"The smell of the crowd..........." El Jem by leics

El Jem Travel Guide: 108 reviews and 406 photos

Don't be irritated by the crowds as you approach El Jem's amphitheatre...don't be irritated by the numerous hawkers and souvenir stalls....

.....it would have been exactly the same in ancient Roman times. The streets around the amphitheatre would have been lined with tat-sellers, hawkers, tarts, beggars.......plus ca change!

So consider it all part of the experience, a way of imagining yourself 2000 years ago, on your way (with thousands of others) to watch exciting gladiatorial skirmishes (you'd want to place a bet or two on your favourites).... to enjoy the spectacles... to see blood spilt (be it animal or human)......to sit, sweating, under the linen shades which were rolled out to provide some cover from the heat of the sun.......to eye up the beautiful ladies in the crowd........ to meet your mates........ maybe to do a bit of business and networking......to nibble on snacks (they were sold inside, just as they are sold inside stadiums now), perhaps drink some wine.......to roar and cheer and scream for your favourite gladiators (many were great favourites with well-off ladies, rather like today's pop stars).......

Yes, El Jem is a major tourist attraction, with coach parties galore (visit early or late to avoid them). Yes, it will probably be full of visitors when you go......but it would have been full of people in its past too, up to 43000 at a time (which makes it the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman world).

Why was it built there? Well, El Jem may not look much nowadays but in Roman times it was a larger, much more prosperous place with many sumptuous villas owned by businessmen who had grown rich on the olive oil trade. For the Sahel was a rich place in Roman times, its soil and climate being perfect for olive trees and there being a massive trade across the vast Empire in the fruits and the oil they produced.

Roman El Jem was called Thysdrus, and started to really grow during the second century AD. Hence the villas........but the citizens revolted against Rome, and in 230AD proclaimed one of their own as Emperor: Gordian. It was during his reign that the amphitheatre was built, although it was never properly finished.

What you see today has been damaged by various wars and tribulations over the millennia, but even so it shows the might of ancient Roman society............so far from the Empire's epicentre, yet something so huge was considered a feasible proposition.

You can stand in the arena and look up at the tiered seating (much less now than there once was, of course). The most expensive seats, for the richest patrons, had marble backs....you can still see them in the best viewing positions. But I found that less atmospheric: too many people, too many groups, too many modern bits and pieces (El Jem is still used for concerts etc).

So take some time to walk around the exterior instead. You probably won't see anyone else, although you might see a few chickens (they were camera-shy, sadly). Look at the superb construction, see how the arches and buttresses work....see how the building is designed to allow the safe inward and outward flow of so many thousands of people.

You might spot the 'dump' where sundry bits of Roman column and carved stone lie; what you see now is quite plain, but once this was a richly-decorated building.

And, if you want, explore the underground world of the amphitheatre too. For this was a highly-orgaised exhibition space......a theatre in all but name. The crowd needed to be pleased, and that mean thought and effort had to go into creating the spectacle they wanted.

Wild animals were caged up below, and hoisted into the arena in cages, which could be opened from a safe distance. But there are no lions or tigers in Tunisia, so it is said a tunnel led from El Jem down to the coast at Sousse (a long, long way away)....imported animals were driven up that tunnel, starving, and then set free inside the arena. Sounds very unlikely to me: a tunnel that long simply would not be feasible. But there's no doubt that all these animals were brought here somehow, probably forming part of camel caravans ('Gladiator' may well have been historically accurate in that respect).

So: explore the underground, walk the exterior, perhaps climb the tiered seating for the views (I didn't...too hot, not enough time). Allow yourself to be transported back in time a little. It may have involved more blood and gore than we find acceptable now, but there is not so much difference between than ancient Roman spectacles and modern bullfighting, or football........human beings seem to relish the sight of 'fights', whatever form they take.

I didn't have chance to explore more of El Jem, but I know its Archaeological Museum is full of interesting artefacts and wonderful local mosaics. Behind it, a local Roman villa, the Maison d'Africa, has been moved and rebuilt from its original site in the centre of the modern town..it has some stuning mosaics too.

And across the road from the museum lies a much smaller amphitheatre, El Jem's first......

An organised tour will give you a taste. If you can get there yourself, you'll have much more time to explore what's on offer. Next time, I'll try to get there by myself.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Hugely evocative....
  • Cons:Other visitors
  • In a nutshell:Cast your mind back to ancient times
  • Last visit to El Jem: Jul 2010
  • Intro Updated Feb 26, 2011
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Reviews (3)

Comments (3)

  • hunterV's Profile Photo
    Oct 18, 2010 at 7:03 AM

    Thanks for your story and advice...

  • roamer61's Profile Photo
    Aug 10, 2010 at 6:04 AM

    Excellent commentary. Nice pictures as well.

  • hawkhead's Profile Photo
    Aug 8, 2010 at 7:55 AM

    Glad you got to El Djem - next time you HAVE to go to the Arch.Museum - it's cool and with wonderful mosaics. Also, the town itself is interesting in a local sort of way i.e. not a tourist in sight and lots of fascinating aspects of life to be glimpsed.


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