There is rather strong and at the same time untrue feeling that El Djem in Tunisia, and particularly its Roman Amphitheater of Thysdrus, was used when Ridley Scott was filming his famous “Gladiator”. I am not entirely sure why this “urban myth” is carried out and sold to the tourists every time instead of saying that this amphitheater is the third largest well preserved in the world and only here you can descend to the parts where people and lions met their fate.
35.000 spectators could be seated here, watching people fighting for their lives, making visitors gasps every time the death was choosing the site. They could hear lions roar and people crying for their lives.
Today you can explore the site freely and unlike the Colosseum in Rome you are able to descend to the dungeons to touch the walls filled with fear and bravery. You can walk across the orchestra – the main part which is not accessible in Colosseum – to have a feel of what was it like to be down there, when thousands people were looking at you awaiting great spectacle.
You can seat at the top of cavea and look directly down on the orchestra, feeling like one of the thousands spectators who came here for the most popular and most exciting entertainment available.
You can wander around the ruins and touch the walls which have a great story to tell. What is even more amazing about this place is its location – in the middle of quite busy and lively town, with its markets and people carrying everyday duties in the shadow of the ancient ruins.
This amphitheater was build by Romans under proconsul Gordian and was mainly used by gladiator shows and perhaps small chariot races. There is a slight possibility that this one was never entirely finished but it is hard to say as today only ruins, which are well preserved, survived.
Its history is quite amazing and it is a wonder that so much of the building survived until today – in 17th century its stones were used to build the El Djem village and some of them were transported to support building of Great Mosque in Kairouan. During straggle with Ottomans the Turks used cannons against rebels hidden in the amphitheater. Finally in 1979 the amphitheater was declared a World Heritage Site which gave a much needed protection.
Our trip was a part of two days excursion to Sahara desert and it was well worth it. A year later we have visited Colosseum in Rome and I have to say – this smaller but more accessible on all levels amphitheater stole my heart quicker than the Italian giant. Perhaps the reason was that you could wander whenever you wanted and freely get lost in the underground labyrinth which I personally did few times 🙂