We drove through rolling red hills dotted with stunted trees on an already hot June morning. As we topped a hill on the narrow highway, a towering circle of ancient walls dominated the landscape, reaching skyward from the arid countryside. The lofty, reddish-brown stone columns and arches were unmistakably Roman. At first glance, the structure seemed wildly out of place, almost artificial, maybe a movie facade left behind when the directors packed up their troupe and headed back to Hollywood.
My wife, Dominique, and I glanced at each other, “wow” smiles written all over our faces. We were just outside the whitewashed village of El Jem, 127 miles (205 km) southeast of the capital city of Tunis, in Tunisia, a small republic on the north-central African coast.
As we walked to the amphitheater through the narrow streets of El Jem, the scope and beauty of the edifice and the sense of ancient times flowed over me. I walked slowly around the crumbling remnants of the 3rd century Roman structure, searching out details. Wind and sand have eroded the soft red stone until only a few vague suggestions of carving remain, but size alone conveys the one-time grandeur of this structure, which is almost as large as the famous coliseum in Rome.
I tried to fathom how this sleepy inland town had once-upon-a-time been a metropolitan hub of commerce and luxury, second only to southern Italy in production of olives and grain. Nothing else could explain the presence of this immense stadium that seated 30,000 people for combat spectacles during Roman heydays.
Tunisia is an exercise in contrasts, with unexpected sights such as the magnificent Roman coliseum accented by modern-day sights, such as the rows of tourist hotels lined up shoulder to shoulder along fine sand beaches bordering the crystal-blue Mediterranean.
My wife and I rented a car and moved at our own pace. It took only a day or so of navigating Tunisian roads to understand that the rules are a little different there. I quickly understood that lanes marked on the pavement were often viewed by local drivers as highly flexible “suggestions.”
It’s a poor country of people accustomed to walking, and pedestrians use the roads freely. I learned to keep my eyes open for groups of school children walking home along the roads, slow donkey-drawn carts, bicyclists, small herds of sheep and the occasional escaped camel.
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