Exploring El Djem: A Visitor's Guide
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 centre 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 amphitheatre, 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 amphitheatre 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.
El Djem's mighty amphitheatre is the fourth largest in the Roman world, only coming after Rome's Colosseum, the Pozzuoli amphitheatre 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 amphitheatre is 149 m long by 122 m across (compared with Rome's Colosseum, which measures 188 m by 156 m). It is also of impressive height (40 m), which would have been still further increased by the canvas sails (vela) that protected the audience from the sun.
It provided seating for over 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 amphitheatre 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 storeys 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 storeys 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 m by 37 m) 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 general sightseeing views of the amphitheatre and of the town.
Other Nearby Attractions
El Djem Archaeological Museum
Outside El Djem town centre (on the road to Sfax) is an interesting attraction: the Archaeological Museum. Within there are displays of Roman objects (oil lamps, coins, terracotta pots) and a number of fine mosaics with geometric, plant and animal decorations that have 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
Immediately beyond the museum is the 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 amphitheatre dating from the 1st century BC. Between the two amphitheatres are more remains of ancient Thydrus, with remnants of grand villas and a bath complex.