Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Gladiators of El Djem

Up early on a hot and steamy Tunisian morning, we quickly eat breakfast and waited outside our hotel for a 6.30am pickup to begin what is referred to as a ‘Sahara Getaway’. The trip would take us far from the coast and inland heading toward the Libyan border. However, our first stop was at the ancient town of El Djem, which is famed for it’s magnificent Roman amphitheatre. Now, this isn’t one of your average crumbling Roman ruins but rather one of the best preserved examples of Roman architecture in the world, dating way back to the third century AD. While it’s equally impressive cousin the Colosseum in Rome continues to attract millions of visitors each year from around the world, El Djem remains much less known and as a result is somewhat less tainted by commercialism and the tourist dollar. It is similar in design and scale but in far better condition with its classic circular structure remaining beautifully preserved despite numerous wars as well as the inevitable destructive combination of time and the desert sands. Once it held crowds of up to 45,000 people watching everything from ‘Ben Hur’ style chariot races through to gruesome gladiatorial events. In fact, it is still possible to venture down into the dungeons to see the cages where animals and possibly people were kept before their encounters in the grand arena. As Jules and I wandered through the ancient tunnels and stairways that lead to the amphitheatre, we could only imagine what life must have been like during those ancient times. We both really enjoyed being able to just wander around the largely unrestricted site without being swamped by hordes of other tourists. Despite its World Heritage listing (awarded in 1979), this particular Colosseum appeared to have remained somewhat undiscovered by the wider world, with only small groups of interested visitors willing to make the indirect journey to this remarkable location. Its isolation and authenticity is probably one of the factors that has attracted numerous filmmakers over the years. Not surprisingly, Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ was filmed here, as were scenes from Monty Pythons ‘Life of Brian’. For us, El Djem was quite an unforgettable introduction to Tunisian history and to the desert region. It suggested that this country had an intriguing and unknown past that had many more remarkable secrets yet to be revealed.

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