After a week doing boat chores and fighting off a minor sickness, we were ready to venture further afield. An hour’s drive inland is the town of El Djem and the unlikely location of a Roman coliseum, the second largest in the Roman world.
El Djem was our first experience of a rural town in Tunisia. It was a little rougher around the edges but people were friendly and pointed out the way to the coliseum. There were some interesting produce stalls lining the road, one with a whole sheep hanging in front.
Why on earth was there a Roman town out here in the flat and arid landscape? And not just some small, insignificant town, but one large and successful enough to be granted the rights by Rome to built a large coliseum. It turns out the founders of the city saw the success of the wheat and olive growers in the area and decided they wanted some of that success. Water had to be brought via aqueduct and building materials carried overland from the coast, but Thysdrus was born and grew to be the second city of Roman north Africa after Carthage.
Our first sight of the coliseum looming above the low level housing was very dramatic.
The coliseum is only partly intact but what remains is still stunning, particularly on the side where you can climb up high to the upper seating area where the views are far reaching. There is an information board in Arabic, French and English and we could wander freely; it was uncrowded when we were there, a huge contrast to the long queues to visit the Rome Colosseum.
When the Romans left, the coliseum was put to other uses. In the 7th century, a Berber princess took refuge here against Arab forces and later still, it was used as a source of building material, hence the damage.
As well as climbing up high, we were able to go down underground into the vaults where animals and people spent their last minutes before being thrown into the ring.
The El Djem Museum
Included with the coliseum ticket was entry to the El Djem museum which houses a collection of restored mosaics in a recreated Roman villa. The colours in the mosaics are amazingly vibrant considering they’re over 2000 years old. As well as underfoot, the mosaics are placed vertically on the walls so you can get really up close and see how intricate they are. Thousands of tiny pieces all placed precisely together to produce a single beautiful mural.
Outside are the remains of excavated Roman housing, some still with mosaics waiting to be restored.
There is no direct transport from Monastir to El Djem (unless you take a private taxi), however there are more options from the neighbouring town of Sousse – either train, bus or louage.
A louage is a minibus sized, shared taxi that can carry up to 8 passengers. Each taxi advertises it’s destination on top (in Arabic only) and above it on signs hanging from the louage station roof which are in both Arabic and French. People get on and once it’s full, off it goes. Prices are fixed and tickets bought either in a kiosk at the louage station or onboard. It’s a brilliant idea – not as big as a bus so no need to wait for a large number of people or keep to a timetable yet bigger than a car so keeping traffic off the roads. Every town should have a louage service.
The vans are white with a coloured stripe – either red, blue or yellow. We only used the red striped ones which travel between towns. When we first arrived at Monastir louage station, we probably looked a little lost, standing and staring at the overhead signs. And to be honest we were a little nervous too about what we might be getting ourselves into. One of the drivers came up to us asking where we wanted to go. Sousse please! He pointed out the next van going that way and then to the ticket kiosk. 1.9TD each got us a two piece ticket, half of which was handed over to the driver.
We were the last two passengers to take the total up to eight so there was no waiting, we were off. The van was a little past it’s prime and on that journey, we were glad that we weren’t driving as there were some interesting techniques on display. And it turned out we were sitting next to an American lady who was living here so we had a great chat about the country.
25 minutes later we arrived in Sousse at a large hanger like building that must have had near 100 red striped mini vans waiting in orderly rows. Along the front of the hanger was the ticket kiosk, with destinations and prices on display. We bought our tickets to El Djem and were directed to the van. The wait was longer at around 15 minutes and then we were dodging and weaving through the traffic on the outskirts of Sousse.
Beyond the towns the roads are very straight, with so much empty space there’s no reason to make corners. Roundabouts are popular, even when they only have two spokes. We travelled on the toll road, the flat scenery dominated by ranks of olive trees for as far as the eye could see.
For the return trip, we had to wait nearly an hour before the van filled up, we would probably have been quicker taking a bus back to Sousse. We got to experience the ‘back roads’ this time. Great until we drove through a patch of houses where speed bumps had been placed to catch the unwary – many of them didn’t have warning signs.
After a positive louage experience, we were keen to try out the other forms of public transport available in Tunisia and a visit to Mahdia allowed us to try the Metro de Sahel, an electrified train line which runs between Sousse and Mahdia with a stop at Monastir.
Mahdia is a small town set on a peninsula with a pleasant walk out around it. A fortress stands up high and along the shore are scattered the remains of the walls which once encircled the historic city, the former capital of this area. The rugged coastline is now dotted with white gravestones. At the end is Cap Africa which on the day we visited was being pounded by white horses and a strong westerly wind.
Within the outer walls was a second wall within which the royal founders of the city lived – this area is now the medina. It’s a far less hectic place than other medinas we’ve visited with wide cobbled streets and peaceful residential areas. Along one side stands the imposing Skifa El-Kahla gateway with a 50m long passage through it.
Our main reason for visiting Kairouan was to see the Great Mosque, described as the most impressive and holiest Islamic monument in north Africa. From the outside, it looks like a defensive structure, inside is a huge courtyard surrounded by shady galleries. And surprisingly, all the columns along the gallery are Roman, salvaged from Carthage and Sousse. There are even some blocks with Latin inscriptions on them. I guess it was an ancient form of reuse and recycle.
Another reason to visit Kairouan was to buy a carpet. We’d seen off a couple of attempts to direct us to a shop, one when we were standing right outside the gate in the photo above; a man approached telling us the medina was not through there but down a side street and we must hurry as it closed soon due to it being Ramadan. We thanked him and kept on walking through the gate, where of course we found the medina. However, when we left the mosque, a young man followed us out, saying he worked there and would direct us to a museum to which our ticket gave us entry. Doh! It was a carpet shop. The owners were very nice, gave us tea and when we said the large carpets were too big, fetched their smaller ones. We were very, very close to buying, liking the pattern of one but it was really too long. With profuse apologies we left and went to another store where we found one the right size for the boat.
The medina was very untouristy with one section dedicated to cobblers – a man was having shoes made for him whilst he waited.
Entry to the mosque was 12TD each which included several other sites. Women need to cover their heads and everyone must wear respectful clothing. We sought out a couple more sites. The first was the Aghlabid basins, huge water tanks from the 8th century, fed by water from the mountains 36km away. They are the only two remaining from around 15 originally.
Close by was another mosque we could visit, this one named the Mosque of the Barber (or Mausoleum of Sidi Sahab) built as a veneration to a companion of Muhammed. This was smaller but more beautiful than the grand mosque and more ornate with walls covered in colourful tiles.
We used a louage to visit Kairouan, able to travel directly from Monastir for 6.5TD each way. The journey took about 50 minutes, however, the louage station is about a mile from the central mosque. We walked down a busy street towards the medina, each side lined with shops and stalls. There was a large metalwork area with new items being made and old being sold.
Sousse is Monastir’s more famous neighbour, with a larger, UNESCO listed medina. Inside the solid, protecting walls, is a maze of twisty streets and covered souks selling everything from fish to shoes.
We saw more tourists here than anywhere else, but sadly it looks like the 2015 terrorist attack has impacted tourism with closed down hotels along the seafront.
Travel is incredibly cheap in Tunisia, at the time of our visit, the exchange rate was approx 3.3TD = €1.
|Item||Cost Per Person in TD|
|Louage Monastir to Sousse||1.9|
|Louage Sousse to El Djem||5.6|
|Coliseum and museum El Djem||12|
|Metro train to Mahdia||1.9|
|Louage to Kairouan||6.4|
|Kairouan mosques and museums||12|
|Metro train Sousse to Monastir||1|