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El Djem Amphitheatre


Page update - Mar 11, 2023

Tunisia has many interesting sights, but the word "grandiose" can be awarded to only one - the amphitheater in the town of El Djem. It is also called The African Coliseum.

Built in the 3rd century, it was the third largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire, after the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheater of Capua. More than 230 amphitheaters were built in the empire. 3rd of 230 is a great result.

The prices, schedule, and other information on this page were updated in March 2023.

Of course, it's incorrect to call the El Djem amphitheater the "Colosseum" as there is only one Colosseum on the planet, and it is located in Rome. Another name is Tizdr Roman Amphitheatre after the Roman town that once stood there.

The modern town of El Djem is small, with a population of 21,000. There is nothing of interest for tourists there, apart from the amphitheater, the archaeological museum and the archaeological site nearby. We will tell you about all these places and start with the history.

A bit of history

From the earliest days of Tunisian history, the site was occupied by a Berber village called Tizdr. The Phoenicians settled there and the settlement became part of the state of Carthage. After the fall of Carthage, the Romans established a colony there where they settled veterans of Julius Caesar's legions.

Tunisia had a wetter and cooler climate in ancient times, and the soil yielded immense crops of cereals and olives. The town of Tizdr grew rapidly. By the early 3rd century, it competed with Hadrumet (now Sousse) for the title of second largest town of province of Africa after Carthage. A large amphitheater was built there.

The fateful year for Tizdr was 238, referred to by historians as 'the year of the six emperors'. During this year, six emperors were replaced in the Roman Empire. One of them was Gordian who was nominated by the citizens of Tizdr.

In the beginning, things were going great for Gordian. The people of Tizdr revolted against the power of Rome, proclaimed him the emperor. Gordian triumphantly entered Carthage, and the Roman Senate recognised him as the emperor. It would seem that the operation to seize power was a success.

But the governor of neighboring Numidia remained loyal to the old emperor Maximian. He brought a single legion to suppress the rebellion. Gordian had no professional army at all and his militia was defeated. Gordian's son was killed in battle and Gordian himself committed suicide. The town of Tizdr was completely destroyed by the legionnaires.

The town was no longer rebuilt, and the amphitheater was used as a fortress. It was used for defense against Vandals in 430, and against the first Arab invasion in 647. In 699, the Berber leader El Kahina was defended there during the third Arab invasion of Tunisia.

In the 17th century, part of the amphitheater was partly disassembled, and the stone was taken away for the reconstruction of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. In 1695, Tunisians who rebelled against Ottoman oppression were defended there. In 1850, another rebellion, with rebels defending the amphitheater against the Bey's troops. All these events caused damages, many of which can now be seen on the walls of the building.

It was only the French who saw archaeological value in the amphitheater when Tunisia became a French Protectorate in 1881. In 1904 active excavations began.

The amphitheater suffered damage during the Second World War, when it was stormed by British troops.

A restoration was carried out between 1974 and 1980. Seating and some structures were restored. In 1979, the El Djem Amphitheatre was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The El Djem International Symphony Music Festival has been held within the walls of the amphitheater since 1985.

Figures and interesting facts

- The El Djem Amphitheatre has an oval shape with external dimensions of 148 meters (485 feet, the large axis) by 122 meters (400 feet, the small axis). The height is 36 meters (118 feet). For comparison, the dimensions of the Roman Coliseum are 188x156 meters (617x512 feet).

- Length in circumference is 427 meters (1,400 feet), the Roman Coliseum is 100 meters (330 feet) longer.

- The size of the arena is 65x37 meters (213x121 feet).

- The building has three floors with arches in the Corinthian style. There used to be a total of 68 arches, now only 30 of them remain.

- The capacity of the El Djem Amphitheatre is estimated at 30-35,000 people. The population of the town of Tizdr is estimated by historians at 50-60,000. Obviously, the town had no need for such a large structure. Apparently, the construction of such a large amphitheater was a political move - to show the wealth of the town.

- Many websites, brochures and guides tell us that the El Djem amphitheater was the location for the Gladiator movie, starring Russell Crowe. This information does not correspond to reality. The battle scenes in the arena were filmed in Malta, where a model of the arena with only one floor of grandstands was created. The rest was then added with computer graphics. If you want confirmation of these facts, go to the official website of the film or Universal Studios, you will read the same there.

- The amphitheater in El Djem has no foundation. The soil there is hard and level, so there is simply no need for foundations.

- The amphitheater is protected by Law 35-1994 and a special Decree. According to these laws, no buildings taller than 5 meters (16.4 feet) can be built in the 300-meter (1,000 feet) zone around it.

- The area is now deserted. The arena, podium and basement have been covered with sand for many years, ensuring that they are beautifully preserved. There will be plenty to see on the tour.

Excursions to El Djem

There are usually no only-excursions to El Djem, but it is possible to visit the place as part of a multi-place tour.

A visit to El Djem is included in the "Sahara Excursion", which is offered to tourists from all the resorts in Tunisia, including Zarzis and Djerba Island. This excursion lasts two full days and not all tourists dare to take it, as few want to take two days off from their All Inclusive package.

Another option is the "El Djem - Kairouan" trip. It lasts for one day and includes the amphitheater and the ancient capital of Tunisia, the city of Kairouan.

There will be limited time to see El Djem during the tour. You will have time to see the amphitheater itself, but not enough time to visit the museum and the archaeological area. If you want to see everything there, you will have to go there on your own.

How to get there on your own

The closest Tunisian resorts are Sousse and El Kantaoui (63 km, 39 mi), Monastir (65 km, 40 mi) and Mahdia (43 km, 27 mi). Some tourists travel to El Djem from the hotels in these resorts by taxi, thanks to taxis being inexpensive in Tunisia. The round trip including driver waiting will cost 150-200 Tunisian dinars. The cab ride from Sfax (64km, 40 mi) will cost the same.

For the current taxi fares, read our detailed review "Taxi fares in Tunisia". For the current exchange rates, read our detailed review "Money in Tunisia".

Tunisia's main railway line passes through the town of El Djem. A train ticket will cost much cheaper than a taxi, and many tourists find it a safer option.

Ticket and excursion prices

The "Sahara Excursion" costs USD 110-140, depending on the departure resort and the greed of the tour seller. The "El Djem - Kairouan" excursion costs USD 50-70.

If arriving on your own, you'll have to buy the ticket for 12 dinars. The photo permit costs 1 dinar.

Opening hours

Open daily from 9 am to 7 pm in summer season and from 9 am to 5:30 pm in winter season. On Friday (the holy day of the week for Muslims), the opening hours are normal.

What to see

Arena

Tourists get the main experience when they stand in the arena. You can feel like a gladiator facing a battle for the public in the stands. But it will only be interesting for a couple of minutes. Afterwards, curiosity wants more.

Look around and you'll see a long hatch in the center of the arena, it leads to the basement rooms. Look at the photo near, click on the photo to enlarge. Guides tell tourists that gladiators and animals were brought into the arena through this hatch to fight. This is not true. This hatch was used to ventilate the basement. It was always open and was covered with a wooden planking only during the battles.

Gladiators entered the arena through the main gate. The status of the gladiator was very high, and some of them were real folk heroes and idols. Naturally, gladiators were not kept in cages under the arena.

The animals and the condemned were kept in cages under the arena. The Romans were very practical people. They did not hire executioners, but put the condemned on the arena against the gladiators. The triple benefit: the execution costs to the state free of charge, training to gladiators, and public entertainment.

To lift the condemned men and animals upwards there were two lifts. The openings for these lifts can be seen on both sides of the long hatch. Tourists are allowed downstairs to see the rooms where the condemned and slaves were kept.

Tribunes

Now only half of the grandstands remain intact. Some of the seatings have been restored by scientists. You can sit and watch and feel like an ancient Roman who came to watch a bloody show. There are passageways to the grandstands inside the building, their configuration is about the same as in modern circuses or stadiums.

Pay attention to the stones that make up the amphitheater. If you look closely, you will find triangular holes. Romans used these holes for lifting blocks on winches. You can clearly see these holes in the photo near, click on the photo to enlarge it.

The El Djem Amphitheatre is also an opportunity to see ancient Roman building techniques.

Archaeological Museum

The amphitheater ticket includes a visit to the museum which is located to the south on the road to the town of Sfax. In the museum, you can see everyday objects, coins and ceramics. But the most interesting thing there are the Roman mosaics preserved on the sites of the Roman villas.

Most of the mosaics from El Djem were taken to the Bardo Museum and the museum in the Kasbah of Sousse. Two famous mosaics remain: The Goddess of Africa and The Four Seasons.

Archaeological excavations

Just behind the museum is the excavation site of the villas of Tizdr. Two of the best preserved villas are the Peacock House and the Sollertian House, which contain several large mosaics.

Important points

- There are no currency exchange offices in El Djem and the currency can only be changed at the post office or at a bank. Conclusion: change the required amount into dinars in advance. Read our in-depth review "Currency exchange in Tunisia";

- El Djem is a long way from the coast. There is no pleasant breeze there and the heat is harder to bear. Don't forget hats and cover your shoulders. The sun can be treacherous, as we discussed in detail in the review "Dangers for tourists in Tunisia";

- There is a Magazin General supermarket in El Djem, located near the railway station, which is 300 meters (1,000 feet) from the amphitheater. But there is no alcohol department at this store. See our detailed review "Magasin General" for more details.

Have fun visiting the amphitheater and museums in El Djem and read our other informative and useful reviews about Tunisia (see the pages list below).

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