Volubilis – an Outdoor Mosaic Museum

A short car ride beyond Fez, Morocco, brings you to Volubilis. The site served as a caravansary for the Berbers and the capital of the Kingdom of Mauritania before becoming an important Roman outpost after the Third Punic War in the 2nd century BCE. It marked the furthest reach of the Roman Empire into Africa. The city declined during the 8th century, with most of its inhabitants having converted to Islam and moved to the nearby city of Meknes.

In spite of its marble being stripped during the 18th century to build the sultan’s palaces in Meknes, Volubilis remains one of the best preserved Roman ruins in Morocco. It was rediscovered during the French Protectorate in 1915, when excavation and restoration work began. Most of its artifacts have been moved to the Archaeological Museum in Rabat, which I hope to see on my next visit to Morocco. Volubilis was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

We leave the parking lot and walk across an expansive concrete plaza – designed no doubt for large groups to gather for orientation before heading out onto the site. We hired a local guide, who is dressed in a long, loose, lime-green caftan over jeans and sandals, and a conical straw hat of a style I had seen older people wear on the outskirts of town. We head out under hot sun and a pale blue sky that has just enough wispy clouds to offer a contrast to the nearly 104 acres of ruins we are about to view.

The guide was very informative, and I wished I had brought my journal so I could have taken some notes. I photograph some of the placards that gave information about the aqueducts that fed the city, and some of the homes that are named after images in their mosaic floors, including the “House of Venus,” the “House of Bathing Nymphs,” and the “House of Big Game” with its lions and tigers in remarkable detail. A knowledge of French would be useful here, since that’s the language of choice for the markers and placards.

House of Pillars
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The “House of the Rider,” (Maison av Cavalier according to the carved stone marker) named after a bronze figure discovered there in 1910, was one of the larger homes at 1700 square meters. The mosaics covered the floors of the public areas of the homes (but not the private areas like kitchens and baths). The floors become more spectacular the closer we came to the King’s House.

I did not expect to see mosaic floors in such good condition, which is in sharp contrast to the remains of the walls that surround them. I had seen a section of a mosaic floor in a Roman exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, but it is entirely different to see this work in context. In spite of being exposed to the elements, they are remarkably vibrant – a testament to the craftsmanship that went into their making. After I returned home, a glass artist friend of mine shared that she was also astounded at the preservation of Roman-era mosaics she saw in the UK, and surmised that the Romans laid a substrate (just like we do now) which drained water away and discouraged plants from taking root.

Mosaic Floor
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno
Jacuzzi
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

We saw the remains of a bathing pool. Our guide pointed out a ‘jacuzzi’ – a large flat pool with a center stonework carved into backrests that would accommodate 10 people. It served as a social center in the same way that hammams did in Turkey during the Ottoman period. Our guide told us that the water for the jacuzzi was heated by underground pipes that ran under the ovens in the nearby bakery. Talk about architectural multi-tasking!

At the furthest end of this settlement is the King’s Palace. Its huge circular mosaic floor covered a receiving room that must measure 20’x20′. There’s also a square pool bigger than the living room of my house, overlooking a panorama of fields and orchards, and the Lower Atlas Mountains in the distance. Although Volubilis is best known for its mosaic floors. I find the view of the valley and the Lower Atlas Mountains almost as striking.

King's Palace
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

Here is the imposing Triumphal Arch of Caracella, built in 217 AD by the town council in honor of Emperor Caracalla and his mother Julia Domina as a thank you for granting the townspeople Roman citizenship and tax exempt status. It’s a popular place for photo ops, although some too-adventurous tourists are climbing up the gate, and getting yelled at (understandably) by the guides…

Triumphal Arch
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

Back at the plaza, there’s a small museum with maps on the walls and a few cases of Roman artifacts which included bone buttons and needles, bronze pieces from horse trappings, and a foot tall bronze figure of a boy, labeled “The Genius of Abundance.”

If you go, bring water, a sun hat, a notebook, and very sturdy shoes. This terrain is not easily accessible for people with mobility challenges.

The ruins at Volubilis are open every day from sunrise to sunset. Admission is 70 dirhams, and official guides are available for hire for 120 dirhams (which I highly recommend). It’s a day trip from Meknes (22 miles/35 kilometers away) or Fez (50 miles/80 kilometers away). You can drive there yourself, or hire a private taxi from the train station in Meknes. Best times to visit are April-May when the wildflowers are in bloom. Best time of day for photography is early morning or late afternoon.

Visit this UNESCO site for additional historical information about Volubilis, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/836/

For my additional photos in slideshow format, you are welcome to visit my website at https://davenotravels.blog/2022/04/16/morocco-2017-a-roman-ruin/

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.

In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.