The amphitheatre of El Jem in Tunisia is the third biggest Roman style amphitheatre ever built, with seating for approximately 35.000 people. How the largest roman style building on the African continent came to be is a remarkable story.
The Romans founded the city of El Jem and built it on and near the ruins of the ancient city of Thysdrus. Under Roman reign the city prospered and got wealthy due to the olive oil production. El Jem’s amphitheatre was built around 300 years after the foundation
of the city, in 238.
Previously the Romans had built two smaller theatres which didn’t satisfy the citizens of El Jem, they wanted a theatre that would fit the towns whole population. As they were wealthy they could afford to finance and build their own amphitheatre, proving how important
and rich the small city was. Their theatre was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome but isn’t a copy of it. Sadly, it was never fully completed due to political tensions.
When Roman tax collectors came to collect, parts of the building were damaged, which is still visible today. In the following centuries some of the stones were used for other buildings. Despite the theft the El Jem amphitheatre is remarkably intact to this day. What is left
of it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
Due to its good preservation and beautiful architecture, it was also used to shoot gladiator scenes in “The Life of Brian” and “Gladiator”. Today the building is managed by the National Heritage Institute, which is responsible for the historic and technical aspects of the building, and the Agency for Preservation of Heritage and Cultural Promotion. The latter is responsible for the commercial usage of the site, meaning that it is still used as intended and concerts as well as small festivals are hosted in the Roman inspired amphitheatre.
In 2009 the site received restoration work to preserve it for many years to come, while keeping its authenticity.
El Jems amphitheatre is among the top tourist attractions in Tunisia and has several advantages compared to the Colosseum in Rome. The entrance fee is much smaller and included in the price are other ancient sites and the Museum of El Jem. Additionally, it is less crowded than the Colosseum and more parts of the building are accessible without paying extra. It is definitely worth a visit while staying in Tunisia.