Raison d’etre of the provincial town of El Jem, located away from the coastline 42 kilometers from the resort of Mahdia, is a magnificent ancient Roman coliseum, the third largest in the world and the first (!) in terms of safety. Everything in the city revolves around and around the Colosseum: all roads converge here, life is in full swing here (not least thanks to organized crowds of tourists), and all city souvenir stalls are littered with images of the ancient bulk. Occupying an advantageous position at the crossroads of trade routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast, in the 1st century. El-Jem (which means “crossroads” in Arabic) became so rich that he was able to afford expensive mass entertainment: 30,000 city and surrounding residents craved bread and circuses on the tiers of the amphitheater. Check jibin123 for customs regulations and visa requirements of Tunisia.
How to get to El Jem
- on the louage, a local shuttle bus. Each city has its own station de louages, from where minibuses leave for different cities of the country. Please note that cars start off when all eight passenger seats are filled. The fare is about 4 TND from Mahdia (half an hour on the way), 4-6 TND from Sousse, 4-7 TND from Monastir (about an hour on the way). If you are traveling from Hammamet, you will have to make a change in Sousse, there is no direct bus Hammamet – El Jem.
- by train from Sousse and Hammamet (trains depart from Bir bou Regba station, 6 km from the city centre). The ticket price from Sousse is 7-10 TND in the first class, from Hammamet – about 10-14 TND. Timetables can be found on the Tunisian Railwayswebsite.
- renting a car. Although expensive, it is a very convenient way to travel, especially if you want to enjoy the play of the setting sun on the golden walls of the amphitheater. There may no longer be a suitable train in the opposite direction, and in the luage you will have to wait for the rest of the passengers indefinitely. Despite the remoteness from the main resorts, good roads lead to El Jem. Beware of donkeys and sheep, suddenly and out of nowhere coming out onto the roadway.
El Jem Hotels
There are no accommodation options directly in the city that could be recommended to foreign tourists – only a couple of native hotels with an incredibly minimal set of amenities. The ideal option is to stay in the resort of Mahdia, from where the city is about half an hour away by minibus.
Shopping: what to buy in El Jem
Souvenir shops are located in a semicircular gallery around the amphitheater. Here is a standard set of souvenirs, but one shop deserves attention: there is a studio for making mosaics. You can buy ready-made small panels or, if you have the funds and time to stay in the country, order a mosaic according to your own sketch. It is interesting and easy to observe the work of mosaicists.
On the tiers of the El-Jema amphitheater, 30,000 city and surrounding residents were hungry for bread and circuses.
Where to dine in El Jem
Restaurants (like everything in the city) are concentrated next to the Colosseum, on the square in front of the entrance. Here you can have a bite of sandwiches and pizza or dine with Tunisian cuisine – for example, order a set lunch of appetizers – meshuya and brik salad, shorba soup and hot – couscous or grilled meat. Here you can also drink freshly squeezed juice, contemplating the imperial grandeur.
4 things to do in El Jem
- Imagine yourself as a Roman emperor in the central box of the coliseum.
- Marvel at the ancient plumbing system at Villa Africa.
- See the famous owl and dead bird mosaic at the El Jem Museum.
- Drink a glass of orange juice with a History View.
Entertainment and attractions of El Jem
The main attraction is, of course, the Colosseum. Here you can take a walk along the arched passages, stand in the arena and enjoy its acoustics, climb to the upper tiers and survey the city below, and also go down to the underground rooms, where gladiators and wild animals were kept in anticipation of battles. The southern wall of the Colosseum has been preserved almost in its original form, but the northern one suffered during the Turkish conquest, use it as a guide to enter the square and the main street of the city. The amphitheater is open to the public from 7:30 to 19:00 from May to September and from 8:00 to 17:30 from October to April, the entrance fee is 10 TND, plus 1 TND – permission to film. In a small shop inside the colosseum, you can buy a DVD with a video about its history (about 20 TND).
The “small but proud” archaeological museum is located a kilometer from the amphitheater. Here are collected wonderful, perfectly preserved mosaics from private villas in the ancient Roman quarters surrounding the Colosseum. Note the drunken Dionysus and the inspiring painting of an owl and bird corpses with a caption something along the lines of “Envious people die of their bile, but an owl does not even blow in its mustache!” (an example of a separate genre of “protective” mosaics). Entrance to the museum is with a ticket to the amphitheater, no additional fee is charged.
Definitely worth a visit is the Villa Africa, a recently excavated and restored example of a rich ancient Roman dwelling. Here you can get an idea about the layout of buildings in that era, get acquainted with the water supply system and enjoy the colorful mosaics in situ, that is, directly on the floor in the halls of the villa. The information stand tells in detail about the technique of laying mosaics. Villa Africa is located at the back of the Archaeological Museum, entrance is with a single ticket, through the museum gate.
If you are lucky enough to come to Tunisia in mid-July – August, take the opportunity to visit the International Music Festival in El Jem. On Saturdays and sometimes in the middle of the week, concerts of classical and folk music are held in the arena of the colosseum. Among the invited stars are the Moiseev Ensemble and the Vienna Opera Orchestra (traditionally, the festival opens with a selection of Strausses), soloists of La Scala and the Bolshoi Theater. The program can be found on the festival website and is usually posted in June. Ticket price – from 10-15 to 25-30 TND, concerts start at 21:00. On the days of the performances, a special train is organized from Tunis, Hammamet and Sousse; you can also use the services of local travel agencies: the cost of the trip is 60-75 TND, including the ticket price.