In the 2nd century El Djem or El Jem was the prosperous Roman city of Thysdrus, an important center of olive oil production for export and junction of lucrative trade routes. By the 3rd century it was considered the second city of Roman North Africa after Carthage.
Today, El Djem is most famous for its large Roman amphitheater, the third largest after the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheater in Capua. It’s capable of seating 35,000 spectators, and seeing its nearly 500 foot length rise 115 feet above the surrounding landscape is breathtaking.
El Djem from the air (Photo: Vanderbilt University)
Historians tell us that it remained mostly whole until the 17th century at which time stones were removed to help build the Great Mosque at Kairouan and even some local buildings in the village nearby.
In 1695 a large section of wall was lost then the Ottomans fired a cannon to uncover hiding dissidents, and nearly 300 years later in 1979 the ruins were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2000 parts of it were featured in the Ridley Scott film, Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe.
Entrance to the Amphitheater at El Djem View 1 (Photo: Tagami)
Amphitheater at El Djem where cannon fire destroyed one side. View 2 (Photo: Tagami)
Modest market stalls line the ring road surrounding this monument which stands as a memory to the glory that was Rome. Here are a few photo vignettes which capture everyday life in what today is a somewhat remote outpost from Tunis — three hours away by train, or from Sfax, which is one hour away.
Souvenir coins in El Djem (Photo: Tagami)
El Djem resident shopping. (Photo: Tagami)
Painted Doors in El Djem (Photo: Tagami)
Invitation to refreshment at local cafe. (Photo: Tagami)
Somebody's dinner waits for ride home. (Photo: Tagami)
The best time for photographers to visit is sunrise or sunset, however our mid-afternoon stop was a very special walk into North Africa’s Roman past. The sky was clear, the weather mild, and we had the monument virtually to ourselves. It is possible to climb to the top of the amphitheater’s upper seating levels and view the surrounding town or imagine events far below, as the tiers sweep downward to the marble-lined arena at your feet. If you’d like, you can also explore the underground passages that held gladiators, animals and unfortunate victims to Roman games.
Tagami at El Djem (Photo: Steve Newton)
Stories of my travels in Tunisia are coming to a close. I’ll share one more story about the Souks of the Tunis Medina, and then it’s off to Barcelona and the Chianti Rufina countryside outside of Florence.
I hope you’re enjoying these vignettes, as I’m having a great time sharing my travels with you. Your subscriptions are appreciated, and your comments and encouragement very motivating.
Until next post…happy trails!