29.2181 The Amphitheatres of El Jem
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The Amphitheatres of El Jem
by 'Melvadius Macrinus Cugerni' (Iain Dickson)

Today El Jem, or Thysdrus as it was known in Roman times, in Tunisia is famous for containing one of the largest Amphitheatres anywhere in the Roman world but what many people don't realise is that this was the third amphitheatre built in the town. The two earlier ones were built some distance away, at first only about 5 to 6,000 people could be entertained when the top of a small hill was hollowed out as an arena but after it was rebuilt this number rose to 7 or 8,000 people.

The site of the original amphitheatres can be seen lying only a short distance across a railway line from beside the museum in El Jem. Unfortunately I didn't have time to get closer but although not much can be seen from this distance apparently seats carved into the hillside survive from the first amphitheatre, while masonry compartments and the elliptical arena survive from the second.

Approaching El Jem from the direction of Kairhouan the remains of the third Amphitheatre can be seen towering above the modern town, even as here out of the midst of a slight dust storm. This third and largest construction could hold between 27,000 and 30,000 people making it possibly the third or fourth biggest in the Empire after the Colosseum (or Coliseum) in Rome and that at Capua. Its 427m outside circumference is 100m shorter than the Colosseum. It was constructed in the early part of the 3rd century and may well have been the last such amphitheatre built in the Empire.

Two views of the main entrance to the showing the best-preserved side of the Grand Amphitheatre.

View from the upper tiers across the arena looking to the west at which end there were two sloping passages leading down to the basement allowing gladiators and animals to be safely brought into the galleries below the arena. The main gallery is now exposed to view, as are the two lift shafts on either side of the arena. These would originally have been enclosed within a wooden covering.

View from the Southern galleries looking down on the damaged western end including the reconstructed seating area and arena floor, with one of the two lift wells just visible in the bottom right of the picture.

View from the upper tiers of the amphitheatre across the modern reconstruction of some of the seating tiers giving some indication of how it would have looked when new. This picture also graphically shows how the line of the modern road to Sousse, still follows the route of the ancient Roman road to Hadrumetum.

View from the passages running below the arena floor looking up to the eastern part of the arena. These galleries were purpose built as part of the original construction phase rather than retro fitted as in the Collosseum in Rome. In this area animals and gladiators would be held in cells on either side of the gallery, prior to being sent into the arena via one of two lifts.

View across the arena floor from the western end of the amphitheatre, showing the surviving main entrance into the arena as well as some of the smaller service doors, which were on each side.

Although not as highly decorated as some amphitheatres much of the original decoration has survived the destruction caused by cannon fire in 1695 and again in 1850 when troops under the Bey of Tunis put down rebel forces holding out in the amphitheatre.

View from the northwestern side from where the cannon were placed while the amphitheatre was reduced.

To move large heavy stones about the Romans developed a system of carving triangular slots into the stones into which clamps would fit allowing the stones to be lifted. This photograph shows a few of the stones where these incisions are still visible

The above are two very simplified diagrams showing how the clamp worked. The upper diagram shows the clamp with no tension on the rope (marked in grey) while the lower diagram has the rope under tension.

Normally there would be a ring of metal at the top of the clamp (indicated in blue) which fits loosely around the two "s" shaped arms. This in turn is directly above a fixing point (marked in red) which holds the two arms together but allows them to pivot. The upper ring would be attached to a rope or chain so that when the crane was in operation, pulling the rope tight would draw the tops of the arms together, in turn tightening the grip of the lower section onto what was being lifted.

Close up view of the open area above the gallery in the centre of the arena, showing the slots in the edge where wooden beams would have originally supported a plank decking. This view also graphically shows how a strong wind can stir up a lot of sand or dust in a very short period of time in the area.


El Jem, Ancient Thysdrus by Hédi Slim, Translated by Justin McGuiness, Alif - Les Éditions de la Méditerranée Agence Nationale du Patrimoine (1996).

By Melvadius Macrinus Cugerni (Iain Dickson) March '02