Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

Dispatch 10 - Tunis

Kairouan to El Jem (70km, 43mi) to Tunis (by train) Explore the towering edifice for Roman entertainment.
Program options: El Jem Amphitheater (3rd largest in Roman Empire, 3rd C, 30,000 cap.), museum

A long day, a long way -- at least when a good chunk of it is by bicycle.  We were on the road by 7:40 am we pounded out the miles to El Jem. Kairouan - el Jem road, TunisiaThe is an apt characterization because the road is paved and flat with a few slight rises and dips and most of the land was being tilled. Olive trees seemed the primary business. We did pass through what looked like an occasional lake bed with random clumps of vegetation several feet in diameter dotting the lonely expanse. In short, this was the least interesting and least enjoyable riding day on the trip. -- great for putting miles behind you but at this point we had no shortage of those.  Unfortunately the truck traffic was also heavier than what we’ve generally seen more in the interior -- figure it is a sign of a healthier economy in these parts.

Even so we were made to feel welcome: No one here turns on their headlights during the day, except to flash a hello, it seems.  As always, quite a few people along the route yelled a “hello,” or “bonjour”.

Mosaic, Archeological Museum, el JemMosaic, Archeological Museum, el JemWhen we arrived in El Jem, we headed straight to the archeological museum as we had no time to waste with a 2 pm train to catch. Here again it is impressive how the large mosaics that Nine Muses Mosaic, Archeological Museum, el JemhaveMosaic, Archeological Museum, el Jem survived over the centuries. These were not as vivid as some of the ones at the Bardo and did not seem as sophisticated, but they were works of superb craftsmanship nonetheless.  The themes wereMosaic, Archeological Museum, el Jem similar: the nine muses, life style, parables, etc.  The mosaics were found in the magnificent coliseum we were about to visit and in the rich villas of Thysdrus, the ancient city 30,000 population, that grew up here at the junction of trade routes in the first century AD.

El Jem has Punic origins, dating back to the 5th century BC.  It was one of seven, agricultural provinces of Carthage.  But it is the Romans that made famous.

Coliseum, el JemThe coliseum at El Jem was the third of six large coliseums in the Roman Empire (Rome, ?, Jem, Arles, Nimes, Verona), and the most impressive Roman ruin in Africa (148m long, 122m wide, 427m perimeter).  It had a king's box, a for capacity 30,000 spectators, drainage,  yet it is 30km to nearest quarry.  There are also 2 small amphitheaters near museum.  The tour books say, the best time to see it is at sunset and next best is sunrise. We visited it at high noon with the sun nowhere in sight. Oh well, we had a train to catch. Frankly, this World Heritage Site coliseum would be impressive in any light. It dwarfs the surrounding buildings in a way that even the larger Coliseum in Rome does not. Much of the south wall is intact and the whole structure has been well preserved. One section of the seating has been reconstructed, but it is the surviving archways that catch your eye. It is hard to understand how they survived, even to the third tier, when the seating did not. Coliseum, el JemWhen viewing such a marvelous piece of engineering it is easy to forget the human cost in building it and the horrible uses that it was put to: savage, to the death battles between animals, between animals and men, and between men – most of which were really just gory executions.

The glory days of Thysdrus coincided with the decline of the Roman empire.  In 238 AD, Emperor Maximus of Thrace demands for heavy taxes sparks a Thysdrus tax rebellion (Gordian revolt - next emporer), which toppled Maximus and lead to lynching of chief financial officer of the province.

The coliseum was also the site of another spectacle, long after the Romans were gone. At the end of the seventh century (692), Queen Al Kahina, a Berber princess, leading resistance forces holed up in the coliseum and were besieged by Arab Hassan b. al-Nu'man and his troops. It is said she taunted them from the ramparts by displaying fresh fish that had been secreted into the coliseum through tunnels to a coastal town. It was her last stand.

Coliseum, el JemThe coliseum was again used as a military stronghold and suffered bombardments in 1696, 1850 and 1943:  1695 was during the politically very unstable period of Muradite princes (1684-1702); 1850 was during the Husseinite period of Pasha Ahmed I (r1837-54), who bankrupted the state; and, 1943 was during the allies advance toward Tunis during WWII.  It is amazing that as much of the structure is still standing as is.

The train station is only a hundred yards from the coliseum so we dropped off our stuff, bought our tickets and scattered to find lunch and/or goodies for the train; round loaves of fresh bread, cookies, chocolate bars, and a fruity drink. The train ride was unremarkable, but very much on time.

We reached Tunis and pedaled to our hotel in the center of town, just a few blocks from the train station. Once there, a nice hotel employee washed all of our bikes for us and we set about disassembling and packing them before gathering for our final supper together.

Addendum

If you continue to the coast from El Jem you will reach the picturesque town of Madhia.  Its first claim to fame came in the 10th century AD when it briefly became the capital of the conservative Fatimid as they were on their way to Cairo.  The built the Great Mosque, which is regards for its simplicity of form, proportion, elegant stonework, bastion on corners of north wall and cisterns).  They also cut the port.

In 1016, Zirid came through and massacre of Madhia Shiites. In 1066, the defensible location was used to advantage by the Zirid against the marauding Beni Hillal.  The peace was not permanent because in 1088, Mahdia was attacked by Sicilians, and later by the Genoese, the French, the Ottoman corsair Dragut (~1540), Charles V (1550), the Spanish (1554), the Turkish, and the nights of Malta (17th C)

Turning north up the coast you will come to Monastir, the Phoenician town of Rous Penna and Roman town of Ruspina.  There was also a Byzantine and Moslem presence.  In and after the l796, the Rabat was used to defend against Sicilian, Viking and Berber attacks. It is also the family home of the Bouguiba's so the ornate Bouguiba Family Mausoleum and Bouguiba Mosque are located there.

The oldest and biggest town on this part of the coast is Sousse.  Starting in the 6th century BC it was a Phoenician outpost, third port after Carthage and Utica.  The Romans called it Hadrumetum.  It was there second city after Utica in the 1st century AD.  In 238 AD, it was sacked by Capellianus -- the same year as the Gordon revolt in El Jem.  In the 5th century the Vandals rolled though.  To provide for better protection of the city the Byzantine built the first wall in the 6th century.  The Arabs added to in in 859 and it was restored in 1205 and at the end of the last 20th century.  Some of the architectural features of Sousse are the Rabat (790) with its great view; the Great Mosque (850) with its pure Islamic space: clean, freshly dressed pillars and arches (17th C Turkish arcades); the Kalaout Koubba (11th-12th C) which is regarded for its simplicity proportion; and the Zaouia Zakkak with its Turkish minaret decorated with stripes of colored tiles.

     
 

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