A veritable jewel of Roman architecture in Tunisia, the great amphitheatre of El-Jem is unquestionably the most accomplished Roman monument of its kind. Constructed in the period from 238 to 250 AD, the amphitheatre of Thysdrus is more recent than most arenas in the Roman world. It was probably built thanks to a gift from Emperor Gordian III (238-244) to the city and its residents who proclaimed his grandfather emperor.
An outstanding architectural achievement, this immense ellipse is divided into symmetrical sectors along the main axes and features an ingenious system of columns and arches supporting the vaults that support the stands, staircases and galleries.
The arena is provided with subterranean facilities to house the animals used in the shows. In the central part of the arena, a large opening provided air and light to the subterranean areas, and two trap doors were used to raise the wild animals cages to the level of the arena by means of winches. From the exterior the appearance of the building is solid; the ashlar façade has three levels with sixty-four superimposed series of arcades separated by engaged columns. The Basements were accessed by staircases leading to two underground galleries, accessible from the outside by ramps running perpendicular to the main axes and connecting the monument to the stables.
Listed as a World Heritage Site since 26 october 1979, the great amphitheatre of El-Jem is no doubt one of the last, if not the last, to be erected on the model of the Rome Colosseum. Its dimensions of 147.90 x 122.20 m for the main axes and 64 x 39 m for the arena, 427 m for the exterior and a height of 36 m place it in the third or fourth rank in the world after the Colosseum of Rome, the amphitheatre of Capua and the amphitheatre of Carthage. The amphitheatre could hold between twenty-seven and thirty thousand spectators. From the Middle Ages onwards, it fascinated Arab authors who considered it to be "one of the wonders" of the world, and it also enthralled European travellers in later centuries as a "distinctive mark of Roman Africa".
The amphitheatre was deserted with the arrival of the Byzantines in 534 or after their defeat at Sbeïtla/Sufetula by the Arabs in 647. The army of the Patrice Gregory found refuge there, then, a few years later, the Berber queen, Kahena, moved therein and made it her headquarters, from which, according to Arab historian El-Bekri, she "cut an underground passage in the rock that would lead to Salakta (the ancient Sullecthum), by the sea..."! Strongly fortified, it was used by the local population as a refuge and resistance base, forcing Mohamed bey el-Mouradi and Ahmed bey to bombard it in 1695 and 1850, thus opening up breaches in its walls.
The amphitheatre is one of the rare antique monuments in Tunisia that is still "alive" and in use, as it hosts several cultural events each year, such as the famous International Festival of Symphonic Music. It is also one of the most impressive antique monuments in the world. Listed as a world cultural heritage site since 1979, it is one of the most widely visited monuments in Tunisia, competing even with the Carthage Archaeological Park and the Bardo National Museum.