For magazine of Roman North Africa cruise boat
The Roman amphitheatre at El Jem (literally 'the place') is the most surprising sight in Tunisia. Nothing, not photographs, not television documentaries, let alone the outpourings of travel writers can prepare you for your first glimpse of the vast bulk of this monument as it hovers above a Sahelian horizon of olive orchards. A serried mass of stone arches rise in threatening silhouette above the dusty green, composed of dazzling reflections of the African sun and deep pools of shade. For centuries a succession of travellers, archaeologists and antiquarians have sneered at the low village houses and the cloth tents of the nomad tribes squatting beside this grandiose architectural achievement. Before adding your own glib cultural comparisons, it might be useful to remind oneself of the gory details of the 'high classical culture' of public executions and gladiatorial combat that was once framed by the amphitheatre.
El Jem itself is a nondescript market town, which appears remarkably unaffected by the amphitheatre (like the Wessex villagers described by Hardy) apart from one or two souvenir shops by the entrance gate who have a better than average display of Sahelian weavings. At the other end of town there are some restaurants and a small but really first rate little museum stuffed full of mosaics. Those who have arrived by train or want to see the amphitheatre glow blood-red at dawn and dusk can stay at the Hotel Julius beside the railway station.
El Jem was anciently known as Thysdrus back in the days of the Carthaginian Empire, listed as the provincial capital of one of the seven agricultural provinces of Punic North Africa. It received a draft of discharged soldiers after the Roman conquest in 146BC who took over a third of the landholdings - though only a few managed the transformation from hard-drinking, hard-fighting legionnaires to steppe-land dry farmers. Those that did stay and prosper gradually inter-married with the old Punic families and joined the landed elite who a century later were managing the exportation of 300,000 bushels of corn a year (and equal quantities of olive oil) through such ports as Salakta and Leptis Minor. By the third century AD Thysdrus was a small but very prosperous town, whose population of 30,000 would be quadrupled at the times of the markets and great agricultural festivals as the rural hinterland poured into town to join in the celebrations. This was a halcyon age for the landed elite of Roman North Africa when a third of the Senate at Rome could trace their descent from North African families - which even included the ruling Imperial Severan dynasty. The size of some of the villa houses -the excavations of which stand beside the mosaic museums backdoor - give a taste of the opulence of the period. Thysdrus already had a working amphitheatre but a new one was commissioned which was designed to be the largest in the whole of North Africa and the third in the entire Empire - coming in behind that at Capua and the Colliseum of Rome. Disaster struck in 235 when the Emperor Alexander (the last of the Severans) was assassinated in Rome, compounded three years later by a provincial revolt in favour of Gordian (the elderly governor of Carthage) against the candidature of Alexander's murderer, Maximinus. The 79 year old Gordian was first hailed Emperor at Thysdrus, his candidature (coupled with his son Gordian II) enthusiastically backed by the landowners of Roman North Africa. However the local army commander (Capellianus) was not of their number, and led the Third Augusta Legion from its Saharan frontier posts in order to nip the rebellion in the bud. Wealthy Thysdrus was made a special example of, the city sacked, its population killed or enslaved. Capellianus endeared himself to his master in Rome - but the wheel of fate would yet make another turn. The following year Gordian III would ascend the throne and disband the legion who had slaughtered his father and grandfather, its name was proscribed and was formally removed from all inscriptions and monuments.
Thysdrus never recovered its civic confidence after the sack of Capellianus's Third Augusta Legion, though the fertility of the surrounding farms and estates quickly recovered and the town was repopulated. The amphitheatre would be converted into a fortress in the 6th century when the Byzantine Empire recovered control of central North Africa from the Vandals and built a chain of strong points across the steppe frontier. It was to be used as the headquarters of the Berber Queen of the mountains when she summoned the tribes to resist the invasion of the Arab armies of the Caliphate in the seventh century. And it was to be here, according to some accounts that she made her last stand - though others tell that she returned to her homeland in the forests of the Aures mountains. It continued to serve as a convenient place for the nomad tribes to meet, both for trade and to discuss mutual affairs - like how to best resist the demands of the tax inspectors sent by the central government in Tunis. During one such period of armed resistance to the demands of the Pasha at Tunis, the tribes made use of the amphitheatre as a fortress. So that as late as 1695, the ground of the amphitheatre would once more be soaked in blood, for the Ottoman janissaries blasted down a section of wall and slaughtered the defenders.
Since when peace has reigned, or a form of peace. The seats have been restored to allow music festivals to be staged here in the summer months, and it has proved a popular location in which to shoot films and advertisements.
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by Barnaby Rogerson