Biblical Archaeology Review 43:2, March/April 2017

Strata: Where Is It?

A. Italy

B. Jordan

C. Israel

D. Tunisia

E. Libya

Answer: (D) Tunisia

The amphitheater at El Jem is the only Roman amphitheater still intact in North Africa and is the sixth largest ever built—after the amphitheaters in Rome (known as the Colosseum), Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Pozzuoli, Verona—all in Italy—and at Carthage in North Africa. El Jem, Tunisia, is about 125 miles south of Tunis. The amphitheater is unique in Africa: It is the only free-standing example of a Roman amphitheater on the continent. It is very similar to the well-known Colosseum—also known as the Flavian Amphitheater—in Rome, albeit smaller. Constructed around 238 C.E., the amphitheater at El Jem is about 120 feet tall, 485 feet long and 400 feet wide. By comparison, the Colosseum is 157 feet tall, 615 feet long and 510 feet wide. The amphitheater’s three tiers of seating could hold about 35,000 spectators.

This structure is fascinating not only due to its preservation and uniqueness, but also because of the detailed history of reuse surrounding the site. Several times throughout its history, the amphitheater has been used as a stronghold. The most famous tale comes from the seventh century C.E., when the Berber queen al-Kahina supposedly used the fortified building as a base in her struggle against Arab invaders. Local resistance movements have always found the amphitheater an easily defensible structure, so much so that in the mid-18th century, the Ottomans blew up part of the western end of the structure to prevent rebels from using it.

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