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Ancient Thysdrus (the modern city of El Djem, Tunisia) was one of the largest cities in the entire Roman province of Africa. The city's wealth came from its cross-roads position and control of a massive production of olive oil and grain. The city flourished in the Severan period, and in the early 3rd Century CE created a new amphitheater (there were already two in the city) that was to be the largest ever built in Africa. Today, this amphitheater is one of the best preserved gladiator venues from the entire Roman Empire. Its size and scale and beauty are awe inspiring and reflect the reach of Rome. At the time, the monument has its own unique qualities, just as the citizens of Thysdrus rose up to nominate Gordian emperor of the Empire in 238 CE. Such as the reach and influence of Thysdrus on the rest of the Empire.
El Jem, in Tunisia, is one of the best examples of Roman architecture in Africa. This amphitheater, built 150 years after the one in Rome, is the third-largest coliseum left in the world. The amphitheater of El Jem has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1979 and one of Tunisia’s highlights.
This colossal amphitheater could host up to 35,000 spectators and also served as a cistern to collect and distribute rainwater. Today, it is incredibly well preserved, only a small part of it have been destroyed. You can go up the benches and down to the underground sections to visit the passageways and cells.
Tunisia is not a touristy country, and you’ll quickly realize it visiting El Jem. The amphitheater is as majestic as the one in Rome, yet you might have the place all to yourself. I was there during high season, and only about ten people were visiting at the same time as I did.
Some of the most spectacular of ancient Roman sites anywhere are to be found in the magnificent landscapes of Tunisia, where less than a fifth of estimated ancient remains have officially been unearthed. The Roman province of Africa, of which Tunisia was the heart, was one of the wealthiest regions of the Empire. Known as the bread basket of Rome, for its wheat production, its olive oil was also exported in vast quantities across the Empire.
A condition for optimum preservation was the abandonment of the cities by non-urban successor civilisations. The consequences are impressive: among the Roman world&rsquos best-preserved monuments are the colosseum at El Djem, the town centre at Dougga and parts of the Zaghouan&ndashCarthage aqueduct. From pre-Roman times the mausoleum at Dougga and the exceptionally-preserved Punic houses and ancient harbours at Carthage are particularly noteworthy.
A highlight of the tour are the vigorous, colourful and naturalistic floor mosaics at the Sousse and Bardo museums and in situ on many of the sites. Both in composition and content they present a visual record of the sophistication of the North African empire from the early Christian era to the 7th century. The finest to have been excavated from Carthage, Utica, Dougga and Sousse, are displayed as works of art.
What we see of Tunisia&rsquos impressive Islamic heritage includes the important holy city of Kairouan, the wonderfully busy Medina of Tunis, and other less-visited towns, including Testour, a charming agricultural village with Andalusian roots and an exceptional mosque.
El Jem Tunisia is famous for its grand Roman amphitheater and still surviving structures from the golden age of the city. Located in present day Mahdia, Tunisia, the ruins are some of the best in the country, and like the ruins of Leptis Magna in Libya, they provide great insight into Roman power in North Africa. The ruins are surrounded by a modern town that has sprung up in the area, which creates a great contrast between past and present, and also allows travelers to combine their history lessons with fine hotels and meals at modern restaurants. Although the majority of the ancient city still lies beneath the sand and is waiting to be excavated, El Jem is a must-see stop on your visit to Tunisia.
El Jem was built upon a former Punic settlement by the Romans in 46 BC and was originally called Thysdrus. In terms of wealth and power in Africa, Thysdrus was second only to Carthage, due to its importance in olive oil manufacturing and exporting. El Jem Tunisia enjoyed this calm and prosperous lifestyle until its leader, Gordian I, committed suicide near Carthage after a failed attempt to overthrow Roman power in Rome. After the failed scheme, Roman troops that were loyal to Emperor Maximus Thrax destroyed the city. The amphitheater remained well intact, however, in spite of being occupied numerous times, including by the Arabs in the fifth and seventh centuries and by the Germans during World War II.
The amphitheater of El Jem is the most popular point of interest at the archaeological site. The amphitheater, also referred to as the colosseum, at El Jem was constructed between 230 and 238 AD during the reign of Gordian. The stones that were used to build the amphitheater of El Jem were quarried about twenty miles away in Salakta before being brought to the city. This massive structure is almost as large as the one in Rome and is in fantastic condition considering its age.
The amphitheater here at El Djem Tunisia, as the city is also called, is said to have provided seating for upwards of 30,000 spectators at a time despite the small population of the city. There was special seating for the wealthy at the top of the arena with covered seats to protect spectators from the sun, and there were also sculptures at the top of each column in the amphitheater. The amphitheater still provides the stage for the annual Festival of El Jem were spectators enjoy music. A visit to this fantastic structure transports visitors back in time to the age of grandeur that the Romans created.
The El Jem Museum is also another must-see stop on your visit to El Jem Tunisia. This museum is loaded with artifacts and provides a glimpse into the wealth and power of this former Roman stronghold. The El Jem Museum features mosaics from houses, sculpture fragments, ceramics, and metal objects, to name a few. The impressive collection of mosaics is the most interesting room in the museum, and archaeologists keep discovering more to add to the already large collection. The majority of the mosaics depict detailed scenes using geometric motifs and are noted to be some of the finest ever unearthed. The museum is a true testament to the craftsmanship that was developed in this sophisticated Roman city.
Although the amphitheater of El Jem and the El Jem Museum are the two main attractions at the archaeological site of ancient Thysdrus, the experience is unforgettable. The amphitheater, often compared to the Colosseum in Rome, is a magnificent structure and a symbol of the cities great past while the EL Jem Museum showcases the artisans and craftsmanship of the city. If you are visiting Tunisia, be sure to make a stop at one of the most frequented attractions the country has to offer, in addition to stopping at the usual tourist areas such as Djerba and Port el Kantaoui.
The Roman Amphitheater of El Djem, Tunisia
This post is mostly a photographic presentation of monuments from El Djem, Tunisia.
El Djem or El Jem is a town in Mahdia Governorate, Tunisia. It is home to some of the most impressive Roman remains in Africa, particularly the world-famous “Amphitheater of El Jem”.
The Roman city of Thysdrus was built, like almost all Roman settlements in ancient Tunisia, on former Punic settlements. In a less arid climate than today’s, Thysdrus prospered as an important center of olive oil production and export.
By the early 3rd century, when the amphitheater was built, Thysdrus rivaled Hadrumetum (modern Sousse) as the second city of Roman North Africa after Carthage.
El Djem is famous for its amphitheater or colosseum. It was capable of seating 35,000 spectators. Only the Colosseum in Rome (seating about 50,000 spectators) and the ruined theater of Capua were larger.
The amphitheater at El Djem was built by the Romans under proconsul Gordian, who was acclaimed emperor at Thysdrus around 238 and was mainly used for gladiator shows and small-scale chariot races.
(Important Note: ALL photographs of this article added to the sourced texts by NovoScriptorium after kind courtesy of our friend Ben Lee – ALL photographs originally taken by Ben Lee)
The Amphitheatre of El Djem: Gladiatorial Arena of Tunisia
The amphitheatre is one of the most iconic architectural contributions of ancient Rome. The most famous example of such a structure is the Colosseum in Rome, where brutal gladiatorial battles took place. Nevertheless, amphitheatres were built all throughout the Roman Empire, with around 230 known amphitheatres that are still surviving today. One of the most magnificent examples can be found in the Tunisian city of El Djem, considered to be home to the most impressive Roman remains in the whole of Africa, and famous for its starring role in the Hollywood epic ‘Gladiator’.
As a matter of fact, there are two amphitheatres located in El Djem. The smaller one is much less famous than the large one, and is not as well preserved. It is believed that this amphitheatre underwent three separate building phases. It was first worked in tufa (a type of limestone), then reconstructed, before finally being redone and enlarged. The primary attraction of El Djem, however, lies about 7.2 km to the north of this smaller amphitheatre, and is known as the Amphitheatre of El Djem.
The Amphitheatre of El Djem is a free-standing monument, and is built entirely of stone blocks without foundations. It is said that in these respects, it is modelled after the Colosseum in Rome. Whilst the Colosseum holds the title for being the largest Roman amphitheatre, the Amphitheatre of El Djem is not too far behind. The larger axis of the Amphitheatre of El Djem measures at 148 m, whilst its smaller axis measures at 122 m. In addition, the rows of seats rose to a height of 36 m. It has been estimated that the amphitheatre would have been capable of holding up to 35,000 spectators at any one time. Given the grandness of this structure, it would only be natural to be under the impression that the amphitheatre was built when the Roman Empire was experiencing a period of prosperity and peace. Yet, this is not the case.
Tunnel leading into the main arena at El Djem. Source: BigStockPhoto
Whilst the exact date of the amphitheatre’s construction is uncertain, it has been speculated that work began in A.D. 238. This year is also known as the ‘Year of the Six Emperors’, as there were six people recognised as emperors of Rome during this year. The amphitheatre may have been commissioned by one of these emperors, Gordian I or his grandson (also one of the six emperors), Gordian III. The year A.D. 238 was not exactly a peaceful year for the Roman Empire, and it was an uprising in the Roman-ruled areas of Africa that made Gordian I, who incidentally was nearly 80 years old at that time, the emperor of Rome.
The uprising was sparked by dissatisfaction with the emperor Maximinus Thrax. In order to pay for the expenses of his campaign on the Danubian frontier, Maximinus was compelled to extact more and more revenue from the Roman aristocrats and landowners. In order to meet the demands of the emperor, some unscrupulous procurators were willing to make false judgments to issue fines and confiscate property. One such procurator in the province of Africa was assassinated in El Djem, and led to the proclamation of Gordian I as emperor. This was also acknowledged by the Roman Senate several days later, as they had no love for Maximinus.
Gordian I’s reign, however, lasted less than a month, as the governor of the neighbouring province of Numidia, Capellianus, marched his troops against him. Whilst Capellianus had a formidable army at his command, Gordian I could only muster a mob from amongst the residents of Carthage, where he was now residing. Capellianus is said to have been involved in a lawsuit against Gordian I in the past, which could indicate that the governor bore a grudge against the new emperor. Additionally, Gordian I had sent someone to replace Capellianus as governor as he was a loyal supporter of Maximinus. Gordian I’s forces, led by his son, Gordian II, were easily defeated, and the emperor is said to have committed suicide. Later in the year, Gordian III became emperor.
Another sign that the amphitheatre was not built during a period when Rome was prosperous is that the structure seems to have not been completed. This may be attributed to the lack of funds and the political turmoil within the Empire. Thus, although Gordian I intended to bestow a grand amphitheatre on his birthplace, or that Gordian III intended to honor the memory of his grandfather with this monument, it might not have materialized. Nevertheless, the Amphitheatre of El Djem, completed or not, is still an impressive tourist attraction today, and its historical importance was recognized in 1979 when it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
As of July, 2017, many more people can now experience what it’s like to walk through the amphitheatre of El Djem thanks to the Google street view project, which allows you to take a virtual walk throughout this ancient landmark. Google captures most of its Street View images with cameras mounted atop its Street View cars. That wasn’t an option at El Djem, so Google sent in live camera operators to capture the 360-degree images on foot. A video highlighting the Google Street View project at El Djem can be viewed below.
Featured image: The Amphitheatre of El Djem. Photo source: ( Wikimedia Commons )
Bomgardner, D. L., 2000. The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre. London: Routledge.
A research trip to Tunisia
Last April, Coleman-Hilton Scholar Jason Blockley travelled to Tunisia to visit a number of sites to complement his research on the economies of late antique North Africa. Over the course of this trip, Jason clocked up an impressive number of miles and site visits, travelling between cities and across countryside, exploring both ancient, medieval and modern sites. Read on to find out more…
During the Roman period the provinces that cover the area that is now Tunisia were among the richest and most productive in the entire empire. Every year millions of tons of wheat, olive oil, fine pottery, and other goods left Tunisia’s shores for sale or distribution elsewhere in the empire. My research investigates the relationship between the state and the economy in Late Antique (c. 300-450) North Africa, which took me on an eight-day trip of Tunisia in April. While there I was lucky to have the expert services and friendship of Sami Harize, a veteran guide and expert on Tunisia’s cultural heritage.
For the first two days of the trip we were busy exploring the many ruins of Carthage, the ancient capital of Roman Africa which today is a suburb of Tunis. Like Rome, Tunis/Carthage is a patchwork of ancient ruins scattered amongst a modern metropolis. The ruins alone reveal the immense size and prosperity of Roman Carthage, a city that would have housed several hundred thousand people. The city boasted all the comforts and infrastructure that Rome had, including splendid baths, theatres, an arena, public aqueducts, and a sophisticated harbour system.
The Bardo Museum in Tunis contains more evidence of the splendour that the citizens of Carthage enjoyed, including a staggering and unparalleled collection of ancient mosaics.
After having visited the major sites and museums in Carthage we set out for a three-day,
1,000km tour of northern and central Tunisia. To properly describe all the incredible sites we visited along the way would require a short book at least, as it is impossible to travel anywhere in Tunisia without seeing some monument or cultural treasure. On the first day we drove through the verdant lush north of the country to see the cities of Dougga, ancient Thugga, and El Kef, ancient Sicca Veneria. The countryside is incredibly fertile and picturesque, and in antiquity the grain grown here was essential in keeping the city of Rome fed.
Though both Thugga and Sicca Veneria were modest provincial cities they both boasted all the comforts of Roman urban life, including baths, theatres, and fine homes for the wealthy. Many of the ruins of Sicca Veneria have disappeared beneath the modern fabric of El Kef, but the ruins at Dougga are pristine, and a sure rival for sites like Pompeii. Dougga, like many other ancient ruins in Tunisia, coexists with modern pastoralists just as it would have done in antiquity.
On the second day, we started heading south into central Tunisia, where the landscape became more arid and rocky. Not well suited for growing wheat, this area specialised in olives. In fact, the area is practically a forest of olive trees as it was during the Roman period.
Olive groves in central Tunisia. Photo by Jason Blockley.
Along the way we visited Haïdra, ancient Ammaedara, and Sbeitla, ancient Sufetula. During the early years of Roman rule in Africa Haïdra was an important military site, a role it resumed during the tumultuous Byzantine period. The imposing triumphal arch, partially encased in ad hoc walls, also echoes the military history of the city.
The ruins of Sufetula lie in an impressive archaeological park right next to modern Sbeitla. Again, the ancient city boasted all the signature comforts of ancient urban life, but also has an unusual triple-Capitoline temple as well as several early Christian churches with mosaiced baptismal pools.
On the last day of our tour of the Tunisian countryside we visited Kairouan and El Djem, ancient Thysdrus. Kairouan was settled around 670 CE during the Islamic conquest of Africa, and the city’s Great Mosque was the first in the entire Maghreb. During the early Middle Ages Kairouan became the seat of power, politics, and culture in Tunisia, taking the place that Carthage (now ruined) had occupied during the ancient era. Although Kairouan was the centre for the burgeoning Islamic civilisation in Tunisia, vestiges of the country’s Roman history made its way into the city. The ruins of Roman monuments in Tunisia were used like a quarry to embellish Kairouan, including the Great Mosque – ancient architectural elements can still be seen today.
El Djem, like El Kef, has mostly buried its ancient ruins beneath the modern city – except for its immense amphitheatre, which was among the largest in the Roman Empire. The amphitheatre, sited in the heart of the city, is clear evidence that Thysdrus’ arid environment was no impediment to the Romano-Africans building a prosperous and comfortable city.
The amphitheatre at El Djem. Photo by Jason Blockley.
After El Djem our tour of the Tunisian countryside and its many cities and towns was finished and we drove back to Tunis. The next few days were spent exploring more of medieval and modern Tunis. The city’s Medina (old town) is a lively and bustling labyrinth full of small shops, cafés, homes, and mosques. The modern city has far outgrown its ancient, medieval, or colonial limits and is today a veritable metropolis.
My journey through Tunisia was rewarding in many ways. It provided needed nuance and context to my research, and I am grateful to Sami for pointing out countless things I would have otherwise missed. Experiencing and learning about modern Tunisia was equally rewarding. Lastly, the people of Tunisia remain a hospitable and generous people despite the hardships they have weathered over the years.
El Djem Amphitheater
Have you ever wanted to visit an ancient amphitheater? An adventurous trip to El Djem is what you need. To do this you have to visit Tunisia. Known historically as a temporary settlement for ancient civilization, including Romans, Tunisia is a product of ancient cultures. Evidence of that is the enormous El Djem Amphitheater. Situated in the town of Mahdia Governorate, El Djem Amphitheater is an obvious landmark of the country. Its big dome can accommodate at most 35,000 spectators, making it the third largest amphitheater in the world, next to the Coliseum of Rome and the eroded amphitheater in Capua. In that sense, imagining that you are sitting in one of those numerous seats inside the amphitheater is a very unique experience. Obviously, it would be much better for you to actually experience it.
However, remember that because of age, this amphitheater had lost its original structure and form. This was due to the endless wars it had suffered through the years and the constant use of some of its building blocks for other purposes. With that, full security measures are implemented to further lengthen its lifetime. This can also be seen as a consequence of this amphitheater being a World Heritage Site since 1979. Thus, it would be unwise for you to scrape off some pieces of the actual dome for souvenirs. Aside from the fact that doing this is virtually impossible, many stores offer miniature sizes of this amphitheater.
On the positive side, pictures are allowed, so bring fully charged digital cameras to capture those priceless moments.
Why Tunis could be the new Rome
Tunis is bursting with the creative energy of a generation taking full advantage of its newfound freedom of expression and fervour for preserving its heritage in unexpected ways.
The wait for admission to the Colosseum was approximately three and a half hours. The queue was so long that I initially mistook it for the line leading into the Palatine Hill, as I couldn&rsquot even see the Colosseum when I joined the end of it. It was pouring rain and bitter cold in the middle of May, yet scores of soggy tourists were huddled alongside me in technicolour rain ponchos waiting for the chance to pay &euro12 (around £10) to be herded into the great arena like wild animals before a gladiatorial hunt.
That was when it struck me: in about as much time as it would take to wait in that queue, I could ride the metro to Rome&rsquos airport, hop an 80-minute flight to Tunis and catch a cab 15km to Carthage, where, for a mere 12 Tunisian dinars (£3.30) I could be blissfully alone with equally impressive relics of Roman engineering and architecture.
Later that week, I decided to give it a try.
Tunisia has suffered a crisis of reputation over the past decade after the revolution that ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 threw the country into turmoil and began the broader Arab Spring. What had once been a regular haunt for holidaymakers and European artists and intellectuals (Paul Klee, Michel Foucault and Simone de Beauvoir all spent extended stays here) suddenly seemed fierce and untouchable. Those that did venture here often did so in the insulated safety of all-inclusive package tours, which kept them in the close confines of seaside sanctuaries like the Mövenpick resort and spa in Sousse.
Tunisia&rsquos reputation was further damaged by a pair of terror attacks in 2015 at the height of ISIS&rsquos international campaign that roiled the country and prompted a major overhaul of anti-terrorism initiatives. The UK government still suggests tourists exercise caution in the region, but notes that &ldquoThe Tunisian government has improved protective security in major cities and tourist resorts.&rdquo
Despite this bump on the road to democracy, now more than ever is the perfect time to visit the Tunisian capital, and to do so on your own terms. The country has emerged from the Arab Spring with a functioning democracy, a stabilising economy and a hunger for tourism. It&rsquos currently the only Arab nation with freedom of expression, and the capital buzzes with young people expressing new ideas through concerts, political rallies, art shows and film festivals, which just a decade earlier would have been impossible.
There are still ancient Roman and Punic ruins to explore, beaches to enjoy and incredible arts and crafts to bargain for, all unencumbered by crowds. What&rsquos most exciting is that Tunis is bursting with the creative energy of a generation taking full advantage of its newfound freedom of expression and fervour for preserving its heritage in new and unexpected ways.
One of the locals leading this charge is Leila Ben Gacem, a social entrepreneur who is committed to saving local crafts and artistry that were at risk of disappearing.
&ldquoWhen people travel, they want a story, they want to be part of something,&rdquo Ben Gacem told me over a plate of roasted lamb and aubergine in the elaborately tiled courtyard of Dar Ben Gacem Kahia, one of two medieval homes in the vibrant medina of Tunis that she has painstakingly renovated into guesthouses over the last decade.
When people travel, they want a story, they want to be part of something
Ben Gacem knows a story when she sees one. After a career working as an engineer around Europe and North Africa, she grew sceptical of foreign investment and development and returned to Tunisia in 2013 to see if she could encourage economic growth by preserving cultural heritage rather than replacing it. She spent months seeking out and listening to the stories of hundreds of artisans in Tunis&rsquo Unesco World Heritage-listed Medina &ndash shoemakers, perfumers, woodworkers, bookbinders, milliners, weavers &ndash and founded a leading grassroots organisation, Blue Fish, to help them keep their businesses afloat and their crafts alive.
One way to do that: bring the buyers to them. &ldquoOur local market is too small to preserve our arts and crafts,&rdquo she told me. But by restoring historic homes as guest houses, she&rsquos brought thousands of visitors from around the world into the workshops and storefronts of the Medina&rsquos artisans.
&ldquoAt first the artisans didn&rsquot understand why people wanted to see their workshops or watch them make hats or slippers,&rdquo she said, but now it&rsquos become a symbiotic relationship. Guests receive a customised map with the locations of dozens of workshops and shops full of handmade leather goods, rugs, perfumes and treasures that make for very happy hunting in the warren of souks. As a result, they seek out and support micro businesses that are keeping Tunisian heritage alive.
Ben Gacem also put a small army of craftsmen to work restoring the guesthouses. It took seven years for the gypsum carvers, ceramicists, wood workers and stone layers to restore the first guest house to its former glory. Like the rest of the enchanting Medina, every element of the buildings has a story, from the broad marble slabs on the floor of the courtyard (&ldquoWe had to remove and label them, one by one, to put in the plumbing,&rdquo she told me) to the mismatched columns that were likely repurposed from Roman ruins by the Arabs who founded the Medina in the 7th Century.
Ben Gacem believes that Tunis&rsquo cultural heritage shouldn&rsquot just be preserved, it should be passed down. The guesthouses have become hubs for culture, hosting dinners, lectures and concerts that are open to the public and full of locals from the neighbourhood. She also encourages young artisans to take up apprenticeships and trains local teens in the hospitality industry, so that the cultural legacy of the Medina will stay in the hands of its residents.
While Ben Gacem works to preserve culture inside the Medina, outside its walls a swell of young Tunisians is redefining that cultural heritage through arts, music and design. Among the standouts is Anissa Meddeb, who blends Tunisian textiles and Asian influences to create fresh, fashion-forward clothing for her brand Anissa Aida. Born and raised in Paris to Tunisian parents, Meddeb studied fashion in New York before deciding to move to Tunis to start her own line.
When she first got started in 2016, she said it was tough finding quality fabric in a sea of fast-fashion polyester. So she scoured the small towns in Tunisia to find the best silk, linen and cotton weavers to collaborate with. &ldquoI wanted to get back to the roots of artisans,&rdquo Meddeb said. It took her months to find the right partners, but now she commissions fabrics from across the country for her line, which is sold in local boutiques like Musk & Amber as well as in shops across Europe.
When I asked Meddeb why a rising design star would move from a fashion mecca to Tunis, she was clear: &ldquoThere&rsquos an energy in Tunis now, especially with younger artists. People have something to say.&rdquo
There&rsquos an energy in Tunis now, especially with younger artists. People have something to say.
For travellers looking to tap into that energy, and the beautiful design that goes with it, head to the neighbourhoods north of downtown Tunis. Closest to the city centre, in Mutuelleville, stop by L&rsquoartisanerie for hand-woven plant hangers and decorated mirrors, then visit Mooja and Elyssa Artisanat to try on the latest in Tunisian fashion. In the trendy La Marsa neighbourhood, you&rsquoll find contemporary pottery in a fresh black-and-white palette at Noa Atelier a floor-to-ceiling selection of handwoven foutas (a traditional towel perfect for the beach or your guest bathroom) at Hager Fouta and streetwear with cheeky phrases like &ldquoThe Harissa People&rdquo (a nod to Tunisia&rsquos piping-hot chilli paste) in Arabic calligraphy at Lyoum. Finish your tour in the seaside neighbourhood of Sidi Bou Said, where, tucked among the charming blue-and-white houses, you&rsquoll find Rock the Kasbah, a quirky homewares store built into a traditional house.
But great design isn&rsquot the only thing you&rsquoll find dotted among the luxurious houses and charming villages along the northern coast. It is also where you&rsquoll find those world-class Roman ruins I escaped the Eternal City to find.
Long before there was Tunis, there was Carthage, the ancient Phoenician port city that was Rome&rsquos arch-rival for centuries. In the epic poem the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil tells how Carthage&rsquos founder, queen Dido, fled Tyre in present-day Lebanon and landed in North Africa. When she pleaded for a scrap of land from the leader of the local tribe, he tossed an ox hide on the ground, saying she could have the land the hide covered. In a deft move of both semantics and surgery, she sliced the hide into thin ribbons and encircled an entire hill just above the port with it. This is Byrsa Hill, the best place to start a day of exploring the Punic and Roman ruins of Carthage.
At first glance, Byrsa Hill, which is dotted with villas and mansions, looks more like Beverly Hills than a Unesco World Heritage site. But unlike Beverly Hills, if you want to put a pool in your Byrsa backyard, you better call an archaeologist first. For centuries, one civilisation after another built homes on this piece of prime real estate, and digging just a few metres down can turn up African red slip pottery or the remains of a Roman mosaic.
While the hilltop offers sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea and a few Punic and Roman-era ruins, its main attraction, The Carthage Museum, is closed for renovation until further notice. Instead, stick to the sites at the foot of the hill: one ticket gets you into all eight major sites, which are within walking distance or a short cab ride.
My favourite of the eight is the Tophet, or Punic, cemetery. It may be one of Carthage&rsquos more diminutive sites, but its grisly history lends it an outsized role. Here, the ancient Phoenicians offered child sacrifices to the goddess Tanit and commemorated each one by erecting a sacrificial stone engraved with her image: a circle perched on a triangle, with outstretched arms. Dozens of these stones are clustered among a grotto of palms, in a placid but eerie scene.
Just up the road, the Antonine Baths cut a more imposing figure. The series of sand-coloured arches and marble pillars were part of a cistern and public bath constructed during the Roman era, one of the largest ever made. The complex is so vast that on my last visit I watched a lone Tunisian boy scout spend nearly 20 minutes trying to find his troop in a game of Sardines.
For those with an even greater hunger for ancient history (and a rental car on hand), a day trip to Dougga is well worth the effort. Just two hours&rsquo drive south-west of the capital, Dougga is the best preserved Roman city in North Africa. The vast Unesco complex, with its imposing Roman forum and temple, stands alone on a hill overlooking vast plains bursting with yellow wildflowers in the spring and amber grain throughout summer and autumn. You can spend hours wandering through the warren of well-preserved streets, imagining what life in the Roman town must have been like, and do it with the peace one can never find in Europe. Both times I visited, in April and June, I had the place entirely to myself.
Tunis may not have Rome beat in every category (the food, which is heavy on a trifecta of eggs, tinned tuna and harissa, often leaves something to be desired), but it doesn&rsquot have to. As Tunis folds its past into its future, it is creating its own legacy as a capital of culture, history and freedom.
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The following 11 captivating facts gives you a tip of the larger magnificent iceberg that awaits you to unveil should you dive into experiential exploration of Tunisia on your own.
11. Tunis is situated on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The area commonly called the old city of Medina.
Tunis is a beautiful city famed for its warm and magnificent weather. It is a land of great ancient architecture that blends Arabic, Italian and French artistic creations. Tunis is home to one of the oldest Medinas in the Arab world.
Tunis medina is buttressed by a fortress wall fence created to guard it against enemy attacks. Medina of Tunis has over 700 historic monuments that dates back to the Almohad and the Hafsid periods.
It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site with most of these monuments comprising of fountains, mausoleums, mosques, madrasas, and even palaces.
10. Though it is relatively small in size, Tunisia has great environmental diversity.
Tunisia is the smallest country in the Maghreb region comprising of a population of about 12 million people over an area of 163,610 square kilometers. However, its small size doesn’t diminish its status as a spectacular jewelry etched on the sands of the expansive Sahara desert.
While it shares the Sahara desert with so many Arab countries in the north, it has its own shades of unique climate that includes the temperate Mediterranean climate that makes it conducive for olives to grow.
This environmental diversity makes it attractive and habitable by Western tourists – not so hot, yet not so cold – and still not far off Europe.
9. The Sahel, a broadening coastal plain along Tunisia’s eastern Mediterranean coast, is among the world’s premier areas of olive cultivation.
Olive is one of the most appreciated plants in the Mediterranean region. Its extract, the Olive oil, is revered by world’s culinary experts and nutritionists for its unique healthy properties.
The Sahel olive growing region covers about 6,600 square kilometers and extends through three governorates - Sousse, Monastir and Mahdia.
Sahel region is not only popular with olive farming but also covers the highest number of pristine beaches along its coastline. It is home to almost 14% of Tunisia’s population of 12 million people.
8. Tunisia has only ever had five presidents.
Tunisia has had 5 presidents since its independence from France in 1956 with Habib Bourguiba as Prime Minister who eventually become its first president on July 25, 1957 upon its proclamation as a Republic.
He was later succeeded on by his Prime Minister Ben Ali in a coup d'état of November 7, 1987. Ben Ali was overthrown by a civilian uprising (the ‘Arab Spring’) on On January 14, 2011.
Fouad Mebazaa took over as acting President overseeing drafting of the new Constitution which paved way for election of President Moncef Marzouki on December 12, 2011 as the president.
On December 21, 2014, the current president Beji Caid Essebsi took over after defeating Marzouki in a General elections.
7. Tunis is currently the only town in Tunisia to be equipped with a metro (“tube”) service, which is more like a tramway.
Known as Métro léger de Tunis, is a network of light train system. Currently, it operates 14 lines with the longest line stretching 15 kilometers. The passenger services commenced in 1985 after completion some time later in 1984.
6. Tunisia has served as a popular location for some of Hollywood’s biggest films, among which include Star Wars, Jesus of Nazareth, The English Patient and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Tunisia’s tradition of theater entertain is almost two millenniums old. This is evidenced by the famous Amphitheater of El Jem in the city of El Djem built around 238 AD.
Many films have been captured within and around this amphitheater. Matmata is another great location for film-shooting. The Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata is where Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was shot in 1976. Two of Call of Duty Finest Hour’s missions were shot in the outskirts of Matmata.
5. In the Matmata area of Tunisia, people still live in underground houses.
Matmata is a small town in southern Tunisia inhabited by the aboriginal Berber-speaking people. These traditional underground homes became essential as a way of people escaping the strong heat from the desert.
These underground houses are created by digging a big open pit. Once the pit is dug, its walls are caved in to create houses (troglodyte houses) and rooms. One large pit can form a small underground village comprising of 5 to 9 families.
4. The most venomous spider in the world can be found in Tunisia.
Tunisian rocks and sands harbor quite a number of biting insects. Some of these biting insects include spiders. Some spider bites have proved so severe that they cause serious bodily effect. Thus it is important to take care when you receive a strange bite that you hardly know its source.
3. In Tunisia, women can pass on their names and nationalities to their children.
Tunisia is one of the most liberal countries in the Maghred region in as a far as women rights are concerned. There have been various law reforms to bridge the rights gap between men and women.
Recently, Tunisia passed law that allows women to pass nationality to children. Other than nationality, women can pass their family names onto their children (in some ways recognizing single parents).
The law also allows women to equally inherit property from their parents.
2. Traditional Tunisian cuisine reflects local agriculture. It stresses wheat, in the form of bread or couscous, olives and olive oil, meat (above all, mutton), fruit, and vegetables. Couscous is the national dish, and most people eat it daily in simple forms.
Kosksi (Couscous) is Tunisia’s staple cuisine. Kosksi is of Berber origin. It comprises of semolina, vegetables and meat (preferably, lamb meat).
Djerba is a common type of Kosksi whereby dry meat or fish is steamed or seasoned together with vegetables. The dry meat is preserved with olive oil.
Other popular cuisines include pasta (the most popular Tunisian cuisine) which is largely influenced by Italian presence, Chackchouka (whose ingredients include potatoes, soft-boiled eggs, onions, tomatoes, garlic and spices, prepared with olive oil).
1. The city Kairouan is the fourth most important city in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Kairouan is one of the most ancient cities in the Maghreb region. It was founded in 670 AD by Uqba ibn Nafi. It is the capital city of Kairouan Governorate in northern Tunisia.
It hosts the the holy Mosque of Uqba. It was a center of Islamic teachings, Quranic learning and Sunni scholarship in the entire Maghreb. It is currently a UNESCO World Heritage site
The Amphitheatre of El Jem
The Amphitheatre of El Jem is located in the town of El Jem or Thysdrus, as it was known in Roman time, in central Tunisia. Modeled after the famous Colosseum of Rome, this impressive monument is one of the most accomplished examples of Roman architecture of an amphitheatre, almost equal to that of the Colosseum itself. It has a seating capacity of 30,000 people, stands 36 meters high, and has a diameter of nearly 150 meters. Only the great Colosseum in Rome and the ruined theatre of Capua are larger.
The Amphitheatre of El Jem was built in the early 3rd century under proconsul Gordian, and was mainly used for gladiator shows and small chariot races. In those times, Thysdrus was an important center of olive oil manufacturing which was exported in huge quantities.
The amphitheatre is free standing, built entirely of sandstone blocks, with no foundations. Its facade comprises three levels of arcades of Corinthian or composite style. The amphitheater is the only one in the world, with the Colosseum of Rome, still have an intact facade with three levels of galleries. 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.
Until the 17th century, the amphitheatre remained more or less whole. From then on its stones were used for building the nearby village of El Djem and transported to the Great Mosque in Kairouan. During the struggles between the Ottomans and the Turks in Byzantine period, the amphitheater became a fortress and a place of refuge for the rebels.
The ruins of the amphitheatre were declared a World Heritage Site in 1979. Because of its good acoustics, it hosts the annual Festival international de musique symphonique d'El Jem.