Small town of El Jem in Tunisia is home to the one of the most impressive Roman remains in Africa, the Roman amphitheater of ancient Thysdrus – known today as El Jem or El Djem. Visitors can imagine here what it was like to be inside the gladiator arena – a place where lions and people met their fate. Some part of the El Jem amphitheater is crumbled but the essence of it still remains. It is famous for its starring role in the Hollywood epic film ‘Gladiator’.
The impressive ruins of El Jem amphitheater are the largest in North Africa. This huge amphitheatre was capable of holding up to 35,000 spectators. The amphitheatre is one of the most iconic architectural contributions of ancient Rome – a monument that illustrates the grandeur and extent of Imperial Rome. Amphitheatres were built all throughout the Roman Empire, with around 230 still surviving today. The most famous and biggest example being the Colosseum in Rome.
Inside the monument, the wall of the podium, the arena and the underground passages are practically intact.
The El Jem amphitheater was most probably modeled after the Colosseum, since it is also a free-standing monument and built entirely of stone blocks without foundations. Even though the Colosseum is the largest of the Roman amphitheaters, the one in El Jem is not far behind. The axis of the El Jem amphitheater measures at 148 m and 122 m, and the rows of seats rose to a height of 36 m – making it among the largest amphitheatres in the world.
The amphitheater of El Jem was mainly used for gladiator shows and small chariot races during the Roman era.
The amphitheater was built approximately in the year 238 by the Romans under proconsul Gordian, who was acclaimed Emperor at the small but prosperous city of Thysdrus (current El Jem). Thysdrus prospered especially in the 3nd century, when it became an important center of olive oil manufacturing for export. In that time, Thysdrus rivaled Hadrumetum (modern Sousse) as the second city of Roman North Africa, after Carthage that located on the North coast of Tunisia.
The El Jem amphitheater remained more or less whole almost 15 hundred years. During the 17th century some its stones were used for building the nearby village of El Jem and transported to the Great Mosque in Kairouan. In the end of the 18th century, at a tense moment during struggles with the Ottomans, the Turks used cannons to flush rebels out of the amphitheater – revealing its inner structures for the visitors of today.