#14 El Djem, A quiet miracle – Tunisia

“I have always traveled with the sky/and the silence”

From ‘Freedom’s Faces’ by Amina Said

Africa. The word itself is so evocative of exotic skies, unfamiliar landscapes, the cradle of humankind, adventure, difference. The first time I went to Africa was also the first time I left Europe. It was a holiday to Tunisia, in North Africa, a small smudge like a thumbprint at the top of the vast map of the continent. I was still at school and I went with my parents and my sister, the last family holiday we all took together for many years to come.

We stayed in a resort near Sousse, where we lay on the soft sand, basking in the warm beams of the mellow autumn sun. We also visited the local bazaars, where we bartered ineffectually for prayer rugs and dates and toy camels. Speaking of camels, we went on a brief excursion into the Sahara, where we visited a lush palm-draped oasis and rode the ‘ships of the desert’. The memory of our parents perched behind the humps of these huge, spitting, smelly beasts can still bring my sister and I to fits of laughter all this time later. The boot was on the other foot at an evening of traditional feasting and entertainment at our hotel a few evenings later, when my dad decided it was a good idea to volunteer me to participate in the Arab horse racing demonstration. And so I found myself careering at break-neck speed round a sawdust strewn tent on the back of a feisty stallion, clinging for dear life onto the rider in front of me, my only reassurance the thought that he must be an expert at this and so we were unlikely to fall off (we didn’t).

Another place I had snippets of memories of was El Djem, 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. And so when I found myself back in Tunisia about 20 years later, I was keen to revisit it. On the day I went back, a fierce sun beat down from a piercing blue sky, dropping a heavy shadow across one side of the oval-shaped amphitheatre and 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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Natural highlights – the Sahara desert

Cultural highlights – El Djem; Sidi Bou Said village; the UNESCO World Heritage site of Carthage; the Islamic cultural capital of Kairouan; shopping in local souks

Food & drink highlightsharissa (fiery red paste made from chillies, tomatoes, olive oil and spices); brik (a deep-fried filled pastry, the Tunisian version of the Turkish borek); lablabi (a chickpea soup flavoured with garlic and cumin); tabil (a typical Tunisian spice mix made of garlic, cayenne or red pepper, coriander and caraway seeds)




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