Home Culture Sunset in the City of Oleanders: The Singular Past of Volubilis

Sunset in the City of Oleanders: The Singular Past of Volubilis

The Arch of Caracalla, Volubilis. Photograph courtesy of DARREN A. RASPA

By Darren A. Raspa

Warm afternoon breezes blow the rich scent of earth and olive trees across the fertile plains of the Saiss Valley every summer as they have for thousands of years. On its journey between the Atlas and the Atlantic, the heated air brushes past the rolling hills and down the narrow lanes of the holy town of Moulay Idriss nestled at the base of Mount Zerhoun standing sentinel over the valley below. Standing alongside the elevated P7014 road just outside town, one may spy the glint of sunshine reflecting off a collection of crumbling white columns only a few kilometers below. These simple ruins belie a complex past stretching centuries into antiquity and beyond and are the physical remains of a history both rich and varied.

The town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. Photograph courtesy of author.
The town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. Photograph courtesy of author.

One of the earliest known names for this site was Oualili, the local Amazigh name for the oleander flowers that grow wild on the plateau between the Oued Fertassa and Oued Khoumane upon which the ruins sit. Artifacts uncovered at the site from the late-seventh-century Umayyad conquest of the Maghreb refer to the town as Walila, and later sources label it as “Ksar Faraoun”—the Castle of the Pharaohs. However, it is the region’s indomitable conquerors, the Romans, whose distorted name for the site—Volubilis—that most commonly remains with us to this day.

However, the Romans were by no means the first inhabitants of the site. Across the millennia, the Amazigh, who themselves have lived in the region for thousands of years, have been visited alternately by conquerors of Carthaginian and Phoenician origins as far back as the third century bce, and the warlord leaders of neighboring Maghrebi tribes before that. Indeed, the archeological record indicates that the fertile land and strategic position of the site have drawn people to its location as far back as the Neolithic period some ten thousand years ago.

The Carthaginians and Phoenicians were skilled at utilizing the entrenched class stratification of the local peoples to their strategic advantage, but it is the Romans who raised this skill to an imperial, if insidious, fine art. Many local rulers near Oualili were able to keep the iron talons of the empire of the Seven Hills along the Tiber at bay, brave leaders like the Numidian King Jugurtha. After the mighty Jugurtha was captured by the Roman Republic’s General Sulla in 106 bce and starved to death in Rome’s Tullianum prison over the next two years, the ruling class of the Amazigh kingdom of Mauretania quickly saw the advantages of alliance with the invaders.

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy of these local rulers was the Numidian prince Juba II. This son of the Numdian king Juba I was born in Africa but, for reasons of imperial strategy and state-making, raised amid the cool marble and whispering fountains of Emperor Augustus’s personal palace. Indeed, the young Juba claimed to remember the trumpet blasts of cavalry horns and war elephants and the scent of incense and sweat on the day he was paraded as a boy by praetorian guards before the throngs of eager plebs assembled to witness Julius Caesar’s African triumph in Rome.

Juba, perhaps with little choice, eagerly took to the culture of his pseudo-captors. The young prince embraced with equal enthusiasm the bride his benefactor, Emperor Augustus, selected for him. As fate had it, his bride was also an orphan of empires much like himself, a beautiful young woman by the name of Silene or, more formerly, Cleopatra Selenus— the daughter of the ill-fated lovers Cleopatra VII Philopator of Egypt and Roman general Marcus Antonius, who chose death rather than life under the yoke of Augustus, who annihilated their meager force during the Battle of Actium in 30 bce.

Five years later Emperor Augustus perceived correctly that his young pupil and vassal was ready to be delivered back unto to the land of his birth in North Africa, and there he returned with his wife to rule as king of Mauretania at the capital of Caesarea in what is now Algeria. It was under Cleopatra and Juba’s reign in the region that Volubilis thrived from the production of olive oil for the empire yielded from the many groves that covered the valley. The Roman town would continue to expand in both dividends and infrastructure in the ensuing years of Juba’s reign, but fate would not serve Juba’s son and heir as kindly. In 40 ce after a parade in Rome honoring the deceased King Juba’s son, Ptolemy, his cousin, the maniacal Emperor Caligula, had the young Mauretanian despot murdered.

The ruins of Volubilis. A portion of the Capitoline temple can be seen at left. Photograph courtesy of author.
The ruins of Volubilis. A portion of the Capitoline temple can be seen at left. Photograph courtesy of author.

The independent Amazigh kingdom was thus no more, and the revolt that followed led by Ptolemy’s freed slave was viciously crushed. Mauretnia was divided in twain, with Mauretania Caesariensis in the east with its capital at Caesarea, and Mauretania Tingitana to the west, with its capital at Tingi, or Tangiers. Volubilis in Mauretania Tingitana, well-versed in the power of the most powerful of Latin tribes, remained allied with Rome, and thus allowed to continue as a successful and productive Roman municipium. Under the protection of five forts (and a savvy alliance with the neighboring Amazigh Baquates tribe) Volubilis flourished for decades.

The reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century saw sturdy city walls erected, as well as eight monumental gates flanked by towers. The town at the crossroads of Roman and Berber power further expanded under the emperor (and native of North Africa) Septimius Severus and his heirs, when a new monumental center was established in the town. The growth of Volubilis continued under Emperor Macrinus in the third century with the construction of the civil basilica, reorganized Forum, and Capitoline temple, still partially intact today. The similarly intact Arch of Triumph is dated to Emperor Caracalla, who granted the town’s residents Roman citizenship and removed the burden of taxation.

The town began to decline economically in 285 under Diocletian, when the Roman army, feeling the stress of an aging empire, pulled out of the southern reaches of Mauretania Tingitana. Thereafter the town would become home to a mixture of peoples of Amazigh, Italianate, Romano-Berber, and Levantine Jewish and Christian descent.

It was during this period in the middle centuries of the first millennium ce that the name of Volubilis, the city of oleander flowers, was returned to Walila, and it was here in 788 that Moulay Idriss I—Arab protector of the Prophet Muhammed’s (Peace be upon him) great-great- grandson, Husayn—fled from the Abbasids, bringing Islam to and taking refuge among the town’s multiethnic populace. Before his assassination a few years later, Idriss would go on to found the town that carries his name using portions of the ruins of the decaying Roman town. Moulay Idriss would also found a city along the Jawhar River that took its name from the old Berber word for the Middle Atlas, Fazaz. Idriss called it Madinat Fas—today, we know it as Fez.

Sunset in the City of Oleanders. Photograph courtesy of author.
Sunset in the City of Oleanders. Photograph courtesy of author.

Vanished from time are the horizon-spanning states of Carthage, Phoenicia, and Rome. But as the setting sun of late spring dapples the fields beside a winding road below a holy town on the plains of Saiss with blood orange light, the marble knees may buckle but the grand crown of history remains held high amid the ruins of a town with many times but one remarkable past. I encourage you to visit the remains of the city amid the blooming oleander flowers at sunset and discover its past for yourself today.

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