The amphitheater in the small Tunisian town of El Jem is the third largest amphitheater of the Roman Empire. To this day, its entire architecture is exceptionally well preserved.
The amphitheater at El Jem (El Djem) in central Tunisia is the third largest Roman amphitheater in the world and the largest Roman monument in Africa. With a massive capacity of 35,000 seats, it is beaten only by the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheater in Capua. Since 1979, the El Jem Amphitheater has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course, it is also on our list of the top 10 sights of Tunisia.
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PICTURES: Amphitheater in El Jem
History of the amphitheater of El Jem
The city of El Jem was built on the ruins of the ancient city of Thysdrus. At that time, the Roman general and ruler Julius Caesar settled his veterans in Thysdrus in the year 45 BC. The economic boom of Thysdrus was accompanied by the production of olive oil under Emperor Hadrian. At that time, Thysdrus was the second most important city in Roman North Africa, behind Carthage.
The amphitheater of today's El Jem was built in 238 under Proconsul Gordianus I. However, it was not financed and built by the Romans, but by the inhabitants of El Jem, as the two previous amphitheaters with only 2,000 and 8,000 seats were too small for them. By the way, the ruins of the other amphitheaters are still visible.
Due to fierce political disputes that led to the suicide of the proconsul, the imposing amphitheater was probably never completed. On the contrary, when the wealthy inhabitants of El Jem barricaded themselves in their amphitheater from the Roman tax collectors, the Romans tore down an entire wall, which can still be clearly seen today (some sources claim that this did not happen until the 17th century, when rebels entrenched themselves in the amphitheater).
Thus, the underground lion pits and prison cells were also uncovered. It is disputed whether the amphitheater of El Jem was ever used for the usual purposes such as public executions, gladiator fights and other circus games.
After its destruction by the Romans, the amphitheater was used in the following centuries as a quarry for other buildings in the vicinity, including the famous Great Mosque in Kairouan. For the Berbers, it served as a last stronghold against the invading Arabs. Nevertheless, the amphitheater is still amazingly well preserved today and is one of our top 10 sights of Tunisia.
What is the best way to get to El Jem?
The small town of El Jem is located very close to the connecting road between Sousse and Sfax and is well signposted. El Jem can also be reached by means of an idyllic train journey from Tunis, passing through desert and endless olive groves. Arrival by cab is also possible, but the most expensive; in any case, the price should be negotiated before starting the trip.
Tip: The ideal time of day to visit the amphitheater is at sunrise or sunset. At this time of day, the most spectacular photos are also possible. Even if the amphitheater of El Jem is closed at the edge of the day - outdoor photos can be taken at any time.
Visit to the amphitheater of El Jem
The magnificent building is 36m high, about 150m long and 120m wide and attracts visitors from all over the world to sleepy El Jem. In the late 1970s, the amphitheater was generously renovated and now appears almost more impressive than the Roman Colosseum.
This may well be due to the fact that the mighty walls are not enclosed by a large city, but are already visible from afar rising into the sky. For after the destruction by the Romans, El Jem is today no more than a village.
The galleries where the spectators' stands were once lined up, the lions' pits and the prisoners' cells, as well as the shafts through which equipment, animals and people emerged from the depths of the amphitheater are still clearly visible today and - unlike the Colosseum in Rome - can be visited without paying an additional entrance fee. Even the original decoration of the walls of the amphitheater is still visible.
Museum and festivals in the amphitheater of El Jem
The ticket to the amphitheater also entitles you to visit the associated museum, which exhibits artifacts found near the theater. It also holds ornate mosaics and a replica of an entire typical Roman villa.
Small snack bars provide for the physical well-being, whereby the "hotel" near the parking lot is certainly the most favorable.
The amphitheater of El Jem, like any other Roman amphitheater, is known for its exceptional acoustics. This is still displayed today in the course of concerts with music stars from all over the world and an annual jazz festival.
The amphitheater of El Jem in the film world: Some scenes of the Monty Python film "The Life of Brian" as well as of the Oscar-winning film "Gladiator" were shot in the amphitheater of El Jem.