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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 19 of 30: Roman Sites - El Jem

photo by MAW

El Jem amphitheatre

El Jem with its amazing amphitheatre and first rate museum displaying mosaics found in the area is a "must see" on all tourist itineraries and rightly so. The ticket covers entry to both. Allow at least 90 minutes each and don’t miss the remains of the older amphitheatres across the road from the museum.

By the 3rdC the Roman city of Thysdrus was the richest city in North Africa at the centre of a network of roads distributing goods between the coast and the interior. It was an important centre for manufacture and export of olive oil. The remains of the amphitheatre reflect this wealth and status. It was the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman World. It was a major undertaking to build as the stone quarries were 30km away. Although some of the stone was robbed for building and part of the walls destroyed in 1850 when the forces of the Bey put down a rebellion against rebels based in the amphitheatre, it remains an impressive building.

We knew it was big but didn’t realize just how big. It dominates the whole of the town. It had a capacity of 43,000 which was more than the total population of El Jem and people from the surrounding area would travel to watch the games.

Av Habib Bourguiba, the main street in El Jem leads to the Amphitheatre. The 10 foot high metal railing surrounding the site pales into insignificance. The ticket office is a wooden hut and there are a few tourist shops inside the perimeter fence. There was a sign advertising audio-guides in different languages but when we asked about them the ticket office just said "closed."

From the outside the amphitheatre seems to be made of two separate walls linked by rough arches. Much of the rough masonry between the two which would have supported the tiers of seats has gone. There are two big ceremonial entrances with smaller entrances giving access to the different areas of seating. Part still stands to five tiers of arches round the outside. Steps lead down into the underground passageways with chambers where gladiators, charioteers, animals and victims waited their turn. Two sloping passages from the basement allowed gladiators and animals to be brought into the galleries below the arena. The square holes in the arena beside the central passage way contained an elaborate system of lifts which hoisted the animals in cages into the arena which could be opened safely using pulleys from below.

Two tiers of seats have been reconstructed where the outer walls were destroyed in 1850. These are accessed by walkways through the walls and stairs. The lowest seats nearest the action were for the elite and were separated by upright slabs of marble from the seats above.

The seats around the rest of the arena no longer exist although it is possible to walk along the arched passageways through the walls which gave access to the seats. There are remains of the rough masonry which supported the different tiers. It is possible to see the small triangular marks left in the huge stone blocks by the clamps used to lift the stones into place. Steps inside the walls climb up to the different levels. There are good views out through the outer archways across El Jem.

The museum is to the south of the town. It can get busy with coaches but most don’t stop very long. If it looks busy, visit the remains of the two older amphitheatres, which are just across the road from it. They are unsigned and lie forgotten. There is a lot of building work going on in the area around and unfortunately piles of rubble have been dumped in the arena area. The older one was carved out of the side of a hill and it is still possible to see the remains of the seats in places. The masonry of the second one can still be seen, built over the remains of the first.

The Museum is housed in a splendid new building round two courtyards with rooms off. There are good toilets in the ticket area and a few rather tatty postcards for sale. The museum isn’t as large as the Bardo Museum in Tunis. All the mosaics have been found in the local area and rank equal with those on display in the Bardo. The picture mosaics are displayed on the walls of the courtyard and in the rooms. Some of these are huge and many are intact. Many concentrate on scenes in the arena and Dionyses is a popular figure in many of them. On the floor are geometric design mosaics. Labels in Arabic, English and French give basic information about the pictures shown on the mosaics and their age.

There are a couple of plans showing the development of Roman Houses and display cases with samples of pottery, oil lamps etc.

Part of a Roman villa has been reconstruction with a peristyle with a pool, water cistern, well and a huge dining room with columns and arches dividing it into three areas. It made you realize just how large some of the villas were.

Outside the museum are the excavated remains of Roman villas arranged along streets. Some still have the remains of mosaics. Footprints guide you to the site but then stop. Low wires restrict access to the site and there are no labels.

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