El Jem: A Quiet Miracle

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A fierce sun beat down from a piercing blue sky, dropping a heavy shadow across one side of the oval-shaped amphitheatre. El Jem is said to be the world’s third-largest amphitheatre, after Rome’s Coliseum and the arena at Santa Maria Capua Vetere in Campania, measuring 138m long by 114m wide. It was built around 238AD, is marvellously well-preserved and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the day I visited, it was practically deserted. A young couple glared at me from their perch behind a yellow stone arch on one of the five steeply tiered rows of seats perched above the elliptical floor below. A few underemployed tourist guides flitted from dark recesses, touting for work like owls hunting for unsuspecting mice. Otherwise I was free to enjoy this magnificent monument alone.

I roamed up and down hushed layers of stone benches and curving arches, peeking out at the small untidy town of El-Jem and watching a few straggling mosque-goers answer the Friday call to prayers. With the amphitheatre heroically empty, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like when it was filled to capacity – estimates suggest it could accommodate somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 spectators. Walking through the dark tunnels beneath the sanded floor of the arena, I pondered on what it must have been like to be a gladiator or worse, a prisoner, treading this same path, with the large recesses at the side, today silent and empty, packed with caged animals breathing fear. Nearly two thousand years ago, audiences came here to watch brutal battles and deadly chariot races and the ochre sand would have been stained with blood; today, visitors flock to hear classical music performances in the summer season and the sand is drenched only in sunlight. My reverie shattered by the screeching disharmony of a rooster, I left the dusty underground caverns and scuttled back to the surface for a few more circumnavigations of the amphitheatre’s elegant arcades and stark stone seating.

It was hard to tear myself away from the photogenic majesty and mystique of the site, but I eventually left and settled into a table at the small café opposite the entrance gates, admiring the gracefully curving walls from the outside. Chatting with my waiter, the friendly Nafoul, over a glass of densely sweet mint tea, he told me that he’d worked in the café for 15 years and still enjoyed arriving there early each morning to gaze out at the amphitheatre from the café’s terrace. I can well believe it: coming here during my energy and fitness retreat in Tunisia, I’d missed my morning classes of Zumba and dance choreography, but this was a sight well worth playing truant for!

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