“ Country: Tunisia / World Region: Africa „
Talk to most people about a Colosseum and one will automatically think of the Colosseum in Rome however ask people about El Jem and most people will never have heard of it let alone imagine there is an almost perfect example on the African continent.
El Jem can be found in Tunisia more towards the Eastern side of Tunisia. Many tourists who visit the coastal resorts can make a day trip to this magnificent site. Built in the second century AD it was built by the Romans and can seat 35,000 people although some say that up to 60,000 could sit and watch chariot racing and wrestling with wild animals such as lions and gladiator fights.
It is situated approximately 30 odd miles from the seaside resort of Sousse so it is an easy day trip from there.
The town of El Jem was known as Thysdrus in Roman times and was an important village manufacturing Olive oil. The Colosseum was built on flat ground as opposed to the side of a hill and is elliptical in shape. The massive structure consists of three tiers of the stone structure although there is some suggestions that it may have in fact been four tiers high in its heyday. When approaching El Jem you cannot fail to notice this monumentally massive structure. Most of it is still in good condition although on one side of the amphitheater part of it is missing following an attack by the Turks in the 17th Century. Also some of the large stones that were used to build the amphitheater were used to build some local houses but essentially most of what we see today is the original building from the 2nd century.
My visit to El Jem.
I was looking forward to visiting El Jem and as the tour coach approached the town I was not disappointed by the looming structure that is situated in the town centre. It is quite an impressive structure and a sight that will stay with me for a long time. We got down from the coach and walked about half a mile to the entrance of the building. We headed straight to the arena and gawped at the sheer size of the building feeling quite miniscule in the centre of the arena. Along the centre of the arena is an underground passage where the animals, gladiators and prisoners were kept until it was time for them to fight. They were lifted up from below on something similar to a dumb waiter where they were brought up to the arena and set free to fight often to the death.
We made our way down the stairs to the dungeon type basement and walked the whole length of the below ground storage area. It was quite long with cut out areas where the animals prisoners and gladiators would be waiting their turn. After walking along the central corridor we came back up the stairs at the other end of the arena. The pit was covered by a metal grill which enabled people to walk all around the arena. In old photos this was open to the air but I guess for safety this allows people to walk all over the arena and for the people walking along the corridor to experience what it must have felt like being below ground and seeing the light above although not quite seeing what awaited them.
Our guide pointed out the seating area where the emperor would have sat and gave the thumbs up or thumbs down indicating whether the person or animal would live or die. We were then left to explore the structure ourselves. We mounted the stairs to the first tier and walked the perimeter of the Colosseum giving us a bird's eye view of the arena and seating areas on the opposite side. It really was quite impressive and fortunately for us not very busy with other tourists due to the fact that we were there quiet early. We mounted the stairways to the second and third tiers and the views were quite impressive looking down on the arena. It must have been quite intimidating for both the animals, gladiators and prisoners with so many people surrounding the arena watching and cheering and encouraging them to fight.
We spent approximately two hours inside the amphitheater and enjoyed our visit very much indeed. I would definitely recommend a visit here if you were ever to visit Tunisia as it is a worthwhile site to visit and looks almost a perfect building.
There were two smaller amphitheaters built around the town one about half a mile away and another larger one built into the side of the hills but this has to be the icing of the cake and well worth a visit.
It was made a world heritage site in 1979 and the Film the gladiator was filmed here.
I understand it is about 10 dinar to enter the Colosseum although entrance fees were included in our tour but we did have to pay 1 dinar to take photos which worked out at about 50P well worth it in my opinion. I must say that we were pestered outside by hawkers trying to sell post cards, hats and other tat however a firm ' La Shukran' (No Thank you in Arabic) would have them scurrying off to pester other people.
As you approach El-Jem one thing dominates the sky line, the Colloseum. The site is amazing and I recommend anybody to go there. El-Jem is in a way very much like the Colloseum in rome, probably because the Romans built it. I believe it is better preserved than the Roman Colluseum even though there has also been some renovations in parts. Also there is the fact of the gap at one side where the Turks attacked it when the Tunisians were using it as a fortress. But this really doesn't spoil it one bit. To enter costs about 2 pounds and if you want to take photo's it's an extra 50p, they give you a voucher but once inside there appeared to be nobody checking if you had one, although I don't recommend not paying it as I saw numerous disputes with locals about paying for other things outside, ie you just took a picture and my camel was in the background so you owe me money and it wouldn't be worth the hassel. On the outside you are free to take as many pictures as you wish. Inside you can visit a number of levels, you can climb numerous stair cases to the side where all the arches are, this is highly recommended for getting some fantastic photo's as there are many peep holes and gaps which can be used to frame some great shots. At the other side you can take some more stairs up the an area of large steps which were used as the seating, again giving you some nice views. Then you can go down some stairs into the basement where the prisoners and wild animals were kept. And finally you can stand right in the middle of the areana and imagine what it must have been like to be thrown in there surrounded by 30,000 people. With all the stairs I recommend an early morning or evening visit as being in land it tends to be a lot more humid here. A hat with a peak at the front is a must have to enable you to really see the views and also as it's easier to take photo's than when wearing sunglasses. Also if you
've been to the colluseum in Rome you'll probably notice it lacks some of the atmosphere. In Rome there are people dressed as Gladiators on the outside who may want money to have your photo taken with them but they don't really hassel you, at El-Jem you'll be spoken to in every language they can think of until they get a response. They'll try to sell you an Ali Baba style head dress, and do watch out if you have children as they don't think anything about starting to fasten one onto a childs head even if the parent hasn't agreed, or even seen. Another trick is to tell females something is free and then go charge their, husband/boyfriend. This sometimes backfires if there is no accompanying male at which point they go back to the female demanding money. Outside you may also take a camel ride, I urge you not to bother, the camels don't look so healthy and have rather a lot of protection around there mouths to stop them biting. Also you'll only get about 2 minutes on the camel. If you really want a camel ride go to Douz, you can get a camel ride into the Sahara at sunset lasting one hour and the camels are much happier. Mine was quite happy to let me pat it's head and was obviously well looked after. Oh and I nearly fogot they also have a music festival inside the Colloseum, I can't remember exactly when but I believe it is in July, I'll see if I can find the exact date and update this.
Traveling to El-Jem by train from Sousse was one of the first terrifying experiences of Tunisian transport. I had been travelling with a group of students and the tickets we had where standard class, so by the time we had got on the train there where no seats left. We had to make do with sitting in the corridor where the doors where, cramped with about 8 or 9 other people. Needless to say it was very uncomfortable and cramped (I'll never complain about British trains again!), but the worst bit was that where the coach connected to the next one all you could see was the metal bit to walk on and a HUGE GAP EVER SIDE! It was not a plesant experience! I soon forgot about the huge gapping hole when we arrived at El-Jem, the Colosseum towered magnificantly above the town. Going into the colosseum, I felt like I was on the set of Gladiator, a slave waiting for my turn. The steps inside streched for miles, climbing up and up until you reached the top, the views where breathtaking, well worth the effort and discomfort of the train journey. One word of warning, I would advise people not to eat outside during Ramadam! It is not worth any of the hassle you get. El-Jem and Tunisia is better for people travelling in mixed groups, Tunisian men paticulary like to hassle women, offering "20, 000 camels" for you, or calling you "big bum" (I'm quite saddened as I got called "small bum"!) I enjoyed my trip to El-Jem and Tunisia, but do not go there unless you take the hassle of every person saying "cheaper than Asda price", and if you can say no and walk away. El-Jem is a beautiful town and well worth the journey, I would recommend it to anyone who whats to see a bit of Tunisian culture.
El Djem (Latin Thysdrus) is a town in Mahdia Governorate, Tunisia, population 18,302 (2004 census). It is home to the most impressive Roman remains in Africa.