At the entrance to the site we paid the reasonable entry fee and then negotiated with a local guide who offered to give us a guided tour and a history of the city and when we were all satisfied with the price we set off along a dusty path towards the excavations and Hamid began his commentary
Volubilis was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings. Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area. The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris. It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.
Volubilis was an important and versatile place, a garrison town which protected the far south western boundary of the Empire, an agricultural bread basket producing important crops like wheat and olives in the fertile valley to be transported across the Empire via Tangier to the North on the Mediterranean Sea and a city of rich noblemen who built themselves fine villas and a beautiful city in an enviable location. Much better I imagine to be posted here than to the northern extremes of the Empire at Hadrian’s Wall.
Volubilis, it turns out, is the most important ancient archeological site in Morocco and Hassan took us into the old streets running north to south and through the foundations and walls of the houses that flanked them. In many of them there were fine mosaics and I thought it a little surprising to find them here exposed to the elements and not having been removed to a museum nearby. The houses were huge and with a bit of imagination it was almost possible to imagine what this place may have been like two thousand years ago. It was interesting to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the houses, along the main street of shops and imagine that in this very place there were soldiers marching, old Latin plays being performed in the theater, emperor worshippers in the temples, magistrates swaggering around importantly in togas, and slaves to do all of the dirty work.
After walking along the main street lined by the remains of grand columns and arches we arrived at the centre piece of the city, the triumphal arch which has been carefully pieced back together by French archeologists nearly a hundred years ago. Next to the arch was the Forum, the centre of political life in the city and adjacent to that the ancient Basilica where the citizens came to worship their gods.
Hamid concluded the tour with an explanation of Roman life in this area and tried to speculate why the Romans suddenly abandoned Morocco but like many historians who have wrestled with this question before him could provide no answers. He walked us back to the car park where Abdul was waiting and we paid the agreed fee and added a tip to thank him for an excellent tour.
Next we were due to drive to Moulay Idriss which nestled in the folds of the mountain and was gleaming white in the sunshine. Abdul took us along a high level road so that we could get some pictures but we were unsure about this because the heavy rain last night had turned the road to mud and the sides of the mountain had been washed down over the asphalt. It didn’t seem safe especially when he parked on a precipitous ledge and invited us out to get our photographs.
The problem with stopping we discovered was that it was inevitable that someone would quickly appear trying to sell us something. Uusually this was necklaces and jewellery but sometimes fossils, that were almost certainly fakes, and fascinating round chunks of coal with iron Pyrite crystals which they claimed were completely natural and collected from the mountains but in reality are manufactured in a workshop using a simple crystal solution. Abdul kept an eye on things and although he allowed them to approach us he stepped in if their sales technique became too robust.
We were glad to leave the precarious hillside and back in the vehicle Abdul drove us into the city which has only one main road running through it and a web of alleyways disappearing into the maze behind it. Today was flea market day and the road was crammed with people picking over the merchandise on the stalls including a lot of second hand clothing which looked as though it had found its way here via the weekly recycling collections back in the UK. Abdul nosed his way through the crowds of people who were not especially inclined to give way and clearly thought they had priority to be there.
We didn’t stop in Moulay Idriss and although no one explained why I believe it is because non Muslims are not especially welcome in this pilgrimage city and certainly we saw no European travellers or tourists as we inched our way along the street and out the other side. I sensed that even Abdul wasn’t too comfortable to be there with a car full of camera pointing Christian infidels and once through the crowds he quickly returned to the main road and pointed the taxi in the direction of Meknes to the south.