Saturday, March 8, 2014

20 El Jem

El Jem, Tunisia, "the Developing World"

Back in the day, the School of Geography, Nottingham University whisked away to Tunisia approximately two dozen final year students who had elected to read "Developing World Studies" as part of the Bachelor of Arts stream.
Tunisia, it was decided, was sufficiently worthy and "developing world" to warrant Professor JP Cole to book us onto a Thompson's winter package holiday to Sousse. Charter flight, charter hotel, charter bus to the beaches and self organized field trips out to parts of North Africa. Truth be told, I didn't really understand what was going on with that program. But I upper seconded my way through the finals.
The only thing I thought "developing" of Tunisia was that none of the shops had prices stuck on the stuff for sale, and that I had to haggle with a man about the carpet I wanted to hang on my room wall back in Radford.
Most of my friends on the program used the same selection criteria as I had. In the early 1980s not many of us had had a chance for air travel mid winter. The Developing World course gave us the opportunity to get a week away form the freezing Nottingham fog, just a week after New Year, and for less than fifty subsidized pounds. The course work needed to get the ticket didn't seem that tough; one essay a few thousand words a couple of weeks after the return. Tunisia? You'd be daft not to.
The trip, as predicted, was great. It was my introduction to walled markets (souks) at Sousse and Monastir. Hello to caves in the desert. Howdy to ancient classical ruins at Carthage (on the suburban Tunis commuter train line) and El Jem. They were all good fun places to do. That's all I need to say; there's no egotistical need for a whoop, whoop, whoop review or an online rave about my discovery of something no one else has found. Or getting in with the locals. Nope. I enjoyed the trip and I felt warm visiting the spots with my classmates. Mission accomplished. I might want to go back one day.
El Jem then... Thirty years on and no matter how many photographs I look at and "helpfulling words of useful travelling advices" I scan, El Jem still only seems to have one decent thing in it; a dobbing massive Roman sports stadium.
I've looked up El Jem on the travel sites and there is one bloke (checking him out he seems like a retired old French geezer) who was written over TWENTY reviews on the place. TWENTY slightly ever so slightly different reviews of the same attraction; camera position altered by maybe 4 yards; time of looking separated by maybe 20 minutes, and words of narrative adjusted by three sentences and a comma. Barmy bloke, completely barmy. If I hadn't been there myself I would be thinking there was at least a fortnight of stuff to do and see.
Yet when I dig into my El Jem memory cells all I can think of is a Roman ampitheatre. That's it. Nothing else.
Think of El Jem and think of Roman ampitheatre. Think of Roman ampitheatres and I think of El Jem, and also the Collisseum. As Sunsilk is to shampoo and shampoo is to Sunsilk, so El Jem's pile of architectural stone is the same to ancient ampitheatres. El Jem. Wembley.

El Jem is flipping immense.

In the picture at the top of the page, I have ringed my mates (who insisted on singing Wham songs throughout the tour, don't ask) so you get an idea of the flipping immense scale of the flipping immense El Jem. There's four of them in the picture.

With scenic and theatrical back drops such as El Jem it's no surprises that movie directors loved filming their epics in Tunisia. With a lick of paint and a few canvas sheets it's possible to turn parts of Tunisia into an ancient Rome, a spaghetti west or a warring futuristic star - and still have change leftover for a bag of batter scratchings on the way home. The spot shown below is a wooden and canvas Roman forum, with expanded polysterene and plastic statues here and there.

In 1984 (the time my university class arrived) we'd eaten a fairly light diet of mythic films. Here are some film quotes that the place evokes.
"I'm Spartacus"

"Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?"

"Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one (aka Mr. Hur). That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength."

"The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. A striking story. But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?"

That last morsel is so good that we'll have an encore...

"My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North. General of the Felix Legions. Loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."
... cue the Wagner.

"Tell me, are Christian wives so ugly that no one looks at them?"

"Two things only the people anxiously desire - bread and circuses."

"What happened, gentle Greek?"

Crackers the lot of them, even if a couple of them are definitely on the wrong side of politically correct and modern day health and safety on a uni trip.

El Jem. What theatre. What an imagination starter. What a stage.

It makes me wonder why modern parents get nervous and "is it violence inducing" worried about giving their kids a water pistol for Christmas - but have no vacation qualms watching their little Tarquins and Jamies run riot in an ancient Roman slaughtering pit. 
- - - - -
At Carthage. Future Professor of Geography strikes a pose...


At somewhere in Tunisia. Me, future best man / Chairman of Ford Britain, and others strike a pose...

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