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A Little-Known Roman Ruin Near the Holiest City in Morocco
Morocco is on everyones’ tongues lately. Visions of crenelated towers, orange juice vendors in a chaotic souk, and camel rides at sunset in the Sahara draw us to the top of the dark continent. Over 10 million visitors a year seek out the exotic sounds of the call to prayer, the unbelievable taste of a lemon chicken tajine; but not too many people realize that Morocco hosts some amazing historical sites as well. Only a fraction (about 100,000) of the tourists make a stop between Meknes and Fes to visit these sprawling Roman ruins.
Volubilis was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997. It is a testament of how the rule of the Romans took over much of the western world. The city is located near the Moroccan Islamic holy city of Moulay Idriss where one of their most famous mosques is situated, and there are olive orchards and farmlands in all directions. We love a good world heritage site, and we weren’t going to miss this one.
I absolutely love it when serendipity steps in and takes over all my travel plans. We were slowly driving from Meknes, and we were taking our sweet time as we like to do. Driving down small roads into smaller villages and stopping often along the way to buy some oranges or stop and share those same oranges with locals; we didn’t arrive at Volubilis until about an hour before sundown. Most archaeological sites will not let you enter so close to sunset. They want everyone out of there so they can go home. We were staying only a couple of kilometers away, and thought that we’d check to see how much time we would have to visit the site, and if it wasn’t enough we’d just leave and come back in the morning. We had plenty of time, and the guard let us right in.
The parking lot only had three cars in it, two with Moroccan drivers awaiting their passengers to whisk them away to their hotels. No one seemed in a hurry. A little perplexed, we headed down a huge staircase before we arrived at the museum where we stopped briefly. Sites like this usually have a small museum right there, but the majority of the antiquities have already been hauled off to larger, more visited museums. You can find Volubilis artifacts at the Rabat Archaeological Museum, but there is nothing like walking through the ruins, picking your way through shrubs, and finding broken inscriptions just laying on the ground.
When we are at a site, we almost never stick together. We like to wander, explore on our own and discover and marvel at the things that we find. So, it didn’t take long and I find myself on my own photographing the details of the carved stone, the old olive press, and plenty of arches, columns, and–bonus!– Mosaics. I love mosaics, and Volubilis has its fair share!
Mosaics were mostly used to decorate the floors of the nobles, and we have seen them as far away as eastern Turkey. Intricately put together puzzles of various deep hues draw such stunning pictures that have lasted for two thousand years….outside! I find it extremely mind-boggling and so much fun to look at. This floor shows how large the houses could be for the richer Romans. This particular house was located not far from either the Basilica or the public baths. Location, location, location.
We’d been at the site for over an hour, and the sun began to set. Not that there were many people there, one tour bus and a few private tours with very small groups, but no one seemed to be in a hurry. The tour guides were chattering away. We were a little worried, but we just kept on exploring. The light was golden hour light, magical as it reflected over the columns, arches, and steps of the main Basilica. When you are standing on the top step of a huge ancient temple, it is hard not to let your imagination run wild. How were they built, visited, or maintained?
Now, the sun was really low in the sky and we figured we only had a few more minutes, just waiting for the guards to usher us out. Then we looked at the triumphal arch and it dawns on us that the Romans had built it facing west. The sun burst through the arches, and it was an electrifying sight. I struggled with wanting to photograph it or just sit down and enjoy it. With only about 15 people sharing this magnificent experience, I just couldn’t believe my luck!
Don’t make the same mistake that millions of other tourists make when they visit Morocco. Don’t miss Volubilis…and yes….go an hour before sunset!
After this spectacular show, I heard a long, shrill human whistle. It was time to go. There are few electric lights in the area, and it became pitch black minutes after we made it back to the parking lot. Talk about timing!
Getting to Volubilis – If you don’t want to rent a car yourself, there are day tours out of Casablanca, Fes, and Meknes. Many folks hire a car and driver through their hotel and do it that way, which seemed like a good idea. Like I mentioned, only one tour bus was there when we were there, and yep, you guessed it, they were gone before the sun started to set. I don’t recommend a huge tour.
Accommodation: We stayed at a very spartan, interesting and, might I say, adventurous bed and breakfast. There was one hotel in the right near the ruins and a few in Moulay Idriss, but since it is only a little over an hour from Meknes, I would recommend you stay there. Another reason to have a dedicated car and driver is that if you do stay for the sunset, you will not want to drive in the dark. Let someone else do it.
Eat: Don’t expect to eat anywhere at or near Volubilis, we didn’t see any restaurants at all. I think this is one of those times that packing a sack lunch and having dinner reservations for your return is the best way to go. We munched on trail mix and ate lots of oranges.
Have you been to Morocco? Did you make it to Volubilis? What did you think?