Impressions of El Jem: Amphitheatre of Antiquity, Tunisia

Detail of outer wall: El Jem Amphitheatre Credit: author image

Detail of outer wall: El Jem Amphitheatre Credit: author image

By Douglas Clarkson,

The article outlines the history of the Amphitheater of El Jem in Tunisia together with impressions of its structure. It is a great surprise to drive for some 40 miles from the Tunisian coast through mile after mile of olive groves, then to come upon the town of El Jem and be confronted with a well-preserved Roman amphitheater on a scale of the Coliseum in Rome. This particular structure was constructed on four levels of arena seating. It is estimated that it could hold a capacity crowd of around 30,000 people.

The Entertainments

The building is credited as being built by proconsul Gordian in around 230 AD though there is a local tradition that the project was founded by wealthy families who thrived on the rich trade of the city of Thysdrus which was located at a crossroads of major north south and east west trade routes.

It is believed the Amphitheater especially featured the use of wild animals as part of the ‘entertainments’. This could take the form of exhibitions of the training of wild animals such as lions, leopards, panthers and bears, though probably the crowds would more enthusiastically follow the ‘hunt’ of wild animals within the arena. On a more barbaric note, animals would be set to attack and devour victims within the area. These could be convicted criminals whose demise would act as a visible deterrent to the onlookers, or prisoners of war from foreign conquests. Also early Christians would have met their deaths within the Amphitheater.

Mosaics found within numerous excavated Roman villas in the surrounding Roman town of Thysdrus portray in graphic detail the horror of these inhumanities. Some of these mosaics can be seen within the antiquities museum in the town and are well worth visiting.

The establishment of the ‘entertainments’ gave rise to various guilds which trained both fighters and animals to meet the demands of the onlookers.

An Ongoing Stronghold
Underground tunnel: El Jem Amphitheatre Credit: author image

Underground tunnel: El Jem Amphitheatre Credit: author image

Through history, the Amphitheater would find new roles as a place of military strength amid warring factions, such as during the initial wars of conquest of Islam which swept across North Africa in 647 AD. The Amphitheater to this day retains its association with opposition to foreign invading forces. The structure of the Amphitheater would suffer greatly from conflicts in 1695 and 1850 where cannon fire was used by the Turks to breach the walls of the edifice. With this severe damage to the structure, the Amphitheater was used as stone for the surrounding town of El Jem from 1850 onwards. The Amphitheater was also a place of final refuge and resistance for fighters opposed to French colonial rule as late as 1882.

Impressions

Although the Amphitheater is an impressive architectural feature, elements of its unique character are best experienced at close hand. The underground tunnels which, for example link with chambers where animals, gladiators and victims would be held are worthy of note. Places where doors would have been positioned remain clearly visible. The original wells which served the Amphitheater have also been restored.

Within the seating plan of the Amphitheater, the most prestigious seats were closest to the arena, with the least important of population (women and children) seated furthest away at the highest levels.

Modern Times
Details of the wall structure: El Jem Amphitheatre Credit: author image

Details of the wall structure: El Jem Amphitheatre Credit: author image

An extensive programme of reconstruction within the last 35 years has stabilized the structure. One interpretation of the use of such large stone blocks in the original structure is that large blocks are necessary to compensate for lower load-bearing properties of the stone.

The restoration of the Amphitheater has allowed it to become a place of entertainment, featuring open air classical music concerts during the summer months. In 1979 the El Jem Amphitheater became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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