Growing up in Morocco in a small, little-known town, I’d heard stories about the wonders of the ancient city of Volubilis. It was only a two-hour drive away, but I never had the chance to visit. I still have a distant memory of first learning about it in my third-grade textbook. A page illustrated a stone wall with Arabic text that read: “I’m Volubilis. The ancient city of which only resilient ruins are left.” I remember it asking us: “Do you know my story?”
The story of Volubilis is an interesting one. Its name is believed to be from the Amazigh (Berber) word Alili, which means oleander, a flower that grows abundantly on the nearby banks of the Wadi Khoumane river. The city, itself, was founded in the 2nd century BCE as the capital of Mauretania, which was then an Amazigh territory. It developed rapidly when it was controlled by the Romans, who abandoned it towards the end of the 3rd century CE. Volubilis has witnessed Amazigh Kingdoms, early Christian civilizations, and Islamic civilizations.
The city was prosperous thanks to the region’s olive trade, which meant the building of several fine houses with beautiful large mosaic floors. The site is also one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco and became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.
“The site holds many values. The most important one, in my opinion, is its cultural value, as many civilizations passed through Volubilis, leaving behind a diversity of cultures,” said Mustapha Atki, Volubilis’s former site director. “The archaeological remains, including the mosaics, are only the tangible representation of the cultural diversity of the site.”
I encountered Volubilis’ story again as a Getty graduate intern this past year. While working remotely from Morocco (because of the pandemic), I discovered the Getty Conservation Institute’s collaboration with the Direction du Patrimoine Culturel of Morocco to train local technicians over a two-year period. The aim was to develop teams of skilled technician-level practitioners who can address the basic stabilization and maintenance needs of mosaics. In addition to training, Getty developed educational materials in French, English, and Arabic.
“Conservation work at Volubilis started about one hundred years ago,” said Thomas Roby, a senior project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute, who led the training, “but most of the mosaics were detached and re-laid and have been restored, rather than conserved in situ, as we would today.” Conservation focuses on preserving the work as it is found when excavated and left in situ, whereas restoration refers to the work of returning something to its original condition by adding new material to complete it.
Twelve young Moroccan professionals participated in Getty’s training. Three of them—Fatima Zahrae, Abdelilah Sguiri, and Omar Bouka—were then hired to work at the Volubilis site and have remained in charge of its conservation. I had the chance to chat with two of them to learn more about their work and how the site has been sustained since the training.
“I live for Volubilis,” said Sguiri, whose passion for conservation began as a kid thanks to documentaries about ancient cities and the pyramids of Giza. He said the best thing about his job is seeing the end result. “It’s fulfilling to contribute to preserving our cultural heritage and treasures. Seeing visitors enjoying their visits and looking at mosaics that are well taken care of, and contributing to leaving our own marks for the future generations to continue this work is what keeps me motivated.”
Bouka said his favorite part of the job is the opportunity to meet with archaeologists from around the world, and being out in the field where he can breathe fresh, clean air. “It feels like a workout. The fun kind,” he joked, adding, “Volubilis for me is like heaven on earth.” Additionally, “the training’s impact goes beyond Volubilis, because our knowledge and experience with mosaics can be used anywhere in the country,” he said.
Still, pursuing a career in conservation isn’t common in Morocco. “There isn’t a certification or a proper curriculum that prepares students to become conservators,” said Bouka. While some architecture schools include related courses in their curriculum, it does not seem to be enough. There’s a lack of talent and training opportunities, according to Bouka. “The most challenging part about our work is the heavy bureaucracy and the lack of materials and software which can help us improve our capacity,” he told me.
The pandemic meant the site was closed for more than a year before it reopened in June 2021, but the conservation work didn’t stop. The U.S. Department of State recently announced it would donate $190,000 to continue the restoration of Volubilis’s mosaics. “Volubilis is the crown jewel of Moroccan heritage sites, and we are proud to partner with the Ifker Association, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Ministry of Culture to help restore these historic mosaics and support jobs training, and educational and outreach programs for the local community,” said U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Lawrence Randolph.
Visitors have also returned to the site. They visit to see the monuments and inspiring architecture or sometimes just to relax in the beautiful nature. “There is an amazing view at sunset,” said Bouka, who hopes to one day contribute to the conservation of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, Palmyra in Syria, or other sites which have been destroyed during wars.
A highlight for the team is school visits with children who may have read the same text I read as a child. The children draw the Roman ruins or sculpt with clay.
“If there is one thing people should know about conservation, it’s that our cultural heritage is who we are. It’s our identity. It says a lot about who we were and what we’ve lived through. Conservation shows that we value all of that by taking care of it,” said Sguiri.
Almost two decades ago, I heard about Volubilis for the first time in elementary school. Today, learning more about this project reintroduced Volubilis to me. Now it’s not just a vague piece of local history, but an active site of excavation, discovery, and conservation. As I look forward to the day I’ll be able to visit this ancient city, I find relief and pride in knowing that a team of Moroccan technicians make sure that a part of our history is well cared for.