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Exploring El Djem: A Visitor's Guide

El Djem - Amphitheatre
El Djem - Amphitheatre
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Tunisia's biggest historical tourist attraction is the mammoth, golden-stoned amphitheater of El Djem - once the stage for bloody gladiatorial battles during the Roman era. Even for travelers in Tunisia who are mainly here for a sun-and-sea holiday, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, halfway between Sousse and Sfax, is a must-do. The amphitheater's location, looming over the flat, arid countryside, adds to its dramatic appeal. Wandering through its arcades and then venturing down into the underground passageways and cells below the arena allows visitors a remarkable sense of not only this structure's use, but also of the power the Roman Empire once held across this land.

History

El Djem has been settled since the 3rd century BC, when there was a Punic settlement here, but it only began to gain prominence after Caesar founded the town of Thysdrus on this site in 46 BC. Thysdrus lay amid a large olive-growing region, and since olive oil was in great demand in Rome during that period, the town prospered rapidly to become the leading olive-growing center of North Africa. With a population of between 20,000 and 30,000, the town accumulated enormous wealth, much of which - as in other Roman towns - was spent on the erection of both public buildings and private houses.

The amphitheater, begun at the end of the 2nd century AD, was designed to be a symbol of this prosperity. But while it was still under construction, the decline of Thysdrus set in with a reintroduction of a tax on olive oil in AD 238. The tax sparked a rebellion, which spread through Tunisia. A large group of landowners, with the help of the juvenes (a kind of officers' training corps or militia), murdered the imperial procurator, the chief financial official in the province, and proclaimed an 80-year-old proconsul, Gordian, as emperor. The rising was repressed, and the town sacked, with Thysdrus never recovering from this blow.

Later, the amphitheater was converted into a fortress, and in AD 699 it served as a refuge for Berber leader El Kahina during her fight against the Arab invaders. After their victory, the town was abandoned, and the site was reoccupied only during the French colonial period.

The Amphitheater

The Amphitheater
The Amphitheater
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El Djem's mighty amphitheater is the fourth largest in the Roman world, only coming after Rome's Colosseum; the Pozzuoli amphitheater near Naples; and the one at Carthage, of which little survives. Its colossal size and excellent preservation has given it the nickname the African Coliseum.

Oval in form, the amphitheater is 149 meters long by 122 meters across (compared with Rome's Colosseum, which measures 188 meters by 156 meters). It is also of impressive height (40 meters), which would have been still further increased by the canvas sails (vela) that protected the audience from the sun.

Arena view
Arena view
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It provided seating for more than 30,000 spectators (according to some estimates 60,000), who witnessed the sporting events, bloody gladiatorial contests, and slaughters of criminals by wild animals staged in the arena. It was thus too big for a town the size of Thysdrus, and was evidently intended as a demonstration of the city's power and prosperity.

Although the amphitheater was used for centuries as a quarry of building stone, it has managed to survive the centuries better preserved than Rome's Colosseum. Only two-thirds of the circuit of walls with their three stories of arcades have survived. The northwest side was blown up in 1695 on the orders of the Ottoman Bey to prevent it from being used as a stronghold by Berber rebels, who had frequently entrenched themselves within its walls.

Each of the three stories originally had 30 arches, of which there remain a total of 68. Little is left of the tiers of seating in the interior, but under the arena (which measures 65 meters by 37 meters), visitors can see two intersecting underground passages (excavated in 1908) through which the wild animals and their victims entered the arena. On either side of the passages were cages for the animals and cells for the prisoners. At the entrance is a flight of steps leading to the upper tiers of arcades, from which there are good views of the amphitheater and town.

Amphitheatre Panorama
Amphitheatre Panorama
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El Djem Archaeological Museum

Mosaic in museum
Mosaic in museum Dennis Jarvis / photo modified
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Although the amphitheater is the main point of interest, outside El Djem town center (on the road to Sfax), the El Djem Archaeological Museum is a worthwhile add-on to a visit. The museum contains displays of Roman objects (oil lamps, coins, terracotta pots) and a number of fine mosaics with geometric, plant, and animal decorations that have all been unearthed in the area and once graced the villas of wealthy Roman landowners. A number of other mosaics excavated in the El Djem area are displayed in Tunis' Bardo Museum.

El Djem Archaeological Site

Roman rubble in El Djem archaeological site
Roman rubble in El Djem archaeological site damian entwistle / photo modified
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Immediately beyond the museum is the El Djem archaeological site, where the mosaics in the museum were excavated. Some mosaics have been left in situ. In particular, the House of the Peacock (Maison du Paon) and the House of Sollertiana both have lovely mosaics still in place on their floors. On the opposite side of the street, beyond the railroad, is a small amphitheater dating from the 1st century BC. Between the two amphitheaters are more remains of ancient Thysdrus, with remnants of grand villas and a bath complex.

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