“What a desolate place this is,” says C3PO after landing on the planet of Tatooine in “Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.”
While not a planet, Tatooine (usually spelt Tataouine) is a real place. Located in Southern Tunisia, Tataouine was a prolific filming location for the iconic sci-fi trilogy. At first glance, you can see what the hapless droid was getting at. The region surrounding Tataouine presents, at first, a featureless wasteland that would fill any visitor, human or droid, with a sense of foreboding.
But this impression does not last long. The vast majority of Tunisia’s 8 million annual visitors go away with fond memories of the North African country. Tunisia is replete with white sand beaches and picturesque seaside towns such as Sidi Bou Said, the entirety of which is registered as a UNESCO world heritage site. As well, the ruins of ancient Carthage to be found in and around the capital, Tunis, boasts Roman sites that are truly world class in terms of size and preservation.
Many visitors come to Tunisia seeking a trip to a “Galaxy far far away.”
While there are many who come to Tunisia in hope of being transported to the world of “a long time ago,” there are other visitors seeking a trip to “a galaxy far far away.” The official Star Wars website even provides tips for “Galactic Backpacking,” listing the exact GPS coordinates where famous scenes were filmed, helping die-hard fans to track them down.
In 2014, the Tunisian tourist board launched a campaign to get Star Wars fans into the country, spearheaded by a video in which characters from the movie franchise dance to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” The video reached millions after it was tweeted by Pharrell himself. Coinciding neatly with the launch of the first of the most recent of the Star Wars films in 2015, “The Force Awakens,” the campaign helped give the Tunisian tourist industry an awakening of its own, following the blow it had taken from the terrorist attacks that same year.
Visitors are not only given the opportunity to see their favorite sites from the movies but are also shown the deep influence that Tunisia’s unique culture and landscape has had upon the sci-fi phenomenon.
In reality, the town of Tataouine was not used for any significant destinations in the original Star Wars movies. If you are looking for Luke, it is best to start in the town of Matmata, located some 79 miles (127 km) north of Tataouine. Matmata was picked as the filming location for several well-known Star Wars locations, including the town on Tatooine where Luke Skywalker grew up.
At first glance, Matmata appears just as C3PO described Tatooine to be – “desolate.” But, as Luke is later reminded by Obi-Wan: “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.” Lonely Planet seconds this: “the trick with Matmata,” they wrote, “is that to find its sights, you have to look down rather than up.”
Matmata is full of magnificent troglodyte dwellings, dug deep into the earth, with open air courtyards feeding off into passages.
Looking down, one can understand why Matmata was picked as the setting for Luke’s childhood. Below ground, the town is full of magnificent troglodyte dwellings, dug deep into the earth, with open air courtyards feeding off into passages and living quarters, burrowed into the sandstone to keep out the oppressive heat. The most famous of these houses appeared as Luke Skywalker’s childhood home, where he lived with his uncle Owen and aunt Beru, in “Episode IV.”
The site was used again in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” Today, it has been remodeled as the Hotel Sidi Driss, which provides tours for both overnight guests and day-visitors. The famous courtyard remains more or less intact, but the dining room, where Luke ate with his aunt and uncle, is now a bar. Other rooms are packed with Star Wars artefacts and memorabilia, with photographs of the original cast and shooting spread over the walls.
These underground dwellings are not the only examples of the influence of traditional Berber architecture on the Star Wars aesthetic. Throughout the movies, there is extensive use of Berber Ksour (fortified granaries with internal courtyards). Various ksour (ksar is the singular) appear as slave quarters on Tatooine, such as those in which Anakin Skywalker toiled as a child. Ksour that appear in the movies include Ksar Oued Soltane, Ksar Haddada, and the Ksar of Medenine. All of these are within a short drive of the town of Tataouine and should not present a challenge for galactic backpackers in their pod-racers.
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s cabin is a real house, now abandoned. It does not lie “out beyond the Dune Sea,” as is said in “Episode IV,” but overlooks the real Mediterranean Sea from a beach on the beautiful island of Djerba. Djerba is also home to the iconic cantina, where Obi-Wan and Luke first encounter Han Solo and Chewbacca having a drink to the sound of swing jazz.
Many of the best-known “Star Wars” desert scenes were also filmed in Tunisia, most famously around Tozeur.
Many of the best-known desert scenes were also filmed in Tunisia, most famously around Tozeur, on the inland side of the vast salt-plains of Chot El Jerid. Here is where Luke zoomed across the desert in his speed-racer, in pursuit of the runaway R2D2. Also to be found here is Ong Jemal, the bluff on which Darth Maul searched for Qui-Gon Jinn in “Episode I.” The bluff is named Ong Jemal because it resembles the tuft of hair on the neck of a camel – Ong Jemal (“Camel Neck” in Tunisian Arabic).
Perhaps the most important site in this region is the fully intact film-set from “Episode I,” which fans know as the town of Mos Espa. Today, Mos Espa provides the location for Les Dunes Electroniques, a music festival that takes place every November, making the most of the surreal desert backdrop and the novelty of the film-set.
Not far from Mos Espa is the house where Luke famously stood to watch Tatooine’s two suns go down, accompanied by the soaring John Williams score. Admittedly, visitors and festival-goers in Tozeur today only get half the sunsets, but, for serious galactic backpackers, there is no other way to get closer to the heart of the Star Wars experience.
Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series highlighting “Star Wars” tourism in Tunisia. Part one described how “The Force” has given new hope to the country’s tourism industry after decreases brought on by terrorism, revolution, and the current pandemic. Part two details Tunisia’s impressive ancient sites along with its Star Wars scenery, which draw in tourists seeking to explore the world of “a long time ago” and “a galaxy far far away.”