el-Jem is a gem!

December 19, 2008 in Africa, Travelogue, Tunisia

Remember that gold star I said I thought I should get in my passport for driving in Tunisia? My Dad should get one too. We rented cars and took off for El-Jem this morning. He only stalled out in round abouts a couple of times. He hasn’t driven stick for years (the last time he did was in New Zealand in a rented camper van and it reduced my Mom to tears: she ended up driving!) With that as precedent, I thought his first day on North African roads went rather well.

Of course we picked the coldest and windiest day yet to visit el-Jem. I was wrapped up so tightly, from head to toe, that the man at the ticket window peered out from behind the bars and asked, “You Tunisian? There’s a discount if you are.” Unfortunately, no discount.

El-Jem is a town about 60 km south of where we are staying, in Hammam-Sousse. It is the sight of some of the most important Roman ruins in North Africa. There is a colosseum there that rivals that of Rome itself. It is a little smaller, but it is far better preserved. We were delighted to find it almost empty (three other visitors, maybe) instead of standing in line for over an hour just to get in, like we did in Rome… AND we were delighted to pay twenty bucks for all six of us (including the archeology museum across town (instead of nearly a hundred in Rome.) It got even better. Once inside, this colosseum is truly open to the public. No sections barricaded off.

The kids gleefully grabbed flashlights and dove into the caverns beneath the arena floor where animals and gladiators would have been kept and explored the deep wells in some rooms and wondered about the slots in the floor in others. Having exhausted the subterranean level, they turned their attention to the grand arena itself. We found seats, with the grandparents, on the first level of the gallery and watched the show. They trumpeted loudly and announced one another as they ran out onto the arena floor through the main entrance as at the end, as Gladiators, and made a lap for the crowd. Then, they brought in the lions: Gabriel. Sometimes the lion won, sometimes the Gladiator. They held races. They held contests. The paid each other off to throw the race so the underdog (read that Ezra) could win sometimes. Just like real life. It was a great show. All that was missing, thankfully, was the blood. I looked at my Mom, half way through a performance and said, “Now all we need to make this a REAL Gladiatorial contest are the Wood kids.” They are six of the kids’ good friends who love nothing more than a sword fight to the death.

We climbed all the way to the top and looked out over el-Jem, a sprawling, one story metropolis of the usual crumbling brick and plaster buildings that characterize this part of the world. Mom and Dad tried to remember if the town had been there when they visited, almost forty years ago. Dad said he thought not. Mom said she was sure she couldn’t remember because they hadn’t stayed long enough for her to notice. Evidently they’d been in a rush. She did, however, mount her first camel outside the colosseum at el-Jem, so many years ago and was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see one this time. The ghost of young Gramps came out to play and he told the children stories of their first trip across North Africa, before I was born, with friends from Australia, who the children have met. We staged a treasure hunt for inscriptions. The oldest one that we found dated was from 1896. There were others in Arabic and symbols that appeared to be much older. People have been visiting the colosseum for thousands of years and leaving their marks. We left only footprints.

Naturally, we had to have coffee and the horrible camel tasting mint tea at the cafe next to where we parked the cars… in exchange for them “watching” the cars for us. We shivered through our obligatory cup and then started off across town to find the archeology museum that was included in our ticket price. We almost gave up before we found it… way on the other side of the main street, past the bus station. We were so glad we didn’t give up. This museum is absolutely full of the best mosaics (outside of churches) we’ve seen on the whole trip. They are far better than those of Ravenna, and many of them older. Again, we had the place to ourselves. Mom and I came away with a burning desire to try our hand at creating mosaics in part of our houses… I’d like to do the door frame around our next house. Mom wants to try the sunroom floor. We’re both crafty… in both senses of the word!

By the time we climbed back into the cars for the drive home it is safe to say that we were miserable. At least I was. Chilled to the bone, wearing a fleece sweater, head wrap, my jacket AND my Dad’s. It does not give me much confidence for our desert camping trip next weekend.

Tony will post our pictures soon, in the meantime, there is an on line virtual tour of el-Jem that you can take if you’d like, it was brought to my attention by our good friends in New Hampshire, Brad and Kathy Brown, who are graciously hosting a basement full of our stuff! We knew we loved them!