One of the largest Roman amphitheatre buildings El Jem in Tunisia

the most imposing Roman monument in Africa


Musée archéologique, 5160 El jem, Tunisia

GPS: 35.297871444958, 10.708185251192

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The Amphitheatre of El Jem is located between the cities of Sousse and Sfax in eastern Tunisia, in the ancient Carthaginian town of Thysdrus. It is one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in the world, along with that of Capua and the Colosseum in Rome, both in Italy. Of imposing size, this major monument belonging to the little town of El Jem (or El Djem) is comparable to its Roman elder with many architectural similarities, even if it was never completed.

In the shape of an ellipse, the Amphitheatre of El Jem would have been built in the 3rd century by Gordian I, Roman proconsul of the province of Africa. This monument symbolises the once prosperous ancient city of Thysdrus and is located in an agricultural region producing olive oil. This Roman-Berber colony developed by taking advantage of its climate and its geographical position, at the confluence of the major trade routes of the Sahel. The Amphitheatre of El Jem contributed to the glory and influence of the Roman Empire through its gladiatorial shows, chariot races and sports games. In the year 238, a popular revolt was launched against the increase of local taxes decided by the emperor Maximinus Thrax to finance his military journeys through Europe. This rebellion movement spread to the city of Carthage and reached the heart of the city of Rome. In retaliation, the emperor decided to destroy the insurgent city of Thysdrus by Roman forces. In this period of great unrest, Gordian I was chosen as the emergency successor to Maximinus. But after the death of his son Gordian II in a battle near Carthage, Gordian I finally committed suicide in the amphitheatre he had built a few years earlier. His reign lasted only 22 days (which is the shortest reign in the history of all Roman emperors) and this event plunged the Roman Empire into a new political and military crisis.

The Amphitheatre of El Jem was built without any real foundations, from blocks of stone extracted from the quarries of Salakta, some 30km away. Its capacity is 35,000 spectators, the equivalent of the population of the city of Thysdrus at the time. The Amphitheatre of El Jem, with its astonishing acoustics, is a massive architectural complex with a circumference of 450 metres (compared to 525 metres for the Colosseum in Rome). Its southern part, with three floors, remains the best preserved, although many stones from the building were used to construct the village of El Jem and the Great Mosque of Kairouan.

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  • The very well-preserved character of this imposing “African Coliseum” ; the monument’s magisterial dimensions (138 metres long and 114 metres wide)
  • One of the most sophisticated Roman amphitheatres (reduction of blind spots in the stands, rainwater collection and storage system, installation of lifts to hoist the cages of the wild animals…)
  • The possibility to access the arena and to the top of the stands, which are arranged in three rows
  • A visit to the underground galleries and dungeons where wild animals, prisoners and gladiators were kept
  • The system of pillars and arches supporting the vaults
  • The acoustic quality of the monument and the thickness of its walls
  • The Festival international de musique symphonique d’El Jem (July or August) and the Festival El Jem World Music (August) held at night in the magical setting of the amphitheatre; performances of Roman events; temporary exhibitions
  • El Djem Archaeological Museum, which is accessible on foot from the amphitheatre
  • The remains of the Roman villas behind the museum
  • Before they became large stone buildings, amphitheatres consisted of wooden structures that could be dismantled and moved from town to town. From the 1st century AD onwards, these monuments were built in stone.
  • In Latin, the term “gladiator” derives from the word “gladius”, which refers to a short sword carried by Roman legionaries (soldiers). According to research by the French historian Virginie Girod, the fighters were mostly slaves from all over the Roman Empire. They were part of a leisure industry whose purpose was to entertain the inhabitants while distracting them from politics (although some people did volunteer for glory). Gladiators operated in pairs in combat and embodied virility, courage, bravery and dignity in the face of death (their career or life span in this exercise rarely exceeded 5 years). They were matched according to their strengths and weaknesses, depending on their weapons and defensive equipment. This ensured a certain balance in the battle while offering spectacular fights to the public. As in modern boxing, a referee was in charge of enforcing certain rules. Stops and restarts were used to reduce the risk of exhaustion.
  • When a gladiator defeated in battle showed sufficient bravery in the eyes of the public, the crowd would wave a handkerchief to ask for his pardon. If not, the audience could chant “jugula” (slit his throat) to demand his immediate execution. The final decision rested with the organiser of the games and fights (the editor) who decided whether to follow the opinion of the spectators. The public could bet money on the victory of a particular gladiator. The greatest champions of the arenas could get rich by winning a certain number of fights and buy back their freedom. In this case, they had the status of freedmen but were not entitled to the same rights as ordinary citizens.
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Amphitheatre of El Jem remained abandoned for a long time before being transformed into a fortress by the Berbers fighting against the Arab armies in 699 and then against the troops of the Ottoman Empire in 1695. The site was even occupied by German troops during the Second World War.
  • The ruins of Thysdrus could still contain two other monuments of lesser scale that could correspond to a theatre and a circus. Buried under the sand near the modern town of El Jem, this ancient city is still waiting to be studied by archaeologists.
  • A Tunisian-American partnership is underway to renovate the Amphitheatre of El Jem over the period 2019-2024. With the support of the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), this work will focus on the rehabilitation of the façade of the stone colossus, the modernisation of the performance space and the preservation of the rainwater drainage system that has been in place for 1,700 years.
  • At the same time, the Amphitheatre of El Jem has signed a twinning agreement with the Colosseum of Rome to organise archaeological excavations, carry out joint research activities and promote the development of the monument.
  • Easily accessible by train from Tunis, visit the amphitheatre early in the morning to enjoy the place before the first groups of tourists arrive.
  • Entrance to the site includes access to El Djem Archaeological Museum, housing magnificent mosaics from the Roman era.
  • The Maison de l’Afrique (“Africa House”), a fully restored former Roman villa adjacent to the museum, is also worth a visit.
  • Other objects from the excavation of the site of the amphitheatre and the Roman villas of Thysdrus are on display at the Bardo National Museum (Tunis) and the Sousse Archaeological Museum.

Where to eat

  • Le Bonheur
    (the rabbit with saffron is excellent)
  • Café Sidi Salem La Grotte
    (magnificent location)
  • Marina the Captain
    (well-stocked menu)

Where to go

  • Great Mosque of Kairouan
    (prestigious monument)
  • Sebkha Sidi El Hani
    (salt lake rich in birds)
  • Sousse Archaeological Museum
    (beautiful collection of mosaics)

Where to stay

  • Iberostar Selection Royal...
    (spacious and varied activities)
  • Dar Hassine Allani
    (very cosy guest house)
  • Residence Dar Sidi
    (charming site by the sea)