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.