointed Musa bin Nusayr [Note 8] the governor of Ifriqiya (Arabic for Africa, the area previously included in the Africa Province of the Roman Empire). Bin Nusayr was assigned the goal of completing the Islamic conquest of North Africa. The son of a Christian Persian captive of the Arabs from Syria, bin Nusayr did not use force to impose Islam; he honored the local Berber traditions and used diplomacy to successfully convert them. Many joined his army as soldiers, including Tariq bin Ziyad [Note 9] , who was dispatched to take the Iberian Peninsula in 711.  The following year bin Nusayr himself led a mixed army of Arabs and Berbers to secure the rule of the Umayyad caliph (Abd ar-Rahman I) in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).

The arrival of the Muslims to live in Volubilis has been traced to 708. Islamic coins dating to the 8th century struck with the word Walila (Arabic for Volubilis) have been found on the site. Because these were mostly outside the city walls, the Arab settlement was probably a distinct district from that of the Berbers, who lived inside the walls. It was here that Moulay Idriss [Note 10] arrived in 788 and soon established the first dynasty of Morocco, the Idrisid.


The ruins of that Arabic settlement, in the south of Volubilis, which was expanded by Idriss, indicate a series of interlocking courtyard buildings, the largest containing a hammam (bath). The plan of large courtyards and narrow rooms is markedly different from the one or two-roomed structures inside the walls which were inhabited by the Berbers of the Awraba tribe. Coins and pottery date the ruins to the reign of Idris I, who died in 791.

This was his headquarters. It had been an Abbasid ribat (frontier fortification to house military volunteers), but the Baghdad Abbasid Caliphate’s control was hardly secure. Idris who had fled here after losing the decisive Battle of Fakhkh (near Mecca) in 787 to the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur was welcomed by the (Muslim) Awraba tribe and proclaimed “Imam” in Volubilis which had served as the capital of the region in the Islamic period.

The consequences were enormous as this led to the creation of the first Muslim state, independent from the central Muslim rule, under the Caliphate. (Al-Andalus became independent a short time before but it did not last long as a Muslim state.) The consequences were also crucial in the schism among that part of the Muslim community which had held that Al Muhammad (the Family of Prophet) were his rightful successors. In that group Idriss was a leader of the Alids who, further, claimed the exclusive right to lead all Muslims as the descendants of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. They fought the Abbasids who had overthrown the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) and who claimed membership in Al Muhammad through Muhammad’s uncle Abbas. Idris’s rule as Imam thus established the efficacy of what became the Shiite doctrine of legitimacy based on descent from Ali.

Soon after his arrival, Idriss married Kenza, the daughter of chief of Volubilis’ Awraba tribe [Note 11]. Their son was born two months after Idriss’s death in 791. Called Idriss II, he was raised among his mother’s tribe in Volubilis. These facts further punctuate the Imazighen’s role in the creation of the state of Morocco.

Idriss I had brought most of today’s northern Morocco under his control and founded the city of Fes, before being assassinated on the order of the reigning Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid. On reaching majority, Idriss II moved to Fes which became his capital. He did not forget Volubilis; he died here in 828. Meanwhile, in 818, his Volubilis – now the capital of the principality of Al awdiya- again welcomed another Muslim group of rebels, this time the Rabedis who were refugees from Cordoba. The settlement in Volubilis lasted at least for another two centuries, until the time of Morocco’s Almoravid dynasty (1040-1147).


Gradually abandoned, Volubilis faded into history. By the 14th century it was forgotten. Its visible marks of crumbling stone columns became part of the legend, as remnants of an imaginary Pharaoh’s Castle. This lasted for centuries, until archeologists paid attention and identified those marks, in the 19th century, as the ruins of the ancient Roman colony mentioned in old chronicles.

Volubilis now lives in its ruins. Many buildings have been restored and reconstructed, and a great number of artifacts collected and sifted. Physical evidence is evocative. Reflection follows observation. Shreds of history need to be restored and reconstructed, as well, to arrive at the full story of Volubilis. This is a task no less tedious than archeology -especially for the uninitiated. However, it turns out that the whole is much larger than the total of the pieces visible. Intriguing as the ancient Roman legacy is, the importance of Volubilis in the history of the Islamic empire of the Middle Ages deserves as much notice. Here is where one can glance at the expansion of the spread of Islam to North Africa and Spain. More concretely, Volubilis was the incubator of the first Islamic state that declared independence from the empire of the Caliphate and has survived. What is more, that independence also heralded the emergence of an Alid government, claiming legitimacy on the basis of direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. This was a precursor of the Shiite challenge to the hegemony of the Sunni rulers of Islamic lands, a phenomenon that is still reverberating.

Our knowledge about Volubilis is incomplete. As archeological work continues, it reveals more structures and artifacts. Understanding their historical contexts is a parallel work that needs to be as rigorously pursued. What has been offered in this report is limited and tentative as the purpose was only to sketch the broad outline of the proposed scholarly study.


  1. English translation in:
  2. 1997 Advisory Body Evaluation (ICOMOS):
  5. The Macedonian king Alexander visited Phrygia and unsuccessfully tried to find the hidden ends of the Gordian knot. Frustrated he drew his sword and cut through the knot.)
  6. Arabic: عقبة بن نافع‎‎, also referred to as Oqba ibn Nafi, Uqba bin Nafe, Uqba ibn al Nafia, or Akbah (622–683)
  8. Arabic: موسى بن نصير‎‎, also referred to as Mūsá bin Nuṣayr (640–716)
  9. Arabic: طارق بن زياد (diedc.720)
  10. Arabic: مولاي إدريس
  11. Ishaq ben Mohammed