Volubilis lies in a fertile plain at the foot of Mount Zerhoun, 18 miles north of Meknes. Volubilis was founded in the third century B.C. by the Phoenicians, sea-going traders from what is now Lebanon, and became capital of Mauretania. After the Roman Empire annexed Mauretania in 44 A.D., Volubilis became wealthy exporting grain, olive oil and exotic animals for gladiator battles, eventually reaching a population of about 20,000. An aqueduct supplied water for public baths and sewers transported waste to the river. A large basilica housed administrative offices and temples honored a number of important Roman gods. A ceremonial arch built in the third century paid homage to Emperor Caracalla, famous for his brutality and for granting Roman citizenship to freemen throughout the provinces.
In about 285, an over-stretched Roman Empire abandoned Volubilis and the city became Christian, its basilica converted to a church. In the late eighth century, after the area had come under Islamic control, Moulay Idriss, founder of the Kingdom of Morocco, selected Volubilis as his first capital. When his son moved the capital to nearby Fes, Volubilis began a slow decline, disappearing from history by the eleventh century.
The French gained control of Morocco in 1912 and undertook extensive excavations at Volubilis, using thousands of German soldiers captured during World War I. Stripping away and discarding remains of Islamic structures, French archaeologists uncovered grand Roman villas, some with dozens of rooms and many containing well-preserved mosaic floors illustrating mythological and outdoor scenes. Workers completely rebuilt the triumphal arch and partially restored the basilica.
Some suspect French colonialists restored Volubilis as an archetypical Roman city to lay claim to a long history of Latin influence in northern Africa and others doubt the authenticity of the extensive reconstructions. Properly restored or not, Volubilis was featured in the final scenes of the 1988 film, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.