Question: Where in the world is this cave-dwelling community once used as the set of an intergalactic movie?
Answer: Matmata, Tunisia
Located in the arid valleys of Tunisia’s Djebal Dahar region, the underground cave dwellings of Matmata are certainly one of the most unusual landscapes in all of Tunisia. Appearing like honey-combed craters in the ground, these troglodyte structures have provided shelter for Berber-speaking residents for more than a thousand years, and in 1977, the dwellings were made famous as a set in the Star Wars films.
Unlike many troglodytes which are built into the side of a mountain, the homes of Matmata are created by digging a large circular pit into the sandstone ground, soft enough to excavate using simple hand tools. Connected to the round pit—which serves as a central courtyard—are multiple underground rooms, offering protection against the desert’s intense summer heat and winter winds. Passageways similar to trenches bridge multiple homes to one another and create a labyrinth-like community.
While Berbers have been digging their homes in the ground since about 264 to 146 BC, the village was largely unknown to the outside world until 1967 when severe flooding required residents to seek assistance from the Tunisian government. About ten years later, George Lucas chose Matmata’s Hotel Sidi Driss as the set for Luke Skywalker’s home in the 1977 film, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. Matmata’s otherworldly design provided the perfect backdrop for the film’s fictional desert planet “Tatooine” named after the real Tunisian city of Tataouine. Since then, the Hotel Sidi Driss has become a popular destination for Star Wars fans to visit.
Those who live in Matmata primarily make a living off of olive farming as well as tourism, receiving tips from visitors. However, the community is faced with the threat of depopulation as more and more residents are moving to modernized villages and towns. Flooding and severe droughts have damaged some of the structures, and there are few remaining residents that know how to dig or repair the cave homes. Despite this, many of those that still do call Matmata their home, have lived their entire lives there and have no plans on leaving.
5 More Interesting Buildings and Structures in Tunisia:
- Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine: This castle-like fortification built from dried mud is another structure so mesmerizing that it was featured in a Star Wars film. Built in the 15th century by Berber people, the multi-story structure was once used as a fortress to store large amounts of grain. After abandonment for many years, the fort was styled as a slave quarters in the Star Wars film, Phantom of the Menace.
- El Djem Amphitheater: With seating for about 35,000 people, the El Djem Ampitheater is one of the largest in all of the Roman empire and the largest and best-preserved in Africa. Historians believe the construction of this amphitheater began in the year 238 AD, yet the enormous structure still remains remarkably well intact.
- Great Mosque of Kairouan: Also known as the Uqba Mosque, the Great Mosque of Kairouan is the oldest Muslim place of worship in Africa and the fourth holiest site in Islam. Expanding over 115,600 square feet, the holy structure has a fascinating mix of pre-Islamic, Eastern Islamic, Roman, and Byzantine architecture.
- Dougga, Teboursouk: Once home to 5,000 residents, the ruins of Dougga make up the best-preserved ancient Roman city in North Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remaining structures include a theater that would fit about 3,500 people, a large villa, baths, and two large arches.
- Tunis Medina: Within the maze-like walled streets of the Tunis Medina, hundreds of stunning palaces, mosques, fountains, restaurants, and shops are decorated with colorful tiles, marble columns, and carved stucco. As a city-within-city, the narrow streets and alleyways is a sight to behold and the unique architecture offers relief from the hot climate.
Explore the mesmerizing troglodytes of Matmata when you join O.A.T. on our New! Tunisia: From the Mediterranean to the Sahara adventure.