The amphitheater of El Jem, also called Colosseum of Thysdrus, is a Roman amphitheater located in the current Tunisian city of El Jem, the ancient Thysdrus of the Roman province of Africa.
Built probably around the first third of the second century, even if its dating has been the subject of debate, it takes the succession of two buildings of the same kind, the study of which made it possible to analyze the genesis of these monumental constructions intended for Hobbies. It probably housed gladiator fights as well as chariot races and other circus games, but especially exhibitions of wild beasts and reenactments of, particularly prized wildcat hunts.
This “Grand amphitheater”, the most famous Roman monument in Tunisia, is the best-preserved amphitheater in North Africa. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The amphitheater welcomes around 530,000 visitors each year.
Because of its location (in the middle of more or less naked steppe vastnesses), the amphitheater impresses not only by its massive aspect but also by the beauty of the patina of its walls. It is built on flat land north of the site of the ancient city.
In the absence of limestone in this region of Tunisia, the walls and supports of the large amphitheater were built in dune sandstone, an easy-to-cut material from the coastal quarries of Rejiche-Salakta located some thirty kilometers away. The building is the only one in the Roman world to have been built of cut stone and the only construction of the city built with this material, sign of the prestige linked to the monument. The material, white at the time of its extraction, became ocher over time. However, the stone used, which is not very resistant, is sensitive to erosion and wear.
Almost elliptical in shape, the monument measures 149 m long by 124 m wide and 36 m high. The stands, now disappeared and partially reconstituted, could accommodate up to 30,000 spectators, which ranks this building in 7th position after those of Rome, Capua, Milan, Autun, Verona, and Carthage. The arena, 65m long in its main axis, is crossed in the basement by two large galleries through which actors, wild animals, and machines arrived which could be confined in two series of eight underground cells.
The monument, which is among the best-preserved of its kind, has been little studied. The recent exploration of the monument has not yielded any inscription making it possible to date its construction. Likewise, recent archaeological excavations have not revealed any precise elements apart from shards of a type of pottery dating from the first half of the second century. It was considered randomly, because not corroborated by tangible elements, that the building would have been built in 238 AD. AD in connection with the revolution of that year, or under the proconsulate of Gordian became the Roman emperor in April of the same year. Its construction date is generally placed between 230 and 250, during the period of military anarchy, but ancient studies have advanced it during the reign of the Antoninus or even at the end of the empire.
From the end of Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Although the city is gradually supplanted by Sufetula as the economic capital of the region and trade routes are gradually diverted, Thysdrus continues to play a military role due to the transformation into a fortress of the building. Archaeological excavations have been able to date the abandonment of the amphitheater from the second half of the 5th century, giving an approximate duration of activity of two centuries.
From the Byzantine era, the amphitheater became a fortress and a place of refuge; this is attested in 647 after the Byzantine defeat of Sbeïtla against the Arab armies. The transformation took place by plugging the arcades on the ground floor and by fitting out other facilities including a tower that was found during recent excavations. The monument is sometimes called “ksar de la Kahena”, from the name of a Berber princess from the 7th century who gathered the tribes to repel the advance of the Muslim invader. Defeated and hunted down, she took refuge with her supporters in the amphitheater and resisted there for four years. According to legend, she was betrayed by her young lover, who stabbed her before sending her embalmed head to the head of the Arab army. The building is cited by Al-Bakri in the 11th century and by At-Tijani, both of whom suggest that it provided effective protection, which is difficult to reconcile with the state of the ruins.
The disappearance of the bleachers and elements of the top floor would, therefore, have been later and gradual. The ruin of the monument resulted in a considerable deposit of spoil, from a height varying from 1.50 to three or even four meters.
It was around 1695, according to Arab tradition, that the exterior facade, which had hitherto remained almost intact, was demolished.
The Beylical power would have suppressed on this date a revolt of fiscal origin and created breaches with cannon shot in order to prevent the site from serving as a refuge for local populations. The place was nevertheless still used for this purpose in the middle of the 19th century during the last revolt. After further deterioration, the populations draw largely from the ruins.
The site was the subject of visits from the seventeenth century and especially in the nineteenth century, then this movement was amplified with the establishment of protection of the remains. Restorations took place in the first half of the 20th century, on the part of the destroyed facade, as did the clearance of the arena and underground spaces. Tourism expanded in the 20th century, reaching around 530,000 annual visitors in 2008, making it the second most visited site in Tunisia.
The site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The uneven state of conservation of the building material, as well as rockfall and even vaults, made it necessary to consolidate and restore the property funded by the Tunisian government and to the private foundations.
Because of its good acoustics and the restorations carried out, the amphitheater has been hosting the International Festival of Symphonic Music of El Jem every summer since 1985.
In November 2019, restoration work begins, a project carried out thanks to the funding of 430,000 dollars (1.227 million Tunisian dinars) from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.
Amphitheater games at Thysdrus
Besides the amphitheaters, the city had a theater and a circus, which have not yet been excavated. The monumental ornament of the city allowed the diffusion of the leisure activities belonging to the Roman way of life: archaeologists thus found many representations of the games of the amphitheater in private housing, in particular in mosaics.
Even if the presence of Italians explains the precocity of the installation of such a monument in this place, the support of local populations could be expressed in particular through the tastes for certain types of shows, those who used wild animals called Venationes and, to a lesser extent, those who opposed gladiators. The animals are represented as elements of detail but also sometimes as the main subject: battles are illustrated by two mosaics discovered in the “House of the Dionysian procession”, that of the Lions devouring a boar and that of the Tiger attacking onagers.
Hunting renditions could also be simple simulations of the capture of wild animals with, in the hands of the alleged hunters, fictitious weapons. The amphitheater could also be used as a place of punishment for death row inmates delivered to animals, as shown in a mosaic in the archaeological museum of El Jem.
The amphitheater hunting mosaic of Smirat, dating from the years 235-250 (or even 240-250), is an exceptional document on the same subject: hunters are represented there when leopards collapse while a text explains that the last moment of the show is that of the payment of the festivities.