My dear travellers and lovers of unusual trips, welcome to the new series of travelogues on the Mr.M blog. The month of July will be dedicated to an unusual country on the African continent – Tunisia, a country known for its olives. At the very beginning of this series of travelogues, I would like to thank the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Tunisia – Discover Tunisia for the kind invitation and hospitality. With their help, the travelogues and fashion stories that you will have the opportunity to read this July were created and I sincerely hope that you will enjoy them.
The Republic of Tunisia is the northernmost country in Africa. It is part of the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordering Algeria to the west and southwest, Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. It houses the archaeological sites of Carthage dating back to the 9th century BC, as well as the Great Mosque of Kairouan.
Tunisia is known for its ancient architecture, markets and blue shores, it covers approximately 164,000 km2 and has a population of around 12 million. It contains the eastern end of the Atlas Mountains and the northern part of the Sahara Desert, and much of the remaining territory of Tunisia is arable land. With almost 1,300 km of coastline, it includes the African junction of the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean basin. Tunisia is home to the northernmost point of Africa – Cape Angel, and its capital and largest city is Tunis, located on its northeastern coast, after which the country gets its name.
The first blog post in the series of travelogues about Tunisia will be dedicated to El Jem, the city that is home to the largest amphitheater in Africa. El Jem is a city in Mahdia province in Tunisia. According to the last census, this city has about 22,000 inhabitants. The Roman city of Thysdrus was built, like almost all Roman settlements in old Tunisia, on former Punic settlements. In a less arid climate than today, Thysdrus thrived as an important center of olive oil production and export. It was the seat of a Christian diocese, which is included in the list of titular sees of the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the 3rd century, when the amphitheater was built, Thisdrus rivaled Hadrumetum (present-day Sousse) as the second city of Roman North Africa after Carthage.
However, after a failed rebellion that began there in 238 and Gordianus’ suicide in his villa near Carthage, Roman troops loyal to Emperor Maximinus Thrax sacked the city. The city is shown on Peutinger’s map from the 4th century.
The Amphitheater of El Jem is an oval amphitheater in the present-day city of El Jem in Tunisia, formerly Thysdrus in the Roman province of Africa. It has been on the UNESCO list since 1979 as a world heritage site. The amphitheater was built around 238 AD in Thysdrus, located in the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis. It is one of the best preserved Roman stone ruins in the world, and is unique in Africa. Like other amphitheatres in the Roman Empire, it was built for spectator events and is one of the largest amphitheatres in the world. The estimated capacity is 35,000 spectators, and the dimensions of the major and minor axes are 148 meters and 122 meters. The amphitheater is built of stone blocks, is located on level ground and is extremely well preserved.
El Jam amphitheater is the third amphitheater built on the same site. It is believed to have been built by the local proconsul Gordian, who became emperor as Gordian II. In the Middle Ages, it served as a fortress, and the population sought shelter here during the attacks of the Vandals in 430 and the Arabs in 647. Later, in 1695 during the Tunisian revolutions, Mohammed Bey El Mouradi made an opening in one of the walls. to stop the resistance of the followers of his brother Ali Bey al-Muradi who gathered inside the amphitheater. It is believed that the amphitheater was used as a saltpeter factory in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Around 1850, Ahmad I ibn Mustafa widened the breach in the wall to approximately 30 meters. In the second half of the 19th century, the building was used for shops, apartments and grain storage.
The amphitheater probably hosted gladiator fights as well as chariot races and other circus games, but above all wild animal exhibitions and reenactments of particularly popular wild animal hunts. This “Great Amphitheater”, the most famous Roman monument in Tunisia, is the best preserved amphitheater in North Africa. According to official data, the amphitheater hosts around 530,000 visitors every year.
The theater building is the third amphitheater built in the city of Thysdrus, a city enriched by olive growing and trade, it is also the most complete and best preserved. The city is the only one with such a large number of remains of this type, which allows experts to understand their evolution. The second amphitheater, whose presence was already foreseen by Charles Tissot, was discovered in the 1960s, while the first one was discovered thanks to the excavations carried out by Hedi Slim in 1973.
The first amphitheater building with a capacity of 6,000 spectators was described as rudimentary, embryonic or “very old”. Jean-Claude Golvin believes that it dates from the 1st century AD. The place chosen for its construction, where they were buried in pre-Roman times, is the only natural relief in the area suitable for construction. The building is actually carved into a tufa hill without masonry and irregularly shaped.
The stands, limited in number, were carved into the rock and a cavea was excavated there. The arena measured 49 by 40 meters while the bleachers, which seemed to erode rather quickly, were repaired with mud bricks. The presence of the building seems to be linked to the establishment in the city of an Italian theater-loving community, perhaps of Campanian or Etruscan origin, these two regions being the cradle of the amphitheater games. The second building, spread out with a solid construction, was built on the same hill as the previous one at the end of the 1st century AD or the 3rd century, but more elliptical in shape due to the embankment placed on the arena and the tribune of the previous building. The embankment of the arena, 2.50 meters high, made it possible to obtain the correct shape.
Linen Shirt: Loro Piana
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The grandstands are placed in brick compartments, of different sizes and separated by spaces, for a total capacity of 7,000 spectators. There appear to have been 24 sections of which 16 remain in various states of preservation. The arena had dimensions of 60 by 40 meters, and the total size was 92 meters by 72 meters. Golwin evokes both the lodge and the chapel located on the western axis. Aesthetics are absent in the construction, but the technical improvements are significant, making it more functional. At the time of the Severian dynasty, at the beginning of the 3rd century, the city was in strong development, thanks to the flourishing trade in olive oil and wheat, favored by the situation at the crossroads of trade routes.
As the second amphitheater became insufficient, it was replaced by the present building, even more advanced, built on level ground, a method also used in Carthage, Nimes or Rome. Its construction would be connected with the manifestation of the urban elite’s evergetism. For Hedi Slim, his price contradicts several epigraphic traces of local euergetism, especially regarding the organization of the games. The later side of the build led to the correction of problems encountered during previous builds, for greater functionality, and these innovations also accounted for the longevity factor.
Although the city is gradually replacing Suphetul as the economic capital of the region and the trade routes are gradually moving away from it, Tisdrus continues to play a military role due to the transformation of the building into a fortress. Archaeological excavations date the abandonment of the amphitheater to the second half of the 5th century, giving an approximate duration of activity of two centuries. Already in the Byzantine era, the amphitheater became a fortress and refuge, this was witnessed in 647 after the Byzantine defeat of Sbeitla against the Arab armies. The transformation was carried out by blocking the arcade on the ground floor and equipping other installations, including a tower that was found during recent excavations.
The monument is sometimes called “Xar de la Cahenna”, named after a Berber princess from the 7th century. century that gathered the tribes to prevent the advance of the Muslim conqueror. Defeated and persecuted, she took refuge in the amphitheater with her supporters and resisted there for almost four years. According to legend, she was betrayed by her young lover, who stabbed her before sending her embalmed head to the leader of the Arab army. The building is mentioned by Al-Bakri in the 11th century and At-Tiyani, both of whom suggest that it offered effective protection, which is difficult to reconcile with the state of the ruins. The disappearance of the tribune and elements of the upper floor would therefore be later and progressive.
Despite the partial destruction due to the use of its stones to build the city of El Djem, the third amphitheater is still remarkably well preserved and is believed to have remained intact until the 17th century. Victor Guerin specifies in his report that around 1695, according to Arab tradition, the outer facade, which had remained almost intact until then, began to collapse. The Bailician power would on this date put down a rebellion of tax origin and make breakthroughs with cannon strikes to prevent the site from serving as a refuge for the local population. The place was nevertheless used for this purpose in the mid-19th century during the last rebellion. After further degradation, the population is largely pulled out of the ruins.
The site has been visited since the 17th century and especially in the 19th century, and then this movement intensified with the establishment of the protection of the remains. Restorations were carried out in the first half of the 20th century, on part of the destroyed facade, as well as the clearing of the arena and underground spaces. Tourism increased in the 20th century, reaching around 530,000 annual visitors in 2008, making it the second most visited place in Tunisia.
In 1979, the site was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The uneven state of preservation of building materials, as well as falling stones and even vaults, made necessary a campaign of consolidation and restoration financed by the Tunisian government and a private foundation. Consolidation made it possible to avoid new rockfalls and to remove irreparably damaged parts. The restoration, using material taken from the excavated ruins, aimed to, in addition to preserving the monument, open it to visitors in the most educational way possible. One of the means for this increased accessibility was the restoration of vaults and stairs.
The restoration of the stands intended for 500 spectators also allows to “contribute to the cultural revitalization of the building”. The work on the reconstruction of the pillars also helped to reconstruct the elliptical shape of the structure. The campaign also made it possible to complete the knowledge of the monument, especially the rainwater recovery system and the foundations. Many fragments of the grandstand in the arena have also been unearthed. Due to the differences in level between the modern city and the building, its immediate surroundings have been developed with both plant and mineral resources.
Due to good acoustics and restorations, the amphitheater has hosted the International Festival of Symphonic Music El Jam every summer since 1985. In November 2019, restoration work began, a project that was realized thanks to funding of half a million dollars from the Ambassador Fund for the Preservation of Culture, which was initiated by the Embassy of the United States of America, to which the Ministry of Culture of Tunisia also contributed aid in the amount of one million Tunisian dinars.
Due to its position in the middle of more or less bare steppe expanses, the amphitheater impresses not only with its massive appearance but also with the beauty of the patina of its walls. It was built on flat land north of the site of the ancient city. In the absence of limestone in this region of Tunisia, the walls and supports of the great amphitheater were built from dune sandstone, a material easily cut from the coastal quarries of Rejiche-Salakta. The building is the only one in the Roman world that was built in hewn stone and the only building in the city built with this material, a sign of prestige attached to the monument.
The material, white at the time of extraction, has become ocher over time. However, the stone used, which is not very resistant, is sensitive to erosion and wear. According to Golvin, this fragility of the stone is the explanation for the thickness of the walls, and therefore for the massive side of the building. Excavations of the foundation revealed that the site was used to carve a large part of its elements, including decorative elements. The precise size of the cutouts of the blocks is responsible for the aesthetic choice, especially for the voussoirs which here have a re-entrant angle, while elsewhere they often have a prominent angle. Despite the unfinished decorative elements, traces of ancient restoration indicate that the monument was used. Vaults were partly built of rubble, while brick was widely used in other buildings of the same type. This way of construction makes it a special building on the African continent.
In addition to the amphitheater, the city had a theater and a circus, which have not been excavated to this day. The monumental fineness of the city allowed the spread of leisure that belonged to the Roman way of life: archaeologists have thus found many representations of amphitheater games in private habitations, especially in mosaics. The three Thisdritan amphitheatres testify to the enduring enthusiasm for the games. Even if the presence of the Italians makes it possible to explain the precocity of placing such a monument in this place, the devotion of the local population was able to express itself especially through tastes for certain types of performances, those that fought against wild animals called venationes and to a lesser extent those that were opposed to gladiators.
Animals are depicted as elements of detail, but sometimes as the main theme: the fights are illustrated by two mosaics discovered in the “House of the Dionysian Procession”, a mosaic of lions devouring a boar and a mosaic of a tiger attacking an onager. Hunting restitutions can also be simple simulations of the capture of wild animals with, in the hands of the supposed hunters, fictitious weapons. The amphitheater could also serve as the place of execution of the delivered beasts, as shown by a mosaic in the El Jem Archaeological Museum.
The large amphitheater was not used for organizing naumahi, due to the difficult water supply of the region and the lack of waterproofing, without which such demonstrations could be dangerous for the building. The amphitheater made it possible for various professional associations called sodalites to develop in the city of Tisdra, which owned animals and made them available to the organizers of the games for a fee. Such competition may have created tensions in the ancient city. The mosaic called the bestiaries feasting in the arena, Bardo National Museum, has been compared to this presence of the sodality: the guests are around the table, in front of them are figures, probably servants, one of which is a sleeping tauri in the foreground lying bulls. These diners have various symbols next to them. The discussion is noisy and results in the awakening of some bulls who all have symbols on their hind legs.
My dear travellers, we have come to the end of this first special travelogue in the series of travelogues about Tunisia where we had the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of this unusual country in the northern part of the African continent. Today’s travelogue would not be possible without the selfless help of the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Tunisia – Discover Tunisia in cooperation with local partners who allowed me to feel the spirit and beauty of Tunisian culture and tradition. Of course, as always, I tried my best to convey to you my impressions of this unusual experience from Tunisia.
A person is rich in soul if he has managed to explore the world and I am glad that I always manage to find partners of my projects who help me to discover new and unusual destinations in a completely different way.
I am honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with companies that are the very top of the tourism industry and I would like to thank the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Tunisia once again for this incredible adventure and for allowing me to experience the beauty of this unusual Tunisian culture in a completely different way.
How did you like my story about Tunisia and the presentation of El Jem, as well as this beautiful amphitheater that adorns the heart of this unusual country on the African continent? Have you had the chance to visit Tunisia so far?
If you have any question, comment, suggestion or message for me you can write me below in the comments. Of course, as always, you can contact me via email or social networks, all addresses can be found on the CONTACT page. See you at the same place in a few days, with some new story!
In the following stories from Tunisia, we will discover some other interesting sights that you should visit if your journey takes you to this far-flung, unusual country!
From Love from El Jem,
This post is sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Tunisia – Discover Tunisia, as well as other local partners. This post is my personal and honest review of the destination experience.