With more than 500,000 tourists per year, the El jem amphitheater is one of the most visited monuments in Tunisia. It is sixty km from Sousse, another tourist town where more than two million people come to spend their holiday each year. Local travel agencies usually organize a half-day trip to El jem with reasonable prices.
|Arena and cavea|
The amphitheater was built at the end of the second century thanks to donations from the wealthy citizens of Thysdrus who wanted to show their loyalty to Roman culture. It is the third biggest Roman amphitheater, after the Colosseum of Rome and the amphitheater of Capua. It remains one of the most well-preserved and complete amphitheaters in the world.
The last to be built in the Roman empire, the El jem amphitheater benefited from the accumulated experience of Roman builders. Although it follows the model of Rome's Colosseum, it is elliptical in shape rather than circular, with 427 m on the outer circumference. It stands on flat ground with the support of a complex arch system that holds its three floors and 36m height. The seats can hold between 27,000 and 30,000 spectators, divided into three compartments and separated by balustrades, arranged according to social class. Notable guests used to sit in a sort of horizontal platform near the arena to be close to the action.
Under the arena is a gallery, the site of the amphitheater's bloody past. It contains more then ten rooms where prisoners and animals were kept. The amphitheater games were a part of the Thysdrus culture and a popular pastime. Venatio, or shows that pitted men against wild beasts, were popular in Thysdrus, as were the executions of criminals and prisoners of war.
Since the start of French occupation in 1881, excavations on the amphitheater have unearthed many mosaics that are now exhibited in a museum, some 600 meters from the amphitheater. These mosaics narrate the popularity of Venatio games that were substitutes for Roman Gladiator shows. The cult of the wine God Bacchus was also a common
event in the arena, and some specialists have said that the amphitheater games were dedicated to this God. The procession that preceded the shows were dedicated to him. The cult was largely among the slaves who used to fight for their freedom under the slogan "Bacchus Liber Pater" (Bacchus Father of the Free).
With the decline of Rome, games were stopped, and the huge amphitheater was then used as a citadel by the Berbers led by their queen "Al-kahina" ("the priestess") in the seventh century, when the Arab troups started to attack the actual Tunisian territory. The Arab historians described it as Lajem, a word derived from the Arab word "ajem" - the citadel - which turned into the current name "El Jem." In 1695, the tribes rose against the political taxation of the Tunis-based ruler Mohamed Bey. The tribes escaped and took refuge in the amphitheater. The solders used cannons and opened breaches. These breaches can also be seen.
Since 1985, the amphitheater has been resurrected thanks to the International Festival of Symphonic Music. Musicians from Tunisia and the rest of the world come and perform from mid-July until mid-August.