I was surprised to learn that one of the best-preserved and most extensive Roman sites in the world resides in North-Central Morocco.
Following two weeks of traveling through Morocco’s Imperial cities, labyrinthine medinas, vast, dry deserts, and fashionable coastal towns, the highlight was definitely Volubilis—Morocco’s most important archaeological treasure.
A chance encounter onboard a train headed for Fès led me there.
“Make sure to purchase first-class tickets,” the proprietor of our bed & breakfast in Casablanca advised. Michael, my traveling companion, and I nodded. At the ticket counter, I had an impetuous change of heart and surprised us both when I blurted to the cashier, “Two second class tickets to Fès, please.” Michael glanced at me, puzzled.
“It’ll be more interesting,” I promised.
We found a pair of seats in a car packed with jovial, chatty locals, eager to advise us on our itinerary. Drissia Ras, a self-assured, friendly twenty-something environmental scientist, quickly befriended us. Most Moroccans we met were fluent in French and Arabic, though Drissia spoke English effortlessly as well. That’s because she had recently spent 18 months working for a non-profit environmental organization in Seattle.
We had originally planned to spend all three days roaming in the heart of Morocco’s oldest neighborhood, Fès El-Bali. Over 1,200 years old, its 9,665 tight, wiggly lanes are barely wide enough for two people to stroll side-by-side. This living museum contains 13th–14th century mosques and palaces, one of the oldest universities in the world, and a milieu of bazaars, craft shops, and food stands.
Despite the treasures to be experienced in Fès El-Bali, Drissia encouraged us to venture out and see the countryside. I gazed outside our train window at the rolling hills and fertile farmland. A daylong side trip to break up the intensity of Fès didn’t sound like a bad idea at all. When Drissia offered to accompany us there, a mere 40 miles outside of Fès, the plan was sealed.
The next morning, we met up with Drissia and her sister Hajar, and hired a taxi for the day. The fertile, undulating landscape—abundant with silvery olive trees and rows of jagged prickly pear cactus—reminded me of Tuscany. We drove by miles of fava bean and onion plant farms, and acres of orange groves. The tree limbs curved and sagged from the weight of bright, plentiful fruit.
Around the year 40 A.D., the Roman Empire annexed this remote outpost specifically for this rich, fecund Moroccan plain. It replaced acres of indigenous forests with large-scale agriculture and exported all that was reaped back to Rome.
At its height, Volubilis housed as many as 20,000 residents, who were exempt from Roman taxes, because they lived so far from the mother ship. Rome abandoned Volubilis around 280 A.D., though its footprint penetrated so deeply that Latin continued to be spoken here up to the arrival of Islam in the 8th century.
We wandered around the site for the better part of a bright, chilly February morning, imagining the city that once filled the space between the remaining stones. Archaeologists marvel at the sophisticated sewage system the Romans engineered. Walking along the eight perfectly formed arches of the grand basilica felt like traveling back in time. Then we noticed that the tops of tall, reconstructed columns now function as comfortable habitats for storks to nest.
Astonishingly preserved mosaic floors, said to be among the finest in existence, offer insight into the stately homes the Romans built. In 1997, Volubilis was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, and continues to be an excavation in progress. A museum, displaying the plethora of treasures discovered here, will open later this year.
If the remains of Volubilis represent homage to the Roman civilization that disappeared, Moulay Idriss illustrates the Islamic culture that stayed. Our taxi driver transported us to the holiest town in Morocco, about a three-and-a-half mile drive from Volubilis, by way of a scenic mountain back road. We stopped to ogle its twin hillsides, Khiber and Tasga, cradled in the surrounding verdant mountains. Drissia pointed out how they resemble a double humped-back camel.