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krisek El Jem - A travel report by Krys
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El Jem,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  Mahdia
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krisek's travel reports

North Africa's gem is a colosseum! El Jem.

  7 votes
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El Jem is an uninspiring, modern Tunisian town in the middle of the Sahel region. Yet, at its heart, world's third largest ancient Roman amphitheatre stands. It dominates everything and is beautifully preserved. A real gem indeed.

El Jem travelogue picture
When I saw the satellite image of El Jem, with the giant amphitheatre in the middle, I thought it must have been wrong. The colosseum looked too big to be true. Or the town surrounding the arena seemed too small. The amphitheatre looked incredible indeed. Avoiding it during any visit to Tunisia would be utterly unreasonable! A major oversight, a mistake!

So, I placed it firmly in my itinerary, and with a determination stuck with the plan. It was relatively easy with a hired vehicle. But, as the colosseum is one of Tunisia's major tourist sights and a very important historic monument, public transport and local tour operators provide many options to get there.

I timed my visit to coincide with the sunset, as the travel literature suggested, promising the best impression of the amphitheatre. It was spectacular indeed.

The structure stood out amongst the modest and very uninspiring architecture of this little town. It was very easy to find it. Nothing else from the ancient Roman times remained, when I visited. It was obvious that the modern town had been built over the ancient city, clearly without realising it. Or, should I say, without much care that there might be something of significance still buried in the sands. As if the quite remarkable colosseum would not give it away. But is there still anything significant still under the surface of the desert? Well, according to certain records, the ancient Thysdrus was not big enough to fill all the colosseum's seats. So, spectators from other, nearby cities must have travelled for the bloody shows there. Well, it must have been worth it. I wonder how much the tickets for the shows cost then. When I visited, the entry to the colosseum was TND8 (£4), plus TND1 for a camera - and there was no show on display; no gladiators, no lions eating the Christians, no charriots chasing criminals...

Favourite spots:
El Jem travelogue picture
My favourite spot in El Jem was most certainly the amphitheatre. Well, there were no other spots to speak of, really.

It took approximately eight years to construct the colosseum. It happened some time between AD 230 and AD 238. The timing suggests that it might have been ordered by the Imperial official called Gordian. The city was rather wealthy at that time, and it has been speculated the city merchants paid for the arena themselves to impress visitors. This might have been the reason why the structure was not richly decorated, as it would have cost much more money. However, certain local scholars claim that fine decorations and sculptures could not have been made as the stone used to built the colosseum was too soft. It has been estimated that the amphitheatre could sit about 45,000. This in the town of Thysdrus with only 30,000 inhabitants. At the size of 65 metres long and 39 metres wide, it was large enough to host more than one show at a time.

What's really great:
El Jem travelogue picture
The truly great characteristic, apart from the size, was the colosseum's state of preservation. However, any inscriptions that once must have decorated the arena, however subtle or unlikely, were gone.

Yet, as I found, the design, the concept and the construction process were even more impressive, considering that the stones were quarried some 30 km away at the place called Salakta. In fact, the building project of the arena was never fully completed, like the one in Rome, as a matter of fact. In AD 238, when the alleged concessionaire of the building, Gordian, killed himself, the construction of the amphitheatre ended. This, of course, did not prevent the object to be fully utilised.

The colosseum would have been in a better shape, had one of its sides not been blown out in 1695 to allow the Ottoman's access to rebels hiding inside. Still, it seemed to me that it was in a better shape than its larger cousin in the empire's capital city.

El Jem travelogue picture
Apart from the Roman colosseum, the sights of El Jem, if there were any, must have been still covered by the desert. And perhaps there are some, for the ancient town was prosperous. They might have had temples, arches, maybe even baths and a theatre. For sure, they must have had grand villas with flamboyant decorations, belonging to the rich merchants. The amphitheatre, as the archaeological find, seats presently in a dent, which might mean that other sights could really be buried.

El Jem, as a town in its own rights, was a very characterless place. The architecture was dull and there seemed to be no action whatsoever. Apart from the 'gem', there was also a museum (entry included in the price of the visit to the amphitheatre). It had a small exposition of mosaics.

Mahdia - Le Phenix Hotel, room 308
Mahdia - Le Phenix Hotel, room 308
El Jem did not offer reasonable places to stay. There was only one hotel in town, called the Julius Hotel. It was near the train station, and was rather basic. Apparently, they have a room or two with a limited view of the colosseum. But I did not check what that meant.

One would be better off by staying at the coast, however. The town was very small, so there would be no need to stay there overnight. I stayed in Mahdia, 42 kilometres east of El Jem. Le Phenix de Mahdia was a relatively well appointed hotel that paid attention to detail with regard to the decor. Rooms were clean, and the double rooms had giant super king size beds. The bathrooms were modern and clean. The toiletries were provided. There were phones, small refrigerators, tv sets, and spacious wardrobes. The beds were comfortable, had two bedside cabinets, and the sheets were crispy clean. Single rooms were TND70 (€35) and the doubles were twice that.

El Jem travelogue picture
Apart from the male-dominated, extremely smokey, very basic and primitively stocked cafes, one should not expect spectacular night life in El Jem. And none of them served alcohol. The only bar in town, which offered beer and wine was the hotel bar at the Julius Hotel. Even if it there was some night time action elsewhere in the town, I would not bet it would have been free from sleaziness and seediness. A couple of cafes in the immediate vicinity of the amphitheatre with open-air seating areas looked promising for mingling, but I was not sure how long into the evening their remained open, as I left El Jem before nightfall.

El Jem travelogue picture
The top of the amphitheatre was one of the best spots to kill time. And look down to the oval arena, imagining what sort of bloody spectacles might have taken place there. Underneath the arena ran two dark passageways. These were the routes through which wild animals, unlucky prisoners and muscled and armed gladiators were led just until the moment when they were brought up into the arena to perform what was, in most cases, the last show of their lives. What a feat of the civilised Rome, breaking skulls and bones, ripping off limbs and flesh - all for the pleasure of the crowds!

Walking the colonnades of the amphitheatre was really impressive, too. But thinking about it, much of the colonnade could not serve as seats, sitting areas or even standing tribunes, but were built so high only to impress visitors.

El Jem travelogue picture
El Jem did not boast sophisticated dining. There were no venues to speak of, apart from the restaurant at the only hotel in town, the Julius Hotel near the train station. A couple of restaurants/cafes sitting right at the front of the colosseum, of them called strangely the Scandinavia Corner, offered basic dishes of kebabs, shawarmas, kefta, chips (fries), salads and grilled fish for about TND8 (€4), which was not cheap compared with other places around the country, but the location could not be beaten, of course. There was also Restaurant du Bonheur near the hotel. It was basic. I did not end up eating there after all, and decided to go all the way to Mahdia for dinner, instead.

Other recommendations:
Mahdia - in the medina
Mahdia - in the medina
Frequent louages (minivans) linked El Jem with the coastal resorts of Mahdia and Monastir, some 40 kilometres east.

Mahdia, whose historical centre occupies a narrow peninsula, had a very atmospheric little medina, having perhaps the cosiest ambiance of all medinas in Tunisia. It might actually be one of Tunisia's friendliest, most welcoming and charming little towns. It was safe and extremely photogenic. The old town had a number of sights, like the giant medina gate, fort, very unusual (no minaret) grand mosque, and ruins of Fatimid port and fortifications. And two extremely attractive squares.

Monastir managed to establish itself as a primary tourist destination on this stretch of the coast. It has a great beach indeed. But its Ribat, right at the seafront, stood out from the crowd of other attractions of Monastir. Its state of preservation was remarkable. On good, sunny weather, the light brown, thick walls stood austere and solid. Almost mesmerising! Highly photogenic.

Published on Tuesday May 18th, 2010

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Mon, Jun 28 2010 - 01:30 PM rating by bootlegga

I've always wanted to visit El Jem after seeing it in the first season of the Amazing Race. Good report.

Thu, May 20 2010 - 08:44 AM rating by eirekay

Amazing structure - I had no idea this existed! What a great find! I especially enjoyed your Other Recommendations since El Jem itself appears to be more of a well worth it side trip.

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