The Far Reaches of Rome: Volubilis, Morocco

There are many good reasons for the inquisitive traveler to visit Morocco. The High Atlas Mountains and their hiking trails, the old city of Fez and Marrakesh. with the largest markets in Africa . . . the impressive Roman ruins. Yes, you read that right. Volubilis was a Roman settlement that has stood since 300 BC, and was actually the most important city in that section of Roman Africa.

While many visitors wouldn’t think of a city in present-day Morocco being important to Rome, Volubilis was responsible for producing grain, which was used all through the empire. The ruins of Volubilis are impressive and well known for the stunning mosaics that remain in excellent condition. The art of the mosaics is in surprisingly good shape and vivid colors—especially when considering these are ornamental artwork to fix up the floor! Now they are fenced off to prevent tourists from walking over them, but they are still easy to see and photograph. This example of Roman art may seem out of place in Morocco, but this is quite contrary to the real case! The Berber tribes of southern Morocco were never conquered, but they traded with the Romans for the mutual benefit of both people. Latin even remained the local language until the Arab conquest introduced Arabic to the region!

The Berber tribes of southern Morocco were never conquered, but they traded with the Romans for the mutual benefit of both people. Latin even remained the local language until the Arab conquest introduced Arabic to the region!

The ruins are small but impressive, and a decent Morocco map or even just plenty of time to wander around makes this an area you can explore on your own, without any need for a tour guide. The common Roman pillars keep the color of the desert, and are a reminder of how history united areas we might think of as totally separate today. Volubilis even has the triumphal arch intact. You can almost imagine hearing the marching of Roman legions into the city, and the thought of this in northern Africa is definitely an eye-opener to the imagination. Beyond the arch there are no more ruins, only fields, but these fields offer some of the best views of the triumphal arch of Volubilis, and give more of a sense of what it must have looked like in its hey day.

Unlike many sites of Roman ruins, Volubilis wasn’t abandoned immediately. Part of the reason it remained in such good shape was that it remained an active settlement until the 1700s, when much of it was abolished to create building materials for the palaces of Moulay Ismail—who is now seen as one of the great tyrannical rulers in Moroccan history.

Very near to Volubilis is Moulay Idriss—the most important Islamic city in Morocco. This city is named after the Moroccan saint, Moulay Idriss, who was a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammad. He founded two cities: the one named after him, and Fez, both must sees during any Moroccan vacation. While Moulay Idriss has many beautiful sites, be careful and respectful of religious traditions. This city is sacred to Muslims, and non-Muslims are not allowed into religious or holy areas. There are guides who are willing to get you as close as is polite to help you around, and this is a good idea for this area. Remember that you are a visitor, and it is always good to be respectful.

Between the ruins and the holy city, only a couple miles apart sit two amazing symbols of the importance of the past, and the importance of the present. While maybe this wasn’t what you first envisioned when beginning trekking in Morocco, it certainly teaches even the experienced traveler to keep their eyes, minds, and hearts open to every destination a visited land has to offer, especially when it is a land of history such as Morocco.

Thomas Hollowell

I'm Thomas Hollowell, founder of Journey Beyond Travel with a personal invitation to you to find out more about Morocco. It's a special place. I've lived here for over a decade, starting out as a Peace Corps and environmental volunteer in the countryside. Now my mission is to show fellow travelers like you a side of Morocco left unseen, the "real" Morocco. Journey Beyond Travel is all about genuine experiences. All of our tours are hand-crafted, just for you. So let's continue the dialogue, one-on-one. Please contact me to find out more.


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