El Djem, Tunisia

Map of Roman cities

Most people, me included, don’t seem to understand the extent of Phoenician, Greek, and Roman influence along the North African coast, but especially Tunisia. A Euro-centric bias makes us forget that the Mediterranean basin, symbolically “center of the Earth”, has a southern area that was, and remains, nearly as important and advanced as its northern counterpart. Were it not for repeated European intrusion into North Africa, it might very well be the equal of its colonizers.

When I show people pictures of the ruins of the former Roman city of Walili (Volubilis) in Morocco, they are amazed. But, Morocco was on the outer limits of the empire. One must remember that the Tunisian peninsula was just 100 kilometers from the southernmost point of the Italian peninsula. (Of course, this proximity is also a modern issue with Italy taking the brunt of Sub-Saharan migrants trying to reach Europe.) The nearness made Tunisia a natural, easy extension of the Roman empire.

Even worse, people generally forget the power and influence of the Punic/Phoenician empire. These North Africans dominated the seas of the Mediterranean before succumbing to the insurmountable power of Rome.

El Djem Amphitheater

Approaching the Colosseum from the city.

A few hours southwest of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, is the small city of El Djem. It’s a simple, unassuming city, not very big and still quite rural. The area is still primarily agricultural. Yet, at the heart of the small city lies an amazing remnant of its Roman past.

Right in the center of town is a massive Roman amphitheater. According to what I’ve read, its size places it just behind the one in Rome itself, making it second in size and seating capacity (~35,000). For such a venue to exist, there must have been a very large, thriving resident Roman population. The mosaics of the Roman villas (see below), show a tremendously wealthy class living apart from Rome itself, like an early version of a bedroom community (commuter town).

Like the other amphitheaters, there was a large underground staging area complete with cages for animals and for slaves. The artistic renderings and descriptions below show what the facility must have looked like and how it functioned. It was fascinating to walk through and imagine a spectacle that may have been before me while I chatted about this year’s crops or the challenges of Roman politics.

Perhaps, the best part for me was a largely absent tourism. The amphitheater is just downtown in a small city, yet, for the most part, it was business as usual. No one tried to sell me anything, no one wanted to take my photo for a price, and there was only one shop that had anything resembling commemorative trinkets. No one even offered to show me around and as a “guide”. Of the less than approximately 100 people who visited while I was there, the majority appeared to me to be Tunisians themselves. Only a few small groups of Westerners and Asians showed up, and thankfully no busloads of camera-toting, wide-eyed masses.

El Djem Museum

Roman statues inside the museum

As if the amazing amphitheater was not enough, there is a museum nearby that has taken pains to pull up all the beautiful mosaics of the numerous Roman villas in town. Many of them were incredibly intricate, especially the likenesses of people. They reminded me of some of the more famous works of pointillist paintings. Many had ornate designs, some depicted various Roman deities or scenes from myths, while others represented typical animals of the realm. To have removed them from their original location and mount them on the walls of the museum must have been painstakingly difficult.

There were also many artifacts, such as kitchenware and weapons, as well as a large collection of beautiful marble statuary. Behind the museum are the intact footings of a Roman neighborhood, including villas, baths, and temples.

Like my experience at the amphitheater, the museum was even more sparsely attended. When I arrived, I was the only one, though by the time I left, there was maybe 10 people milling about. Though I appreciated the low numbers, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the low turnout was due to the ongoing threat of terrorism creeping in from Tunisia’s borderlands. Both Algeria and Libya are struggling to contain their respective extremist cells within their borders. To be between the two must present Tunisia with incredible challenges, especially without much natural boundaries to help.

Still, if one is willing to brave the risks and take a chance, I highly recommend a visit. Though there were some smaller hotels, there was only one with an online presence, so I was not sure what I was getting into. Anticipate, perhaps, staying in one of the coastal resorts or in Tunis itself, and making a day trip out of it.

Also published on Medium.

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