El Jem, the Roman jewel in Tunisia

 Now an UNESCO World Heratige Site at El Jem

Tunisia 13/ Feb/1979 to 20/ Feb/1979

17 February 1979

The Roman amphitheatre towers over the city as you approach on the main road from Tunis.

 We arrived just before lunch and spent a while looking around the ruins and the adjacent town.

 

To see a Map of the North Africa element of our Encounter Overland Expedition, and for metadata and statistics about the trip go to  Trip data - El Jem

UNESCO World Heratige Site since 1979

 The impressive ruins of the largest colosseum in North Africa, a huge amphitheatre which could hold up to 35,000 spectators, are found in the small village of El Jem. This 3rd-century monument illustrates the grandeur and extent of Imperial Rome.

It was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979, the same time as the Grand Canyon National Park in USA and the Site of Carthage, also in Tunisia. That is seven months after our visit. Not that we had anything to do with it becoming listed, nor were we the first visitors, that adventure comes later in the trip.

WORLD HERITAGE COMMITTEE,
Third session, Cairo and Luxor, 22-26 October 1979, REPORT OF THE RAPPORTEUR ON THE THIRD SESSION OF THE WORLD HERITAGE COMMITTEE

Prickly approach to Amphitheatre of El Jem 500k

 Our Visit

The main approach road from the North is single track with the dirt edges providing the extra width for avoiding collisions and the occasional overtaking. People walk there as well, just to add to the challenge. The planting along the edge is not the typical headgerow, more of a prickly experiance if you fall off the road. Apparently, in Tunisia cacti are intentionally planted in long rows to form hedges around crops. Anyone able to recognise the type of cacti? A new game, name that Cactus.

The huge amphitheatre totally dominates the centre of the city but not the lives of the inhabitants. There is little evidence of it being a tourist trap. Small shops and cafes of everyday life surround the magnificent structure. A school is nearby.

Some of the expedition team can be seen sitting on the wall in the photo of the outside of the amphitheatre, some apparently talking to the locals. Either they managed to find a common language or it was one of those difficult, but inspiring conversations based on expression and hand movements. We were there before the site was added to the World Heritage List and therefore before the restoration and external hard landscaping. It was also before the visitor centre and queuing. I don't ever remember paying anything to get inside. Very different from the images you can find on the internet or road trip videos on YouTube.

 

 Outside Amphitheatre of El Jem 500k

 

 Note the extent of the blatant commercialism. Soft drinks, not cold, a few bottles stood in water in a brave attempt, and oranges. No pestering, just waiting to see if somebody would buy something. How genuinely refreshing is that. 

 

Commercial Outside Amphitheatre of El Jem 500k

 

 It was winter when we visited and altough we found the weather quite warm, especally in the middle of the day, but to the locals it is still time to wrap up warmly.

 Local Outside Amphitheatre of El Jem 1M

 Even the locals hang around, just sitting on the wall chatting and smoking. A natural meeting place. Not just for the occasional tourist in a big orange truck.

 

More locals Outside Amphitheatre of El Jem 500k

 

Into the inside of the amphitheatre. From what I can remember the level we walked on was the basement, perhaps where the slaves or competitors would walk.The original floor would have been above our heads. The tiered seating can be seen on the left.

Inside Amphitheatre of El Jem 500k

 

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