El Djem or El Jem

El Djem


Location: Mahdia Governorate Map

When: October- April


Description of El Djem Archaelogical Site


El Djem or El Jem is an ancient Roman town situated in a Mahdia Governorate in Tunisia. El Djem is famous for well preserved buildings including one of the best preserved amphitheatres in the former Roman Empire. El Djem or Thysdrus as it was known in the Antiquity was probably first settled by the Berber tribes given that the etiology of its original name is Berber in origin. Small village was captured by the Phoenician settlers and incorporated into Punic Empire. El Djem was an important site of olive oil production. Trade with other regions of the Mediterranean greatly enriched the city and its residents. After defeat of the Punic Empire during Punic war and Roman capture of Carthage Thusdrus became part of the Roman Republic.


Large part of the ancient El Djem is still buried under sand and newer structures. We can only guess the exact extent of the Ancient town. Its residents benefited from trade within borders of the greater Roman Empire. Several structures accredit the luxury and wealth of El Djem residents. Current large amphitheater is actually the third such arena in the city. Previous two smaller arenas could seat 5,000- 6,000 residents and 7,000- 8000 visitors respectively. Today both these structures are barely visible above ground and largely lay abandoned.


Large El Djem Amphitheater is the most prominent feature of the ancient Thysdrus. Its construction began in 238 AD on the orders of the governor of Gordian I the Elder. It was one of the largest and better preserved sports arena left since the Roman times. It could seat more than 30,000 spectators. Its circumference measure at 427 meters in length and 148 meters by 122 meters across big axis and smaller axis respectively. The walls of the El Djem arena were covered by mosaics that depict galloping horsemen, hunters and various beasts. Wild animals were dedicated to various gods and their victims were a sort of sacrifice to particular gods. Lions and bulls were dedicated to Saturn (Roman version of Zeus) and Juno (Hera, his wife), panthers were dedicated to Dionysus (god of wine), bear were dedicate to Diana (Artemis, goddess of hunting) and etc.


After Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire (4th century AD), El Djem amphitheater was closed and all blood sports were cancelled permanently. Given that El Djem was the seat of a Christian bishopric it was a logical move. After Emperor Gordian committed suicide in his personal villa near Carthage, Roman troops under command of a new Roman Emperor Maximinus Thrax stormed El Djem. They laid a town of 50,000 residents to waist. Most of residents were killed, fled the area or sold as slaves. The city was abandoned and ancient structures were left untouched for centuries. Only in the 17th century some stones from amphitheater were removed and reused in the construction of the Grand Mosque in nearby town of Kairouan. It was further damaged in the 19th century during civil unrest in Tunisia.


Today El Djem amphitheater is open to the public. In addition to structure above ground, underground structures are also open to tourists. Here you can see well preserved remains of cells that were used to keep gladiators, prisoners as well as wild animals. Some underground rooms were also used to store dead bodies that were promptly removed from the main stage of the arena. In the ancient times fighters and animals emerged on the arena via elevators that used a system of pulleys and levers. Today only stone and brick portions remain in the middle of the central arena. However the layout of cells and central elevator shaft gives and idea of how the ancient technology aided the effectiveness of bloody and violent show.



The best time to visit El Djem is between October and April during cooler months of the year. El Djem Amphitheater is open to the tourist excursions as well as cultural venues.