Right in the middle of a not very pretty little town is this vast
and domineering Roman Colosseum, El Jem, nearly as big as its brother
in Rome but in much better condition.
Built around AD 230, it seated 30,000 spectators - more than the population
of the town - and was originally used for sporting theatre including
gladiator contests against men or animals. The construction is particularly
impressive considering the lack of modern tools and that the huge
stone blocks were mined 30kms away, and the mosaics uncovered here
are some of the finest in Tunisia.
In later years El Jem became a defensive strongpoint against invaders
and suffered its worst damage when Byzantine (Turkish) troops blew
chunks out of it to flush out local tribesmen who were rebelling against
the taxes imposed on them by the Turks.
El Jem is conveniently situated en route from Tunisian beach resorts in the
north east of the country to North Africa's great desert, the Sahara, so an endless stream
of buses flowing down south stop here, disgorging clumps of guided
tourists all day long. If you are an individual traveller try to visit
early or late to get a little solitude in this massive, evocative
Map | Africa