Twin cities, Volubilis & Fez
When you are at Volubilis overlooking the broad plains of northern Morocco you are firmly in the world of the Caesars, triumphal arches and colonnaded streets. Travelling the short distance to Fez takes you from these pagan surroundings to the world of Islam as crowded streets pass mosques and madrasas and the prayer call of the muezzin echoes around you. Close, but not cheek by jowl, Volubilis and Fez are linked through a shared history that spans the ancient and modern worlds of Morocco: from when the country was a province of the Roman Empire to its modern place as a vibrant member of the Islamic community.
Archaeological work at Volubilis shows that the city predates the Roman Empire by some centuries and that its strategic position on the banks of Wadi Khoumane encouraged the mixing of the local Berber inhabitants with the foreign Phoenicians although it is certain that the Phoenicians were there to trade, not administer.
The name ‘Berber’ derives from Greek word bárbaros, or specifically, 'non-Greek-speaking' but it is uncertain if the name was first applied to the native inhabitants of north Africa by the Romans or much later under the Arab conquest. The Berbers are certainly not ‘barbarians’ in our sense of the word and many today prefer to call themselves Imazighen, meaning 'free people' or 'noble men'.
As the native people of Morocco, the Berbers came into contact with the Phoenicians who had settled at several locations along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Morocco during the ninth and eighth centuries BC. The Phoenicians, hailing from the coast of present day Lebanon, established a widespread trading network that bought and sold the goods of the hinterland, as well as establishing factories for the production of Tyrian purple dye and Garum, a foul smelling fish paste so beloved by the markets in the East. In Morocco, the trading colonies were confined to the coast and the Phoenicians largely let the Berbers get on with their lives. However, trading was in the Phoenicians' blood and merchants would have lived in sizeable Berber communities, such as at Volubilis. Archaeologically this is attested by the ruins of a Phoenician temple to Baal, as well as some inscriptions using the Phoenician script: the world’s first phonetic alphabet.
Morocco, however, was an outlier of the major Phoenician settlement at Carthage in modern Tunisia, and as any student of the ancient world knows, the Romans and Carthaginians fought a series of wars during the third and second centuries BC that eventually led to the destruction of Carthage and the gradual annexation of North Africa into the Roman Empire.
As these wars raged, Volubilis lay within the kingdom of Mauretania which became a Roman client state following the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. Later, Juba II of Numidia was placed on the Mauretanian throne by the Roman Emperor Augustus in 25 BC and Juba turned his attention to building a royal capital at Volubilis. Educated at Rome and married to Cleopatra Selene II, the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Juba and his son Ptolemy were thoroughly Romanised kings and although of Berber ancestry their preference for Roman art and architecture was clearly reflected in the city's design.
It is essentially this design that a visitor sees today when visiting the city, and although many of the monuments date to later periods, Juba’s design of a classic Roman city was retained. Most noticeable in this regard is the grid pattern of the streets with the Decumanus Maximus (main street) bisecting the city. In true Roman style, the
decumanus was paved, with arcaded porticoes on either side behind which were dozens of shops. As were many other Roman cities, Volubilis was supplied with water by an aqueduct that ran from a spring in the hills behind the city. Once reaching the city, an elaborate network of channels fed houses and the public baths from the municipal supply and a series of drains carried sewage and waste away to the river to be flushed. The aqueduct terminated at a large fountain at the city centre providing a respite from the fierce Moroccan sun.
Two major public buildings are readily visible at the centre of the city: the basilica and the Capitoline Temple. The basilica was used for the administration of justice and the governance of the city. Completed in the early 3rd century AD, the building originally had two storeys. Its interior is dominated by two rows of columns framing the apses at each end of the building where the magistrates sat. The outer wall of the basilica, which is faced with columns, overlooks the forum where markets were held. The Capitoline Temple stands behind the basilica within what would originally have been an arcaded courtyard. An altar stands in the courtyard in front of 13 steps leading up to the Corinthian-columned temple which had a single cella or holy space. Dedicated to the three chief divinities of the Roman state, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, civic assemblies were held in front of the temple to honour the gods or to enlist their
assistance in some civic venture. In the first century AD the geographer Pomponius Mela, described Volubilis in his work De situ orbis libri III as one of "the wealthiest cities (in Mauretania), albeit the wealthiest among
small ones". The wealth came mostly from the production of olive oil and over 58 oil-pressing complexes have so far been unearthed in the city. The remains of these buildings are still readily visible, as are the remains of the original presses and olive mills. One such building has been reconstructed with a full-size replica of a Roman olive press to illustrate the process for visitors.
As well as olive oil, Volubilis would have been a transhipment point for the products of the African interior so sought after in Rome: skins, ivory, slaves and live animals for the frequent gladiatorial shows held across the Roman Empire.
This wealth was expressed in a number of wellappointed private houses located principally to the north of the Decumanus Maximus. These houses, some of which have large mosaics still in situ, have been named by archaeologists after their principal mosaics: the House of Orpheus, the House of Venus or the House of the Labours of Hercules. One, the House of the Knight, has a mosaic of Bacchus coming across the sleeping Ariadne. This house was a large building, with an area of about 1,700 m² and incorporated a substantial area dedicated to commercial activities, including
shops and a large olive-pressing complex.
While the reconstructed basilica or the Capitoline Temple are impressive, the iconic monument of Volubilis is the Arch of Caracalla situated at the end of the Decumanus Maximus. Built in 217 AD by the city's governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the emperor Caracalla and his mother Julia Domna, the arch bears an inscription that reads in part:
‘…because of his (Caracalla’s) exceptional and new kindness towards all, which is greater than that of the principles that came before, the Republic of the Volubilitans took care to have this arch made from the ground up, including a chariot drawn by six horses and all the ornaments…’
The ‘kindness’ mentioned on the reconstructed arch remembers that Caracalla, who was himself a North African, had recently extended Roman
citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome's provinces including Mauretania. This reform, with obvious benefits to the citizens of Volubilis, prompted the building of the arch at one of the most prominent points within the city.
Today when visiting the site one can walk through the northern Tingis Gate, down the Decumanus Maximus and have the verdant plains surrounding Volubilis framed by the Arch of Caracalla. To the right are passages to sumptuous houses with fountains in the atrium and mosaics in the triclinium, to the left are shops and a bath house. Around the corner is a fountain, and in the distance is the basilica and forum. Although remote from Rome and on the periphery of their world, Volubilis has everything that a Roman traveller would find familiar.
But not all things last. In the third century AD as troubles engulfed the Roman world, the interior of Mauretania was abandoned by Rome who only retained the Mediterranean coastal strip guarding access to the Straits of Gibraltar. But while Rome abandoned Volubilis, Volubilis did not abandon Rome and archaeologists have found inscriptions written in Latin being carved up until the time of the Islamic conquest in the eighth century AD. By the time the Arabs arrived in 708 AD the city was inhabited by the Awraba, a Berber tribe that originated in Libya, and the Arabs formed a community outside the city walls.
It was here that Moulay Idriss established the Idrisid dynasty of Morocco in 787-8 AD. A direct descendant of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, Idriss escaped political disputes in Syria, and due to his venerated genealogy, was proclaimed imam (or religious leader) at Volubilis and converted the Awraba to Islam. He then married an Awraba girl, Kanza, and fathered a son, Idriss II. Idriss I conquered most of northern Morocco during the three years of his reign until he was assassinated in Volubilis in 791 AD on the orders of the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid.
While at Volubilis, Idriss I first resided outside the city and then at a nearby town that houses his mausoleum and has been named Moulay Idriss in his honour. While here he established the city of Fez, presumably to make a fresh break from
the pagan past epitomised by Volubilis. On his majority, Idriss II moved to Fez which served as his new capital, depriving Volubilis of its last vestiges of political significance and allowing the city to moulder into the ruins we see today.
From Volubilis to Fez
If, like the Idrisid founders, we too travel the 100 km from Volubilis to Fez, we step into one of the more authentic oriental cities; not only in Morocco but within the Islamic world. While Marrakesh has its maze of shops and the incomparable Djemaa elFna, Rabat its whitewashed houses framed by the Atlantic and Meknes its imposing adobe walls, Fez is a cacophony of sounds, smells, people, mules, mosques and houses. It is easy to see Fez from above as it occupies a narrow valley with steeply rising hills on either side.
Conveniently for the traveller, during the Saadian Period (1549–1659 AD) two forts were constructed overlooking the city. From the vantage point of one of these forts, the compact maze of habitation spreads out punctuated only by soaring minarets, and while this panoramic view belies the hubbub found at street level, the main geographical features of the city can be discerned. Immediately below you is Fez el-Bali or ‘Old Fez’ while on higher ground is Fez Jdid, or ‘New Fez’ although the name is an anachronism as this portion of the city was built in the late thirteenth century AD. Out of sight is the Ville Nouvelle, the French built ‘New City’ where the broad, tree-lined boulevards contrast with the crowded streets of both Fez el-Bali and Fez Jdid.
Fez el-Bali was founded on a bank of the Oued Al Jawahir (River of Jewels); not as a single city but as two settlements: Madinat Fas by Idris I in 789 AD and Al-'Aliya by Idris II on the opposing river bank. These settlements would soon develop into two walled and largely autonomous sites, often in conflict with one another. Soon after the founding of Fez, the city gained its flavour from immigration when 800 families from Andalusia (Spain) arrived at Fez in 817–818 AD and 2000 Arab families from Kairouan (modern Tunisia) in 824 AD. The Andalusian families settled in Madinat Fas and the Kairouanis in Al-'Aliya and subsequently give their name to the sites that have been called 'Adwat Al-Andalus ('Andalusian bank') and 'Adwat al-Qarawiyyin (‘Kairouanian bank’) ever since. Together, these migrations gave Fez the high cultural arts of Moorish Spain and the religious authority of Kairouan, in its day, the predominant Islamic city in North Africa.
One of the most notable constructions at 'Adwat al-Qarawiyyin during the early years of Fez was the building of the al-Karaouine (sometimes spelt alQuaraouiyine) mosque. The mosque was founded
by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 AD and has an associated school, or madrasa, which subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the region and is regarded as the oldest continually-operating university in the world. A state university since 1963, it remains an important institution of learning today.
For such an important building it is somewhat difficult to find when you are at ground level as it is completely enveloped within the town. The main entrances of the mosque open on to laneways, and like most mosques in Morocco, it is off limits to non-Muslims. Therefore you can only get a glimpse of the prayer hall through chinks in the huge metal-studded wooden doors at one entrance and a glimpse of the courtyard and fountain from another. Although you cannot enter the courtyard, some helpful guardians will take your camera, and for a fee, snap off a few photos of the courtyard and main building. While the non-entry rule is frustrating, at the al-Karaouine mosque it somewhat adds to the mystique of the place as it is hidden within the twisting alleys of the town, and even when found, is hidden from view from all non-Muslims.
The mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II, the principal founder of the city, is also hidden from view as it too is deep within the old city and difficult to find. After passing under a wooden bar across the street that forces donkey riders to dismount, you ascend a gentle hill past shops selling candles, prayer beads, incense and other holy accoutrements. Ahead of you in a blaze of gold are the richly worked doors to the mausoleum. But it is here
that you must pause, only able to gaze inside to the richly appointed room containing the cenotaph of Moulay Idriss II. While worshippers push past you as they enter and leave, you need to feel respect that the local rules stop the interior being swamped with camera-clicking tourists: in a strange way it maintains the sanctity of the place and keeps it a place for Moroccans, not tourists, to escape the bustle of the old city.
If you want to find tourists en masse, head for the Bou Inania Medersa (madrasa) that captures the hallmark of Marinid Period architecture with its striking blending of Andalusian and Almohad traditions. This is a combination of four elements: the green tiled roof, intricately carved cedar architraves and ceilings, even more intricately carved stucco decoration on the walls and finally, on the lower register below the stucco work, glazed mosaic tile work. Together the four sum up all that is traditional in Moroccan architecture and the combined effect is fantastic.
The Bou Inania Medersa, built by the Marinid sultan Abu Inan Faris in 1351 AD is a striking example of a traditional theological school where pupils would have been housed on the second floor with the ground floor reserved for a prayer halls arrayed around the courtyard with the ubiquitous fountain for pre-prayer ablutions. The one downside of the Bou Inania Medersa is that it can get very crowded with tourists although it is amusing watching some patiently waiting for that perfect shot free of other people as if they had found the monument empty of people! If you are travelling around Morocco, I heartedly recommend a visit to the smaller, but more intimate, Bou Inania Medersa in Meknes where you are likely to have the place to yourself and can enjoy the four elements of Moroccan architecture to your heart’s content.
What has been described so far is just the tip of the iceberg in Fez. You can also go to Fez Jdid: the traditional Mellah, or Jewish quarter, of Fez. The name Mellah comes from the Arabic word for ‘salt’ and is a reminder that the enlightened Marinid rulers gave a monopoly in the salt trade to the Jews to encourage them to stay in Morocco and lend their other considerable talents in finance
If you are not afraid to get lost (momentarily), take a walk through FezelBali and just experience it all... Along the way you’ll pass innumerable shops selling everything from fresh camel heads (I kid you not) to antique brass ware. I suggest finding a quite nook and just stopping and letting the world pass you by
Left, clockwise from top right: Detail of beautiful window carving; Interior of the Riad Fes which is now a hotel; Verandah at the 19th century Dar Batha palace; Hides spread out to dry before being tanned; The tanneries, a big industry in Fez Overleaf: Sheep skins in the souk in Fez and administration to the kingdom. In Fez Jdid you can see the bleached-white Jewish cemeteries and still functioning synagogues; albeit for an ever-declining congregation. Back in Fez el-Bali you can hold a sprig of mint against your nose and see the leather tanners at work stomping hides in their multi-coloured vats. All the main vantage points are occupied by shops bulging with every imaginable leather good and while you are free to just look, a salesman will be attached to you for your visit. However, be warned. While not noticeable when you’re there, when you get your leather good home, the smell of the tannery comes with you and can take some time to dissipate! There are also interesting museums to visit such as the Dar Batha Museum which houses a somewhat desultory array of traditional ethnographical artefacts, although housed in one of Fez’s grand old houses with a fine example of an ancient oak tree overlooking a typical quadripartite garden of herbs, pomegranate and roses.
But Fez is not a tale of isolated monuments: it is a living, breathing city and one of the best examples of an oriental souq or market that this writer has had the pleasure to visit. While the souq at Aleppo, Syria, (now sadly largely destroyed) oozed history and the souq at Istanbul is big and brash, Fez is a place where people live, shop and work. There are tourist shops but there are also butchers, carpenters, metal workers, basket sellers and clothing shops. Mules laden with goods push past you as the drivers yell ‘barrak’ (‘careful’ in Arabic) as they charge ahead knowing everyone will get out of their way. There are alleys where the houses on either side literally touch each of your shoulders, public fountains, re-used khans (mercantile hotels) now selling second-hand refrigerators, wondrous doors held shut with ancient locks and people from all over Morocco from smart western-dressed students to Berbers from the mountains wearing pointedhooded djellaba.
If you are not afraid to get lost (momentarily), take a walk through Fez el-Bali and just experience it all. I recommend starting at the uphill Bab Boujloud. Once you enter through the gate, brush off the ‘guides’ who offer to show you the city (or if so inclined take them up on their offer and while you won’t get lost you will find it hard to avoid being taken to a number of shops selling carpets, metalwork or fabrics!). About 100 metres from the gate, take the first left to get to Rue Talaa Kebira. From here you head downhill, past the Bou Inania Madersa, and into the heart of Fez el-Bali.
Along the way you’ll pass innumerable shops selling everything from fresh camel heads (I kid you not) to antique brass ware. I suggest finding a quite nook and just stopping and letting the world pass you by. You’ll see faces from all corners of Morocco and for those photographically inclined, if you choose a spot with an interesting backdrop, it is an unobtrusive way to get some great photographs as people unsuspectingly walk into your frame of view.
When the terrain flattens out, search out the signs for Place Rcif that the Moroccan Tourist Board has kindly installed at strategic locations. Naturally you’ll become disorientated but a polite request for ‘Place Rcif ?’ will get you back on your path. In the flatter section of the city is the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II and then the al-Karaouine mosque followed by a bridge over the Jawhar River (a rather filthy stream and not looking like a ‘River of Jewels’ today). Finally, emerging blinking into the open at the Place Rcif you can take a taxi to your hotel to recover from the tumult and the assault to your senses that accompanies any foray into the heart of Fez.
If you could only visit two places in Morocco (which would be a great shame!), Volubilis and Fez would be good choices. Not only are they tied together with a shared history, but they represent two ends of a rich spectrum. At one extreme is Volubilis and you are transported back to a world of Phoenician traders and Roman administrators. At the other end of the spectrum is Islamic Fez that is crowded with superb monuments representing many of the major Islamic dynasties that have ruled Morocco from the time of the Idrisids. With these two stops you sample the long and varied history of Morocco, see a well-preserved classical city and a wonderful example of an oriental souq. While Morocco offers so much more, these two sites should definitely be on every itinerary!
However, be warned. While not noticeable when you’re there, when you get your leather good home, the smell of the tannery comes with you and can take some time to dissipate!
Above: The stunning Orpheus mosaic (Image: Cortyn) Right: Gate to ancient medina of Fez (Image: Migel)
Below: The House of Orpheus (Image: John Walker) Right, top: The Tingis Gate, looking back down the Decumanus Maximus Right, middle: The Decumanus Maximus, looking North-East Right, bottom: The North side of the Arch of Caracella
Left: Map of Volubilis
Above: The ruins of Volubilis