El Jem: Roman Grandeur in the Middle of the Desert
Brands matter even in tourism. Thousands of travelers dream of seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum or the Egyptian Pyramids, and not less worthy sites often get lost among the famous landmarks.
It seems that this is the fate of the amphitheater in El Jem — one of the largest and best preserved buildings of the heyday of the Roman Empire. It has become a trademark of Tunisia and today, as more than 1,500 years ago, it rises like a majestic hulk above a small town in the middle of the desert. It is the largest amphitheater outside Europe out of more than 250 Roman amphitheaters.
Life is in full swing in El Jem, mostly thanks to tourists who flock to see the building. But besides the amphitheater, there are several interesting places that can tell about the times of the past.
The history of El Jem: rapid rise and decline
In fact, this city used to be called Thysdrus and was part of the state of Carthage. With the arrival of the Romans, a colony was founded here and veterans of the legions of Julius Caesar were settled. These places 2000 years ago were not as arid as they are now, and the area has become a major producer and supplier of olive oil. Oil was highly valued in the Empire, because it was used not only for food, but also for lighting, as well as for anointing bodies.
Large-scale production led to the fact that the city grew and in the 2nd century AD had about 50 thousand inhabitants. It even began to compete with Hadrumet (current Sousse) in terms of population and importance.
In the first half of the 3rd century, the proconsul of Africa Gordianus lived in Thysdrus. It was he who ordered to build the famous amphitheater here, which was almost as good as the Roman Colosseum and was the largest on the entire continent. Of course, it was a way to declare himself, and also to occupy the people who were waiting for “bread and circuses.”
During an uprising in the province of Africa against the Roman emperor Maximinus, it was Gordian who was nominated by the inhabitants of Thysdrus as the new ruler of the Empire. But soon the uprising was put down, and Gordian committed suicide. Thysdrus was seriously destroyed by the legionnaires and was not reconstructed. The amphitheater was used for its intended purpose only until the end of the 4th century.
The majestic building was used more than once as a fortress in the following centuries: in the 5th century people sheltered there from vandals, in the 7th – from the Arabs. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the amphitheater was even partially dismantled and materials were used for construction in other cities, including the reconstruction of the Grand Mosque in Kairouan. Nevertheless, both in the 17th and 19th centuries, local Tunisians who rebelled against the Ottomans found shelter in the amphitheater. In the 17th century, the town received its modern name El Jem.
Only the French, who colonized Tunisia at the end of the 19th century, saw the value of the main building of the city. Although it did not help to protect the amphitheater from the destruction brought about by the Second World. Only in the 1970s it was restored, preserved and included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List. By the way, even earlier than the Colosseum.
Now the amphitheater in El Jem is accessible to the public, and a small town with little houses of locals continues to exist around it. Its shops and cafes welcome guests.
The amphitheater in El Jem, which has no equal
Despite the difficult fate, the amphitheater in El Jem is the best preserved in the world. To this day, ⅔ of its walls remain intact, and this is much more than in the Colosseum in Rome. The amphitheater in El Jem is a bit smaller in size than the Roman one. Its size is about 140 by 120 meters, it could accommodate 30-35 thousand people, while the Colosseum — about 50 thousand.
But in the times of its construction, the amphitheater looked impressive. And even now it looks majestic among the very small buildings of local residents and the ruins of Roman villas. But then it was a real wonder of the world: a 30-meter building made of massive hewn stones, decorated with mosaics inside. The arched openings were arranged in such a way the sunlight came directly into the arena.
In addition to the walls, basement rooms were also preserved. There were cells for prisoners, slaves and cages with wild animals. Visitors can also wander through the basement labyrinths, and then find themselves in the arena, where they can feel all the greatness and see the beauty of the building. Gladiators who were people’s favorites and heroes fought here, Christians were executed here, and a lot of blood was shed.
In the middle of the arena, a long hatch attracts attention: it was created for ventilation of underground rooms, during the battle it was covered with flooring. There were 2 hatches on either side of it, they were elevators on which animals and condemned people were lifted into the arena.
But visitors can feel not only like gladiators, but also spectators. Some of the seats were restored, once the ancient Romans sat here in eager anticipation of bloody spectacles. People were more cruel and greedy for any ways to diversify their everyday life. The emperor’s box was located above the main entrance, from where the trial of the losers of the battle took place. Perhaps Gordianus, the builder of the amphitheater, also hoped to sit there, but he was not meant to, he died, and after that the almost completed construction was suspended.
By the way, the seats in the amphitheater were getting occupied one by one, so those who came last, took the seats which were far from the center of the arena. However, these people were the first who left the amphitheater after the end of the performance, hence a famous saying “The Last will be the first and the first will be the last”. So it was in all the amphitheaters.
Nowadays, in the summer, the amphitheater of El Jem hosts a festival of symphonic music. This is a world-class event, prestigious and incredibly interesting for every tourist. The Vienna Opera, soloists of the Bolshoi Theater, La Scala and many other famous orchestras and artists perform here. It was not for nothing that this place was chosen: the acoustics here are amazing, the preservation of the building allows you to arrange large-scale events, and the atmosphere itself is charming.
Walking around the amphitheater, you can admire the beautiful views from its upper rows, touch the thousand-year-old antiquity, and marvel at ancient Roman construction technologies.
What else to see in El Jem?
The amphitheater is the main attraction in the town, but if you have walked around it enough, you can go to the Archaeological Museum, as visiting it is included in the ticket price. The Museum is located about a 10-minute walk away from the amphitheater.
Once the amphitheater was surrounded by luxurious Roman villas, and the artefacts, found during their excavations, are displayed in the museum. Beautiful mosaics, sculpture, ceramics and rare exhibits are objects that tell about the variety of crafts in ancient Rome. Among the mosaics, the most striking ones are the image of Dionysus, the god of winemaking, who has already drunk a lot of the gifts of local vineyards, as well as the image of an owl with birds’ dead bodies and an inscription “the birds are torn apart by envy and the owl doesn’t care”.
Not far from the Museum you can also see the excavations themselves. It is worth visiting the recently excavated and restored Villa Africa – an example of a rich dwelling of a Roman patrician. The classic layout, luxurious halls and beautiful floor mosaics also preserve the spirit of the once great Empire.
A few more villas have been preserved, as well as the sidewalks of Thysdrus, which were also decorated with mosaics. These excavations will once again remind travelers of what a rich and significant city were on the site of a small modern El Jem.