The night train to El Jem’s magical shows
El Jem, Tunisia - The night train trip to El Jem is no ordinary journey. Musicians play to entertain passengers, who impatiently await arrival to the Roman amphitheatre in El Jem.
Once there, the lights of the Roman amphitheatre shine into the sky, inviting visitors in. Inside the theatre, the opening show of the 31st International El Jem Festival of Symphonic Music, featuring classical artists from around the world, kicked off with a performance of Carmina Burana by the National Radio Company of Ukraine Symphony Orchestra.
The festival, running through August 20th, is an opportunity for fans of symphonic music to discover a variety of performances presented by international orchestras in the majestic El Jem amphitheatre.
The El Jem Amphitheatre, 160km south of Tunis, used to be the site of Roman games and battles. The impressive ruins in the 21st century host classical artists who play music for hundreds of concertgoers in the light of candles that decorate the steps of the venue.
Since its launch in 1986, the festival has aimed to promote cultural tourism. It showcases classical music and attracted a specialised audience. Since 2015, the festival has been organised by the Association of the International Festival of Symphonic Music of El Jem, which is in charge of cultural activities in the town.
“The festival was founded in 1986 by Mohamed Ennaceur, the mayor of El Jem then and the speaker of the Tunisian parliament in the present day,” said Mabrouk Laayouni, president of the Association of the International Festival. “This year, we are celebrating the 31st edition of a festival that has helped promote cultural tourism primarily and continued to do so till today.”
Outside the amphitheatre, hundreds of concertgoers line up in front of the gates. They come from different parts of Tunisia and different countries to enjoy the music and the unique setting of the festival.
Laayouni said: “The festival works along with travel agencies to attract tourists to attend the festival during the months of July and August. One of the objectives of the festival is to promote the town as a destination for cultural tourism in a way that visitors plan their summer according to the programme of the shows.”
Since the festival is hosted in the amphitheatre of El Jem, concertgoers have the opportunity to discover the history and culture of the place as well as international symphonic orchestras. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage, the Amphitheatre of El Jem is a stunning venue where classical musicians entertain festival-goers to the magic of art shows intertwined with the splendour of history.
“The audience should come not only to enjoy the music but also to enjoy the beauty of the place at night with its special lighting,” Laayouni added.
Laayouni said the festival was established as part of a national policy to promote specialised festivals.
“During the ‘80s, the government encouraged the creation of festivals specialised in certain musical genres, which brought about the idea of having a symphonic festival especially since the amphitheatre inspires that kind of music,” he said.
While organisers expressed joy at the success of the opening performance, they highlighted the importance of the role such a festival has in reviving tourism in the interior of Tunisia.
“The festival was opened by an orchestra that has not played in Tunis for a quarter of a century. It was a moment of meeting between Tunisians from different parts of the country and also tourists who have come from different places,” Laayouni said.
“It was an opportunity for tourists to leave their hotels and discover the interior regions through attendance of a concert at the famous amphitheatre of El Jem. Tunisia is finally reviving its prestigious image. The success of the first show paved the way for a successful second show with the Vienna Orchestra. These shows attracted a record attendance.”
To draw visitors from nearby towns and Tunis, organisers provided train trips to help concertgoers get to and from the concert.
“There is a special train that takes visitors from Tunis to El Jem and waits for the audience to take them back to Tunis, making a few stops on the way. The Tunisian railway company collaborated with the festival to ensure the trips,” Laayouni said.
This year’s International El Jem Festival of Symphonic Music includes seven weekly shows by orchestras from Austria, Ukraine, Italy and South Africa as well as Tunisia.