An absolute Jem

After a predictable stretch of road – olive trees and small settlements spaced apart by the odd rural grey-market filling station, no more than a pile of grimy 20 litre plastic drums of diesel and a funnel on a stand by the roadside – we arrived at El Jem. The town itself is utterly unprepossessing, with somewhere in the region of not-very-much reason to stop by, apart from one building in the middle.

And that one building is astonishing.

Probably the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world, it knocks spots off the Coliseum in Rome. Arles and Nimes and the various others we’ve marvelled at on this trip are distinctly poor relations.

You wander around freely, climbing tier after tier of the passageways that originally led spectators up to the very highest seats in the house.

After you’ve stared down at the Japanese tour group standing in the middle of the arena itself, you then head back down and into the arena, staring back up at where you’ve just been. Then you find the passageways which lead down under the arena’s surface, with small compartments for the various combatants-to-be to wait to be sent up to glory or doom.

The cheers and cat-calls of a capacity crowd of nearly 50,000 people – more than the entire population of the Roman town, such was the draw of a good line-up – are not at all difficult to imagine.

What was most amazing about our visit, though, was that we managed to avoid gaining a friendly “guide” during the whole tour… Others didn’t appear to have been so lucky, so maybe we’re getting that “we’re-not-that-green-so-find-an-easier-target” look about us? Or, more likely, we somehow just slunk under their radar whilst they were looking the other way?

We were less successful with the museum in town, though – we’d barely wandered through half of the rooms chock-full of beautiful mosaics and statuary when we got collared, and ushered through the side door, “specially unlocked” for us.

Outside, there’s the ruins of a residential quarter, together with a fairly complete house. This was moved to the museum’s grounds and reconstructed after being excavated elsewhere around the town, as a demonstration of what a Roman villa would have really looked like. As such, it was very successful – you might think that you’ve got an idea from wandering around knee-high walls, but when you can actually walk into rooms (after your “guide” helpfully moves the restricted-access barriers, of course…) it definitely feels much more comprehensible.

Still, after we ignored a couple of our new friend’s suggestions – we wanted to wander about the quarter a bit more than he thought we did – he got into a bit of a huff, and wandered off to have a ciggy with a mate, talking himself out of his “fee” in the process…

Back to the van, and Ellie made the fatal mistake – she asked a free-range postcard seller how much his faded and dog-eared fold-out-multi-card-thingy was. Too much was the unsurprising reply, not that we’d have bought it anyway, but interest had been shown, and no amount of “La, Shukran, Beslemmah” (No, thanks, goodbye) was going to get him to give up on us.

We reversed out of our parking spot with his big eyes giving us a reproachful stare three inches from the passenger door window.

This entry was posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Tunisia, Travel stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to An absolute Jem

  1. Simon Joiner says:

    Fabulous. I trust you discussed the merits of the Peoples Front of Judea and shouted “Splitter!” whilst in the stands! (it’s where the Life of Brian Amphitheatre scenes were done)

  2. Monica & Hugh says:

    I remember it well! It was quite nostalgic to read your account. I believe it so well preserved because there has never been any scope for recycling it. A really fabulous building provided you can turn a blind eye to what it was for ie mass slaughter. I recall the lion mosaic in the museum. I was told that the fancier parts of these amazing mosaics were done by skilled craftsmen off site whilst the routine borders were done by lesser mortals in situ. Did your guide enlighten you on this? I was really surprised to find mosaics in their original positions in the open. Like Libya, Tunisia really has more archaeology than it can cope with.
    Having our own academic experts to hand we were not pestered except when making our own way back through the shops on our way back to our coaches,

    • AdrianC says:

      The expertise of our “guide” extended about as far as moving things out of the way and reading the occasional bit of signage to us…

      You’re absolutely right about “more than it can cope with” – Ellie’s going to mention something about that in the post that she’s writing at the moment, about the next stage of our trip.

  3. Pingback: Loose ends around El Louza | Wherever the road goes…

  4. Hi Ellie and Adrian,just been looking at your latest travels,looks like you are still having a load of fun. How is the van standing up to it all?
    We are still in Sicily and leave after Sarahs mum has been over again on 31st March for another week. They liked it so much they are coming back.
    Stay in touch, you never know where we may meet again.All the best. Rob N Sarah

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