Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Morocco’s sprawling ancient city of Volubilis is rising again



Morocco’s sprawling ancient city of Volubilis is rising again

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A tourist stands on the ruins of the ancient Roman site of Volubilis, near the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhounon in Morocco’s north central Meknes region, on July 25. FADEL SENNAI/afp

Morocco’s sprawling ancient city of Volubilis is rising again

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

After decades of decay, however, custodians of the now 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, boasts a new museum and visitor centre and has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors.

They stroll along the main artery lined with porticoes 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”, according to Mohamed Alilou, 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 counted up to 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 new 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 programs and restoration work.

But renewed interest in the site brought with it looting, especially during the period of French colonial rule from 1912 to 1956.

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”, according to Moroccan press reports.

Looting a thing of the past

The effort was in vain and 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 – archeological finds, mosaics and ancient coins – is being looted.

But in Volubilis, Alilou says that 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 that the whole

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 past the 300,000 mark,” Atki said.

Alilou said the ancient city covering 42 acres (17 hectares) has yet to reveal all of its secrets.

“A third of the site, especially the western quarter built in the Islamic era, has not been excavated,” he said.

MOST VIEWED

  • PM imposes nationwide Covid restrictions, curfew over Delta scare

    Prime Minister Hun Sen late on July 28 instructed the municipal and provincial authorities nationwide to strictly enforce Covid-19 measures including curfew for two weeks from July 29 midnight through August 12 to stem the new coronavirus Delta variant. The instruction came shortly after he issued a directive

  • Two luxury hotels latest quarantine options for inbound travellers

    The Inter-Ministerial Committee to Combat Covid-19 has designated two luxury hotels as alternative quarantine options for travellers who wish to enter Cambodia through Phnom Penh International Airport – Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel & Residence and the Courtyard by Marriott Phnom Penh. In a notice detailing guidelines issued

  • Provinces on Thai borders put in lockdown amid Delta fears

    The government has decided to place several border provinces in lockdown for two weeks in a bid to prevent the new coronavirus Delta variant spreading further into community. According a directive signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen late on July 28, the provinces include Koh Kong,

  • China denies Mekong hacking

    As the US and its allies joined hands last week to expose what they allege to be China’s Ministry of State Security’s malicious cyber activities around the world, the attention also turned to Cambodia with the US Department of Justice claiming that four

  • US' Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines arrive

    The first batch of 455,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine donated by the US touched down in Phnom Penh on the morning of July 30. They are part of the total 1,060,100 doses the US has pledged to provide to Cambodia through the World Health Organisation-led (

  • Governor: Covid subsides in capital

    Phnom Penh municipal governor Khuong Sreng said the Covid-19 situation in the capital’s 14 districts has eased, with only two districts still recording a high number of infections. “Transmission cases in all districts are dropping, though they are relatively higher Meanchey and Por Sen Chey.