I have subsequently visited the Colosseum in Rome, the amphitheatre in Pompeii, and returned to El Jem; El Jem remains my favourite. The reason for this is three-fold: the lack of other tourists, the freedom to move about within the ruins and its beauty.
The Land Rover bumped over the road jolting the seven of us crammed into its basic seating against the sides. Our guide, Sadiq, sat resplendent in the front passenger seat. The February sky was a pale blue, far more pleasing than the grey clouds we had left behind, as the dust of the arid land dotted with olive trees gave way to the city of El Jem. Low white buildings stretched out in front of us, occasional minarets disturbing the flow of flat roofs. At the end of the road, filling the windscreen with every metre that we drew closer was our destination.
“It is better than the Colosseum in Rome,” Sadiq gesticulated expansively out of the window as the driver swung the car around the edge of the building. The sides of the largest Roman amphitheatre in Africa rose before us, arches and columns on top of arches and columns. As soon as the driver drew to a halt we spilled out of the car and took in this monument of Roman propaganda. We were unbothered by the hawkers who had plagued Bartering Barry (as we had nicknamed one of our travelling companions) every step of the way on our trip; the town appeared to be in a slumber. The only sign of life was a gathering of weathered old men outside a café drinking their dark coffee, cigarette smoke curling up from their stained fingers.
“Was this a big town when the amphitheatre was built?
“A very important town. Olives. Olives were a great export. Come, come.” We followed our leader down the wide arc of steps to the ticket desk where he gabbled away whilst waving us through.
“Are you not coming in with us?”
“No, no. I have seen it many times already. I go for coffee. See you in 45 minutes.” With a smile and a wave of his hand Sadiq turned towards the café.
We split up to explore. The total number of visitors for us to fall over? Just we seven. I headed into the theatre’s underworld. The vaulting of the corridors, dark and damp, was as carefully constructed as that of the theatre above. Rooms and chambers led off of the corridors, once home to gladiators, prisoners and wild animals. What had they felt down here in the dark with the noise of the crowd above them – fear, excitement, resignation?
Back into the sunlight and a clamber up the steps to take a seat – just one of thirty-five thousand – offered a view shared by men of a different age. My fellow passengers made small figures in the centre of the elliptical arena as the sun pushed through the theatre’s apertures and warmed the ancient stones. With dazzled eyes I transformed Barry into a victorious gladiator, bloodied but not bowed, drinking in the rapture of the crowd as he waited to see his fate.
My trips to El Jem were taken in February 1996 and September 1999.