El Djem Tourist Attractions
Situation and characteristicsThe little market town of El Djem lies in the Tunisian Sahel between Sousse in the north and Sfax in the south. The town's great landmark is the amphitheater, the largest Roman building in North Africa, whose walls rise high above the surrounding houses. From whatever direction you approach El Djem, the amphitheater is the first thing that catches your eye. There is a busy market here every Monday. During the summer musical performances are given in the amphitheater.HistoryThere was a Punic settlement here in the third century B.C., but it became a place of some importance only when Caesar, after landing at Ruspina (now Monastir), founded the Roman town of Thysdrus on the site in 46 B.C. The town lay on an important road and in the center of a large olive-growing region; and since olive oil was in great demand in Rome at that period - both as a foodstuff and as fuel and in the manufacture of soap and cooking essences - the town rapidly prospered. In the reign of Hadrian (second century A.D.) it was the leading olive-growing center in the whole of North Africa, and its olive-trees were famed both for their above-average yield and the high quality of the olives. 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 second century A.D., was designed to be a symbol of this prosperity; but while it was still under construction the decline of Thysdrus set in. The occasion for this decline was the reintroduction of the tax on olive oil in A.D. 238, sparking off a rebellion which spread throughout Tunisia. A group of large 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. Thysdrus never recovered from this blow, and predominance passed to Sufetula (Sbeitla). Later the amphitheater was converted into a fortress, and in 699 it served as a refuge for the 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.AccessEl Djem lies on GP 1, half way between Sousse (63km/39mi) and Sfax (64km/40mi), some 210km/130mi south of Tunis. Daily rail connections with Sousse/Tunis and Sfax and with Gabès and Gafsa-Metlaoui-Tozeur; regular bus services to and from Sousse, Mahdia and Sfax.
Also referred to as the African Colosseum this is the world's fourth largest Roman amphitheater and very well preserved. It can hold 30,000 people.
Outside the town center of El Djem, on the road to Sfax (past the post office, on right), is the interesting Archeological Museum (Musée Archéologique). Round a colonnaded courtyard are fragments of sculpture and terracotta panels with relief decoration from the walls of Christian churches. Within the museum itself are displays of small Roman objects (terracottas, oil lamps, coins, etc.) and a number of very fine mosaics with geometric, plant and animal decoration from the villas of wealthy landowners. Among them are two lions tearing a wild boar to pieces and a tiger attacking two wild asses (both second century). Numbers of fine mosaics from El Djem are now in the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.
Immediately beyond the museum in El Djem is the excavation site. The best of the mosaics found here are now in the museum, but some have been left in situ, for example in the House of the Peacock (Maison du Paon), a huge villa with shops along the front, and the House of Sollertiana.On the opposite side of the street, beyond the railroad, are a small amphitheater of the first century B.C. and another which has not yet been excavated.Adjoining the amphitheaters are other remains of ancient Thysdrus, including residential quarters on the west side of the town, a circus measuring 500m/550yds by 100m/110yds (located by air photography but not yet excavated), second century baths and the remains of sumptuous Roman villas.