Driving northward in the early morning hours, we left historic town of Mahdi, tucked away like a precious jewel between Sousse and Sfax, on our way to visit the Roman amphitheatre at El Jem.
Emperor Gordian began the construction of this massive coliseum during 238 A.D. in the North African Roman city of Thysdrus. In that era, at the apogee of Roman power in Africa, it was one of the richest towns in the Empire with a population of 30,000. The numerous luxurious villas that have been unearthed attest to the wealth of Thysdrus and its affluence produced mostly from the surrounding olive groves that still cuddle the city, now known as El Jem - a sleepy town of some 16,000.
Despite the fact that Gordian only reigned for a few weeks before being deposed by the Emperor Maximinus, his immense amphitheatre has enshrined his name in history. Gordian's sprawling gigantic stadium, the largest of all Roman monuments in Africa and once the third largest coliseum in the Roman world, is better preserved than its twin in Rome.
In its glory days, this tremendous oval measured 149 m (489 ft) long and 124 m (407 ft) wide. Its three tiers of superimposed arches, topped by a fourth story of windows rose to a height of 36 m (l18 ft), and the arena 65 m (213 ft) by 37 m (121 ft) could hold from 30, 000 to 45,000 spectators who came to watch defenceless gladiators being torn apart by starved animals.
The gladiators fought each other or tried to overcome wild beasts for the amusement of all classes of society. They allayed the boredom of the wealthy and released the frustration of the poor. If not saved by the whim of the governor, the performers met horrible deaths.
Over the centuries, the limestone of the amphitheatre has been baked, by time and the sun, into an attractive brownish colour. Birds nestle in some of the broken capitals and almost all the tiers of the original seats have disappeared. However, one of the tiers and the walls has been partially reconstructed. Yet, from above the view of the coliseum is breathtaking. It seems to have been erected only yesterday. The sheer size of this ochre structure and its aura of grandeur draw the admiration of almost every visitor.
This seemingly ageless Roman colossus, its huge bulk standing out like a small mountain, haughtily dominates the small modern town. Today, a section of the seats inside the coliseum has been reconstructed - enough to hold 4,000 spectators who now listen to the fine music of some of the best orchestras in the world. "How times have changed!" our guide remarked as he talked about the evolving taste of humans.
After exploring its bottom sections, I climbed up to the higher parts of the ruins, in places appearing very unsafe. The view into the arena from the high archways was impressive. I stood for a long time reflecting on when this mighty arena was full of activity. Suddenly, I awoke from my trance, feeling relieved that the circus - the opium of the Roman masses - was only a momentary apparition.
Facts About El Jem and Tunisia:
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
- The simplest way to see the ruins is to join organized tours that leave from all large Tunisian hotels in the Tunisian resorts and coastal cities.
- The currency used in Tunisia is the dinar - one US dollar is worth about 1.31 dinar. Tunisia is one of the few countries in the world where hotels give a better exchange rate than the banks.
- After touring the Amphitheatre, visit the Archaeological Museum, built as a reconstruction of a Roman villa and containing an excellent collection of mosaics.
- There is less crime in Tunisia than in Western Europe or North America, but beware of pick pocketing especially in crowded trains, buses and souks.
- When taking tours, make sure the guide speaks English. If you do not ask, French will be the language spoken.
- Tunisia is the most sophisticated, relaxed and tolerant state in North Africa. Women travellers are very safe when travelling alone.
- With the exception of its capital, Tunis, Tunisia is geared up for tourism. The most up-to-date tourist facilities are found in all its resorts.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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