The town of El Jem located 210KM south of Tunis in Mahdia Governorate, also known as Thysdrus in the Roman times, in Tunisia hosts the famous and one of the largest Amphitheatres in the Roman world and the largest building in Roman Africa.
The town was founded by the Romans in 46 BC on the site of an original Punic settlement. The area was famed for the quantity and quality of its olives, which quickly led to its prosperity. The prosperity led to a program of public and private building works the amphitheater being one of them.
It was the third amphitheatre built in the town by the Romans with two earlier ones built some distance away. It was constructed in the late 2nd or early years of the 3rd Century AD as a show of power and prosperity of the town and could have been the last amphitheatre built in the Empire.
The amphitheatre was built in red limestone and it was the third biggest amphitheater in the Roman Empire after the Colosseum in Rome and that at Capua and would have seated 30,000 spectators.
The structure measure 149 meters long, 124 meters wide and 36 meters high, and has three stories. The outside circumference is around 427m which is 100m shorter than the Colosseum. The stories consist of a series of arches formed from composite engaged columns which was a Roman development combining elements of Corinthian and Ionic columns. An internal stairway leads to a covered walkway that runs around each level allowing access to the seating.
The amphitheatre has a basement area under the arena which was discovered in 1904 by archaeologists. The basement is intact and gives an indication of how the arena would have functioned. It is sixty-five meters long which is divided into two vaulted galleries containing cells and rooms for housing the wild beasts and gladiators who took part in the games.
The arena floor still has the openings that allowed wild animals to be raised and lowered from these cells via a lift system. A removable strip also ran down the center of the arena which acted as the roof of the basement cells. It was raised when the arena was not in use to air the confined areas.
The Romans had developed a system of moving large and heavy stones about by carving triangular slots into the stones into which clamps would fit allowing the stones to be lifted. The clamps were then attached to a crane, a triangular wooden frame with a rope or chain hanging from its central point.
The amphitheatre was complete until it was robbed of its stones to help construct the modern village of El Djem in the 17th century. Its decline was then aggravated by the cannon fire in 1695 and again in 1850 when troops under the Bey of Tunis put down rebel forces holding out in the amphitheatre. A British attack did further damage during the Second World War, when the amphitheater served as a refuge for German soldiers. Despite all this, it remains a relatively complete structure. Three stories, complete with stairs and galleries, survive on one side.
Today, the amphitheatre is a host for concerts, with Tunisia’s Symphonic Music Festival taking place there in 2012. It is an ideal setting for the performance of classical music.
The amphitheater is protected as a UNESCO Heritage site and is one of Tunisia’s most visited attractions.
UNESCO, World Heritage List: El Jem. Accessed Apr 26, 2013
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