Voice of the voiceless in Volubilis


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Africa » Morocco » Meknès-Tafilalet » Volubilis
April 5th 2019
Published: June 18th 2019
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Endurance pierces marble ~ Moroccan Proverb



HE SAID...
Today we were travelling northwest from Moulay Idriss to Volubilis.

We emerged from the steep narrow lanes of Moulay Idriss around 9:30am, piled our packs into a waiting taxi and made our way towards the archaeological site of Volubilis, a mere 10 minute drive from the intriguing hillside village we loved so much.

Once a distant outpost of the Roman Empire, Volubilis is located in the middle of an agricultural plain, and we soon discovered we were at the mercy of strong winds that amassed incredible force as they made their way across the flatlands of the Fertassa and Khoumane valleys. There were times I could barely stand, which made it difficult to hold a steady camera for photos. I couldn’t help but question Rome’s logic as we walked around the ruins. Why occupy Volubilis and establish such an important food production outpost in such an exposed location? Why not build in the hills, which were only a few kilometres away. I think I’d have opted for the safety and shelter of Moulay Idriss…

We were meant to be on a guided tour, but the strong winds made it difficult to hear, and our local guide seemed intent on following a group of elderly French tourists whose manners left a lot to be desired. The less said the better, but I nearly lost my composure when a particularly cranky old woman told me off for taking a photo of Ren beside one of the ruins, because she was trying to take the same photo, and apparently she didn’t want my subject matter (i.e. Ren) ruining her shot. If only I’d suggested an alternative place where she should consider storing her camera…

Volubilis is renowned for its ancient mosaics that date from the Roman occupation (around 40 AD to 280 AD), and while they are reasonably well preserved, they are not well protected. Some have no security measures whatsoever, especially those on the house floors. If you were so inclined, it would be easy enough to walk over them to get the perfect picture, or to pilfer a few coloured tiles as a memento. Some have a flimsy low rope to shield them from tourist curiosity, but it wouldn’t take much to step over. I’m pretty sure my cantankerous old photographer friend would have given it a try…

There was one mosaic story that I did manage to hear over the roaring wind. With a slight grin on his face, our local guide explained that when Rome abandoned Volubilis in 280 AD, a few neighbouring tribes moved into the majestic city, and some took exception to a seductive mosaic of Bacchus and Ariande on the floor of the House of the Knight. Concerned by the catastrophic impact that Ariande’s nakedness may have on the local men, the mosaic was defaced. While Bacchus himself remains intact, the coloured tiles that once made up the top half of Ariande’s body have all been removed. I’m not sure of the accuracy of this version of events, but it made for a good story – and it certainly captured my attention.

Occasionally the sun would break through and allow us to capture some great photos of the ruins, but dark rain clouds threatened in the distance and the wind was getting colder by the minute. I was intrigued by the stork nests that sat precariously on top of a few of the ancient Roman columns – how on earth could a stork land in such a small place in such gusty conditions. And it belied all logic how the nests remained in place without being sent tumbling across the flatlands at the mercy of the incessant wind.

When describing these resilient birds to a fellow traveller, our local guide mentioned there was a cheap Moroccan beer that shared their name. My ears pricked up. Maybe I was only listening to what I wanted to hear. Stork Beer was suddenly on my must-try list! It was something I absolutely had to sample, if only as a reminder of our wind-swept adventure at Volubilis. The challenge was to find somewhere in the country that sold alcohol…

We only spent 90 minutes in Volubilis, but I really enjoyed our time wandering among the crumbling ruins. I loved the olive trees, the sense of space and openness, the wildness, the freedom and the pervasive wind. It was a far cry from the perfectly manicured and gauchely restored heritage sites around the world that feel so soulless and sterile.

After our whistle-stop visit to Volubilis, we jumped into a taxi and headed south to Meknes.



SHE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Moulay Idriss to Volubilis, by taxi.

We caught taxis from the town square in Moulay Idriss to the archaeological ruins of Volubilis. The ten minute ride was gorgeous – the roadside farms were a picture of peace and tranquillity. However, as soon as we pulled into the entrance of the UNESCO World Heritage listed site, the peace was shattered by masses of tourists spilling out of large tourist busses. I ignored them as best as I could, choosing instead to admire the stunning view of Moulay Idriss sprawled across Zerhoun Mountain behind us.

Volubilis was built on a flatter slope of Zerhoun Mountain, and it sits on a ridge overlooking beautiful agricultural plains in the valley of Khoumane. It was founded in the 3rd century BC and later became an essential outpost of the Roman Empire – and possibly one of its most far-flung ones. The Romans settled here because the land was very fertile, and Volubilis acquired its extensive wealth by exporting olives, olive oil and wheat to Rome. Volubilis was apparently one of the wealthiest cities on the Appian Way. I also heard they exported wild animals for gladiator fights, but I’m not sure if that’s just a myth. It was later also the capital of the dynasty of Moulay Idriss I (of the town we just came from).

The ruins are surrounded by verdant green hills and lush olive groves, and the landscape looked more like Italy or Spain than Morocco to me. After a cold and frosty morning, the sun started shining brightly for us as we began walking into the ruins. I was so happy about the sun that I didn’t mind it was a very blustery day and gusts of wind whipped and howled through the site. And we were also very grateful that the rain was holding off.

I can have an active imagination, but I’ve always found it very hard to recreate bustling cities from ruins… even when we’ve had knowledgeable archaeologists explaining what we were looking at. Speaking of archaeological interpretation, we realised that the local guide we had in Moulay Idriss was also going to be our guide in Volubilis. Even though he had been a good guide with interesting information in his own town, his spiel at Volubilis was lifeless and tedious. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a short attention span at these things at the best of times, so unsurprisingly, I found that I’d stopped listening within minutes, and I drifted in and out of his spiel after that.

The archaeological ruins weren’t as extensive as I thought they’d be, but they were quite impressive. And parts of it were in surprisingly good condition (despite the fact that they were exposed to the elements and tourists clambering over them). I particularly liked the fact that the few areas that had been excavated hadn’t been over-reconstructed. It was still essentially a ruin, but with enough strategic reconstruction to give a framework for how the city would have looked.

We started the main tour at Decumanus Maximus, the main road that runs through the city. We then walked through ruins of the Gordian Palace and numerous houses. We looked at thermal baths that had underfloor heating, communal toilets where people gathered to defecate and chat (eww! eww! eww!), and buildings that housed round olive oil presses. We were also shown evidence of an underground aqueduct (I peered in but had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at).

The highlights for me were the public buildings – the Basilica with its resident stork on a reconstructed tall column, the open Forum and the striking Triumphal Arch (Arch of Caracalla). I also enjoyed the House of the Columns with its circle of different styled columns in the courtyard. I’m a bit of a sucker for the grandeur of columns, but only in appropriate building styles (definitely NOT in suburban Australian houses!). 😊

Some of the preserved mosaic flooring was particularly beautiful, even though the perspective and scale of the art wasn’t always great! I particularly enjoyed the mosaics in the House of the Labours of Hercules and the House of Orpheus, for their depiction of many animals. The House of the Knight also caught our attention, as there was a mosaic of Bacchus and a reclining Ariadne…it was notable for the fact that Ariadne’s face and upper body had been destroyed because ‘she was too beautiful to look at’. So a woman (albeit the depiction of one) gets punished for being ‘too beautiful’, rather than the filthy old men being made to wash their dirty minds with soap! 😲

I stopped following our guide and our group for a while when we got to the area with mosaic flooring. All the guides followed the same path through the site, and our guide insisted on taking us into areas where two large French groups were also vying for the same cramped space. This was particularly irritating because the site was definitely large enough for us to be shepherded through it without being in each other’s faces… but the guides didn’t seem to think it was a problem! So I hung back and was able to take in the details of the mosaics at a gentler pace without being elbowed by older tourists pushing past us to get to the front (I’m not kidding!).

Andrew and I were also loudly bereted in French by a grumpy old tourist hiding in the bushes, because we wrecked her perfectly timed photo by stopping under a random archway. Ok, she wasn’t actually hiding in the bushes, but we hadn’t realised that she and others were standing behind a half-wall some distance away. If they had been polite we would have certainly hastened on (as we appreciate that it can be testing waiting to get that exact shot you want at a popular site), but given the rude yelling, we decided we were in no hurry after all. 😉

We chuckled at the grumpy woman as we walked away, but within minutes we got a dose of our own medicine. Our whole group had waited patiently for our turn to take photos with/at the Triumphal Arch, when a group of five tourists decided they were tired and would sit at the base of the structure. They could see that masses of people were waiting to take photos of the Arch (one of the main attractions of the site), but they didn’t care. No amount of politely asking them to move to the other side worked. They were finnnaaallly called by their guide to move on to another spot – but not before we realised that we had been struck by instant karma! 😄

Even though I love the photos I eventually got of Triumphal Arch without the tourists… in hindsight, the photo Andrew took of the structure with the women in it ended up being my favourite. It revealed the magnitude of the structure with some much needed scale.

By the time we got about half way through the site, the wind picked up and whipped through the ruins even more, and I could feel my cheeks were already wind burnt. I found myself scurrying from one sheltered wall to another. Despite the discomfort, I’d much rather a sunny windy day to a rainy still one, so I’m going to stop complaining.

The ruins were striking and tranquil against blue skies and bruised clouds, as were the surrounding fields studded with wildflowers and abandoned construction stones. Apart from the very slight irritation surrounding our guide’s inability to maintain a reasonable distance from other groups, I really enjoyed the experience.

Even though the site is referred to as ‘Volubilis the Roman ruin’, there is archaeological evidence that predates the Roman settlement, and also from when it was called Oualili by the Arabic and Berber settlements after the Romans left. However I suppose most of the architecture is from the Roman period, and calling it a Roman ruin probably attracts more tourists.

I was a bit surprised to learn in later reading that the city of Volubilis had been occupied in some form or the other until the 18th century, when it was demolished by an earthquake. However, given all the marble was being pillaged for palaces in Meknes, it probably wouldn’t have survived much longer anyway.

We exited the archaeological site by walking through the Visitor Centre Museum set in a lovely designed building that was built into a hillside. It held some very interesting mosaics, a few casts and a couple of statues… but I had been expecting a bigger range. I later read that the purpose-built museum had only recently opened, and there was a tug-of-war of sorts about getting the artefacts from the Rabat Archaeological Museum where they had been residing.

We gathered back in our taxis for a 30 minute ride to Meknes, and I was grateful to be out of the wind!

Next we travel south to Meknes, one of the four imperial cities of Morocco.

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18th June 2019
triumphal arch (arch of caracalla)

I see them
We had same problems with people at this arch. Some kids were enjoying a picnic, which looked fun but we did not enjoy a mess of bottles of coke and plastic bags in our photos. It's funny now, but not then.
18th June 2019
triumphal arch (arch of caracalla)

Re: I see them
Hi Josie, I can understand how that would have been frustrating when you were trying to take photos... but the women in our photos ended up providing some much needed scale for that huge arch :)
18th June 2019
volubilis ruins

We liked the vibe
We thought these were interesting ruins and liked the vibe. Morocco is rich in history and architecture.
18th June 2019
volubilis ruins

Re: We liked the vibe
Yes the ruins had a lovely feel about them. On the one hand I thought the mosaics and some of the buildings needed to be better protected from the elements and the tourists... but the casual air of the site added very much to the lovely relaxed feel of the ruins.
18th June 2019

Tiring tourists
I can be quite patient with waiting people out for a good photo opportunity, but it annoys me when people keep stepping into the frame that I'm patiently waiting for people to get out of. I generally don't ask people to get out though, I just hope that they'll notice and be decent enough to step out on their own accord... sometimes to quite an avail lol
18th June 2019

Re: Tiring tourists
Yes waiting for people to move on can be frustrating, but it's part of trying to take photos at tourist heavy sites I suppose... and generally speaking a sort of informal process develops on a first come first served basis and all is well. But we've never been yelled at for stopping to take a photo before! :) What was most hilarious was that she was quite a distance away from the arch, and was aiming to have a wide shot with no people on the road leading up to the arch or at the arch itself. Yeah, nah, that was never going to happen :D
18th June 2019

Those pesky tourists
So nice the sun came out for your visit - it was very hazy the morning we were there so not very good for photos. It wasn't crowded at all though, the morning we were there. I have a picture of the arch without anybody in it, and you're right, the addition of a few people would have added a necessary persepctive. I can't tell how large the arch really is. It seems that at a busy site you just have to reconcile yourself to photos with random people in them. I loved the mosaics at Volubilis :) .
19th June 2019

Re: Those pesky tourists
I suppose the down side of it being sunny is it attracts more crowds :/ I have to look at your photos again, because I can't remember it being hazy. And even though the car park felt very crowded, we could have so easily navigated the site without bumping into the two large bus groups or the couple of smaller groups like ours... a small annoyance but it certainly didn't impact our enjoyment of the ruins. I eventually got shots of the arch without the five women, but we decided we liked Andrew's one with the women more! :D
18th June 2019
triumphal arch (arch of caracalla)

I just love Roman ruins
I just love Roman ruins. Unfortunately Emma isn't quite as fond of them as I am. I usually get to see one or two on any given trip where there are nice ruins to see. But somewhere there is the limit. /Ake
19th June 2019
triumphal arch (arch of caracalla)

Re: I just love Roman ruins
I really should have listened more in History classes - I had no idea the Roman Empire was so widespread. Makes you wonder if the Empire would have lasted longer if they had concentrated their efforts in a smaller area. But there's also the theory that lead poisoning brought them down, but I'm not sure about that one. Would like to know what your favourite Roman ruin is so far? Or maybe the top five?
19th June 2019
triumphal arch (arch of caracalla)

Top 5 Roman ruins
Oh that was a difficult one. This is not a seriously compiled list and it is not in any particular order. Just something I throw down. El Jem (Tunisia): Fabulous amfitheatre. Pompeji (Italy): Large and extremely well preserved. Hadrians Wall (England): Even though much of the wall is gone there is still enough to understand how mighty it once was. We hiked along the entire wall. That was part of the experience. Rome: There are so many ruins in and around Rome so picking just one feels strange. But if I am forced to take one only Baths of Caracalla. As the fifth I just throw in a general one: I really enjoy stopping at a random ruin in the middle of nowhere. Often you can walk around by yourself and explore them. There are plenty of those in Turkey. /Ake
19th June 2019
triumphal arch (arch of caracalla)

Re: Top 5 Roman ruins
Thanks for the list. This could be one of your subject based blogs in the future! I've seen many of the ruins in Rome over the years but I don't think I've seen the Baths of Caracalla - will have to look it up. And I agree about the random small Roman ruins in places like Turkey :)
29th June 2019

Great Review and Photos
Wow, great reading your observations about this interesting place and your photos are wonderful as well. My favorite is that with the storks' nests! I can certainly appreciate other tourists wanting to take photos of great places like Volubilis but they can be annoying in so many ways too -- especially when they don't give someone else the same courtesy that they expect for themselves. Great writeup, RenanDrew! P.S. How do I have my favorite photo of yours attached to this comment, please? Haven't seemed to do that.

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