El Jem Amphitheatre - History and Facts | History Hit

El Jem Amphitheatre

Mahdia, Mahdia, Tunisia

El Jem Amphitheatre is a magnificent UNESCO listed third century site in Tunisia.

Peta Stamper

14 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About El Jem Amphitheatre

El Jem Amphitheatre (El Djem), also known as Thysdrus Amphitheatre after the original Roman settlement in this location, stands in the midst of a quiet town in Tunisia. This incredibly large and well-preserved Roman amphitheatre is El Jem’s star attraction and draws visitors from around the world.

Despite the ravages of time, El Jem remains one of the most evocative Ancient Roman structures in the world and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. You might also recognise this ancient treasure from Monty Python’s film, ‘Life of Brian’.

El Jem Amphitheatre history

Constructed by the Emperor Gordian between 230 and 238 AD, El Jem Amphitheatre was built for spectator events such as gladiatorial games. The amphitheatre was vast and able to accommodate up to 35,000 spectators (potentially up to 60,000), measuring 162 metres long and 118 metres wide, making El Jem the largest theatre of its kind in North Africa.

Having managed to survive the destruction of the city carried out in 238 AD, in the Middle Ages the amphitheatre served as a fortress, sheltering the locals during attacks from the Arabs in 647. The damage which one can see at the El Jem Amphitheatre can be attributed to its time as a citadel in the 17th century.

In 1695, the Muradid leader in Tunis, Mohamed Bey El Mouradi, opened one of the walls to prevent his brother’s followers resisting him as they gathered in the amphitheatre. It was around this period that El Jem was hit by cannon fire and later also quarried for its treasures and masonry.

El Jem Amphitheatre today

Today, you approach El Jem amphitheatre by descending steps that mimic the stadium’s seats. Inside, explore every nook of the ancient stadium, from the underground passages that held animals ready for games to the arena that would have seen gladiators waiting to fight them. You can also join a guided tour for a fuller explanation of the theatre’s history. Otherwise, wander the site at your own pace before stopping at the small shop for a memento.

From the outside, the El Jem Amphitheatre bears a striking resemblance to its older and larger – although not significantly larger – counterpart in Rome, the Colosseum. With its abundant original characteristics such as its tiered seats, arches and elliptical stone walls, which are intact up to 35 metres in places, many argue that the El Jem Amphitheatre is actually in better condition that the Colosseum.

Getting to El Jem Amphitheatre

El Jem Amphitheatre is only a 5 minute walk from the train station, where you can get trains 120S-450K, 120S-488F or 120S-553H. Alternately, you could drive from Tunis in just over 2 hours along the A1, and there is nearby parking available.

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