El Jem is located inland to the north east of the North African country of Tunisa and home to an ancient Roman amphitheatre which is purported to be in better condition than the original it was modelled on in Rome. It formally seated 35,000 people and built from the profits olives and olive oil. El Jem was formally part of Thysdrus, one of the richest cities in Roman Tunisia. At it’s peak, at the end of the 2nd century AD it was home to 40,000 Tunisians and built it’s wealth on the sale of olives and olive oil. It was thanks to their successes with olive growing that they were able to build the spectacular structure that attracts tourists all year round. Thysdrus went into decline in 238AD when the citizens of El Jem objected to high taxes on olive oil sales. The emperor responded by having the city sacked and a couple of centuries later, the invading Arabs burned the olive groves.
The theatre is 149m long by 124m wide and it’s seating tiers rise a dizzying 36m above the ground. The construction is estimated to have begun in the 2nd century under the Emperor Gordien but it was never completed (probably due to a combination political instability and lack of funds). The measurements correspond to the Punic unities rather than Roman which suggests that it was built by the locals. It was also raided by local builders for stone.
The spectacles on show were fairly bloody but rather than gladiatorial contests, the fashion was to watch slaves, Christians, and criminals being executed. It is thought that lions were used as there were what looked like claw marks gouged in what was left of the marble around the arena. Later on it was used as a fortress and a local legend tells that it became the stronghold of El Kahina until. It is said that in the 7th century she led the Berbers against the Arabs.
Until the 17th century it remained more or less whole. From then on its stones were used for building the nearby village of El Djem and transported to the Great Mosque in Kairouan, and at a tense moment during struggles with the Ottomans, the Turks used cannons to flush rebels out of the amphitheatre. The ruins of the amphitheatre were declared a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Drifting sand is preserving the market city of Thysdrus and the refined suburban villas that once surrounded it. The amphitheatre occupies archaeologists’ attention: no digging required. Some floor mosaics have been found and published, but field archaeology has scarcely been attempted. In the world of writing materials, Thysdrus lay in the Empire of Papyrus, which preserves remarkably well if kept as dry as at El Jem.
- AA Explore guide to Tunisia (ISBN 9780749517175)