Majestic Roman amphitheatre stands out in Tunisia’s El Djem

Friday 22/01/2016
Dancers of the State Opera Ballet of Vienna performing during the El Djem International Festival of Symphonic Music.

El Djem, Tunisia - As visitors approach El Djem, or Thysdrus as it was known in Roman times, the remains of an amphitheatre tower above the village. Columns and arches of stone appear on the hori­zon over the landscape. The rest of the village sits peacefully around the majestic Roman amphithea­tre that once hosted the combat games of gladiators.
El Djem invites visitors to stroll in its most important sites, namely the amphitheatre and the museum of El Djem, both testifying to the richness of the history of the town. Over centuries, El Djem has trans­formed itself from a setting of bat­tles to a venue of concerts and the prestigious International Festival of Symphonic Music. Walls that once echoed the screams of dy­ing men, the roars of wild animals and the cheers and cries of despair of crowds now resonate with the sounds of violins, pianos and the applause of the audience.
About 210km south of Tunis, El Djem is the home to the largest building in Roman Africa. The am­phitheatre represented a symbol of the power and prosperity of the Roman Empire. In 1979, the am­phitheatre was placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
“The amphitheatre is one of the oldest and biggest ruins in North Africa. In Egypt we have the pharaonic pyramids but the big­gest and most impressive one of all amphitheatres in North African re­gion is that of El Djem. It is also one of the largest amphitheatres of the Roman empire after that of Rome,” said Nejib Ben Lazreg, a Tunisian archaeologist.
The Amphitheatre of El Djem is a monument built entirely of stone blocks without foundations. It is believed to be modelled after the coliseum in Rome with much of its original structure preserved.
The El Djem amphitheatre is dis­tinguished from the other Roman amphitheatres in that it was con­structed in stone block; other am­phitheatres were built using bricks or pieces of stones. Another char­acteristic feature is that it was able to host more than 30,000 specta­tors.
“The El Djem amphitheatre was built around the middle of the third century. It was believed to be constructed as a gift from the emperor to the town people,” Ben Lazreg said.
Over the centuries, the am­phitheatre was subject to many changes and played a role in sev­eral battles. During the Islamic conquest of North Africa, Berber queen Kahina took refuge in the amphitheatre using it as a fortress. In 1695, villagers revolted against ruler Bey Mohammed II and also found a temporary home in the amphitheatre.
“We know that up till the sixth century, the amphitheatre kept its stairs intact according to the writ­ings of Arab historian al-Bakri, who described the stairs in their original structure. It wasn’t until the year 1695 that the western wall was destroyed,” Ben Lazreg said.
“The amphitheatre had a history of being used as a fortress. In the 19th century, revolutionary Ali Ben Ghedhahem took refuge in the am­phitheatre; Berber queen Kahina also used it for the same purpose….
“Romans knew that they needed to keep people distracted to keep them away from politics. They in­vested money and effort to pay for these shows where amphitheatres were used for combat shows. The shows were held every couple of days as was the custom of follow­ing the capital. The shows would last a day under the patronage of a local governor or magistrate,” Ben Lazreg added.
“In the morning, they started with fights between savage ani­mals, then they would showcase the prey of huntsmen. During the midday break, they exposed the outlaws to wild animals that were starving. As for the afternoon, it consisted of battles between the gladiators. If a gladiator survived five to six shows, he could obtain his freedom.”
Built on the site of a Roman villa, the museum imitates the layout of the villa with a central courtyard leading to rooms displaying sculp­tures and mosaics.
It features mosaic pavements that are considered to be among the finest of Roman ruins. The House of Africa is considered an aristocratic dwelling built around 170AD and only discovered in the 1990s. The dwelling contains a se­ries of mosaics, one of which is be­lieved to be the only known repre­sentation of its kind of the African continent.
The town of El Djem offers visi­tors a thrilling journey through the history of its a rich narrative of the iconic monument. The El Djem In­ternational Festival of Symphonic Music, featuring renowned orches­tras, adds to the lure by offering a memorable night of music in the cradle of a rich history.