The impressive ruins of the largest colosseum in North Africa, a huge amphitheatre which could hold up to 35,000 spectators, are found in the small village of El Jem. This 3rd-century monument illustrates the grandeur and extent of Imperial Rome.
Amphitheatre of El Jem
Outstanding Universal Value
The Amphitheatre of El Jem bears outstanding witness to Roman architecture, notably monuments built for spectator events, in Africa. Located in a plain in the centre of Tunisia, this amphitheatre is built entirely of stone blocks, with no foundations and free-standing. In this respect it is modelled on the Coliseum of Rome without being an exact copy of the Flavian construction. Its size (big axis of 148 metres and small axis 122 metres) and its capacity (judged to be 35,000 spectators) make it without a doubt among the largest amphitheatres in the world. Its facade comprises three levels of arcades of Corinthian or composite style. Inside, the monument has conserved most of the supporting infrastructure for the tiered seating. The wall of the podium, the arena and the underground passages are practically intact. This architectural and artistic creation built around 238 AD, constitutes an important milestone in the comprehension of the history of Roman Africa. The Amphitheatre of El Jem also bears witness to the prosperity of the small city of Thysdrus (current El Jem) at the time of the Roman Empire.
Criterion (iv): The Amphitheatre of El Jem is one of the rare monuments of its kind and unique in Africa, which is not built against a hillside, but on flat ground and supported by a complex system of arches. The monument of El Jem is one of the most accomplished examples of Roman architecture of an amphitheatre, almost equal to that of the Coliseum of Rome.
Criterion (vi): The construction in a far-off province of a sophisticated and complex building, designed for popular spectacles, is characteristic of imperial Roman propaganda.
The monument has conserved, without alteration, most of its architectural and architectonic components.
Restoration work carried out over time has not affected the essential functional and structural authenticity of the property. The authenticity of the setting is however threatened by the appearance of new constructions around the amphitheatre.
Protection and management requirements (2009)
The Amphitheatre of El Jem is protected by the Law 35-1994 concerning the protection of archaeological and historic heritage and of traditional arts, and by a Decree that limits the height of the buildings to 5 metres over an area of 300 metres from the centre of the amphitheatre. The Heritage Code provides for the right to examine all intervention around the monument (controlled zone) while the development plan of the town of El Jem defines specific areas around the monument, archaeological and controlled zones and vision cones to preserve the urban perspectives.
The management of this property is assured by a mixed unit for conservation, restoration and presentation of the Amphitheatre of El Jem; it is composed of the National Heritage Institute, responsible scientific and technical body, and the Agency for the Presentation of Heritage and Cultural Promotion, responsible for the commercial exploitation of cultural heritage and its presentation. The creation of a buffer zone to protect the property against continuing urban development that might have an impact on its setting, and the establishment of an appropriate regulation to preserve the authenticity of its surroundings, are being studied.
The monument of El Jem is one of the most accomplished examples of Roman amphitheatre construction, approximating to the status of the Colosseum in Rome. The construction of such a polished and complex building, located in a distant province and destined for popular attractions, is symbolic of a certain type of Roman imperial propaganda.
Classical Thysdrus (today El Jem) is now no more than an overgrown agricultural village, 60 km south of Sousse. Nonetheless, it houses the impressive ruins of the largest amphitheatre in North Africa, built during the 1st half of the 3rd century. It most probably accommodated up to 60,000 spectators. Elliptical in form, it is built from large stone blocks and probably comprised four floors. Built on level terrain, rather than into the flanks of a hillside, and supported by a complex vaulting system, it illustrates the grandeur and extent of imperial Rome.
It is a complex building that is well preserved and little altered, one of the last surviving monuments of this type from the Roman world, 138 m long by 114 m wide. Underneath it run two passageways, in which animals, prisoners and gladiators were kept until the moment when they were brought up into the bright daylight to perform what was in most cases the last show of their lives.
Thysdrus prospered especially at the time of Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-38), when it became an important centre of olive oil manufacture. It is in good condition, like the Colosseum in Rome, but parts of its yellow stone walls were used to build the modern town. The construction started in 238 by Gordius I, who was declared Emperor of Rome here. The theatre was never completed, because of political rivalries and lack of funds within the Empire. Stones were quarried from a distance of 50km away, but even so most of the material was too soft to carve. There was no decent water supply available, and so naval battles were never staged in the arena. Later the amphitheatre served for centuries as a stronghold: it was the last Berber bastion against Arab invaders. Following the Roman period, the amphitheatre was used at various times as a citadel, which is the reason it was attacked twice by cannon fire.
Apart from the Roman amphitheatre, the sights of El Jem are still covered by sand. The modern city of El Jem is a sleepy place without much character, but the amphitheatre is massive, almost as large as the Colosseum in Rome. It is in fairly good condition: there is nothing missing which detracts from its grandeur. One area of the walls is gone, damages due to 17th-century ignorance, when dissidents hiding inside were driven out by the ruling Turks: a large hole was blown in the wall in order to uncover their hiding places. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC