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Travel: Star Wars and Beyond

Scattered across the south of Tunisia, at the northern edge of the Sahara desert, are sites filmed for Star Wars dating from as early as 1976. Some places in Tunisia were built specifically for the filming of the movies and remain as abandoned film sets, while others already exist as part of the natural and cultural landscape of Tunisia.

After learning about Tunisia through Soukra, customers and friends of Soukra had the opportunity to go on a week-long trip to Tunisia in March 2023. While the mom was co-presenting at a 4-day linguistics conference in Sousse, we helped the father and son experience the southern part of Tunisia with a guide local to the region. They’re ready to return again. Follow them through the eyes of their son.

Interested in traveling to Tunisia and want to take your trip to the next level? Book one of our travel concierge options today.

The Amphitheater of El Jem

The amphitheater of El Jem.

    TUNIS TO MATMATA

After landing in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, in the late afternoon on a Friday, the family drives 2 hours (depending on traffic) south to rest their weary eyes in the coastal city of Sousse. The next morning, the mom begins the 4-day conference in Sousse while the father-son duo drive an hour south to battle the beasts in the 3rd c. CE Roman Amphitheater of El Jem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the largest Roman amphitheaters in the world, with an original capacity of 35,000 and three levels of galleries made with golden sandstone local to Tunisia. Here, they don’t have the hordes of people that are typically found at the Coliseum of Rome.

El Jem amphitheater

The amphitheater of El Jem.

Following the fall of Carthage at the hands of the Roman army in 146 BCE, the Roman colony of Africa Proconsularis was established. At its largest point, Africa Proconsularis extended from the western shores of present-day Libya, across all of Tunisia, to northeast Algeria. Thysdrus (current El Jem) flourished as an important point along ancient trade routes that connected coastal ports to the Empire’s hinterland, as well as in it’s role in the region’s olive oil production and trade. The amphitheater, along with the detailed and figurative polychrome mosaics and the archaeological remains of ancient Thysdrus, demonstrate the wealth of this ancient city.

The El Jem Museum

The El Jem Museum.

In addition to its amphitheater, El Jem has an impressive museum built adjacent to ruins of a vast Roman villa. The museum houses exquisite floor mosaics and a remodeled Roman villa. To experience the museum and its collection of mosaics from home, their website now includes virtual tours.

Welcome Sign to Matmata

The Matmata sign before arriving to Matmata.

From here, they continue south 3.5 hours to Matmata and the Hotel Sidi Idriss. The view out side their SUV changes as they move south, from rows of olive trees to barren landscape.

Feeding a camel in Matmata Tunisia

Feeding a camel in Matmata.

Before arriving to their hotel, they stop to visit and feed camels.

Sidi Idriss Hotel in Matmata

Sidi Idriss Hotel in Matmata.

    MATMATA AND HOTEL SIDI IDRISS

They arrive in the afternoon to Hotel Sidi Idriss, aka the Star Wars hotel, which opened in 1969 in a traditional underground Berber home. The hotel was used for the filming of Lars Homestead in 1977 for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and in 2002 for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Despite being a modest hotel, with shared toilets and showers, the father-son duo thoroughly enjoy staying at this iconic site.

A visit to a Berber home and family in Matmata.

A visit to a Berber home and family in Matmata.

They then visit a Berber family in their home in Matmata. Berber houses, also known as troglodyte houses, are built underground with small rooms built into the earth leading to a main courtyard. Thanks to the local guide, Firas, who is close to the community here, the family welcomes the father-son duo into their home. The 5-year old son plays with the family’s children, exploring different parts of their underground house.

Star Wars Hotel Sidi Idriss in Matmata

Sidi Idriss Hotel in Matmata.

    TATAOUINE TO TOZEUR

Yes, the Star Wars desert planet of Tatooine is named after the real-life village of Tatouine. The next morning, they set out from their hotel for a 2 1/2 hour drive to Tataouine. 30-minutes into a winding drive through rugged terrain, they drive through the hilltop village of Toujane, which offers views of Matmata Mountain. Throughout the area are hilltop towns built for defensive purposes.

Dinosaur sculpture in Tataouine Tunisia

Dinosaur sculpture in Tataouine, which inspired the name of the planet of Tatooine in Star Wars.

Before entering the village of Tataouine, they visit this dinosaur sculpture, a reminder of the dinosaurs that roamed this party of the earth. Skeletal remains and fossils can still be found in the region and at the Museum of Earth Memory in Tataouine.

The stacked granaries in Ksar Ouled Soltane Tunisia

The village of Ksar Hadada near Tataouine.

Fortified towns with granaries, or ksars, are found throughout the Maghreb. They visit the village of Ksar Hadada, where Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace was filmed to represent Mos Espa on the planet Tatooine. After exploring Tataouine and surrounding areas, they get back on the road for the long 4 1/2 hour drive northwest to Tozeur.

En route, they stop at for a bite in Douz, the “gateway to the Sahara,” before crossing Chott el Djerid, the largest salt lake in the Sahara desert.

Tozeur in Tunisia

Rooftop of the Dar Saida Beya Hotel in Tozeur (L), street in Tozeur (R).

March is known for high winds in the area, and they encounter a sandstorm while visiting Tozeur. Thanks to their guide Firas, who is from Tozeur and well-prepared for this weather, the winds don’t stop them from experiencing the natural and built heritage in and around Tozeur. They arrive at their hotel Dar Saida Beya in the early evening, and dine in Tozeur before retiring to bed.

Chebika oasis in Tunisia

Chebika oasis near Tozeur.

    TOZEUR

They drive 45 minutes to hike the oasis of Chebika, a former Roman outpost turned-Berber mountain stronghold. The area was used to film Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and The English Patient. They are at the south eastern edge of the Atlas Mountain range, which extends 1,600 miles west through Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. They hike up the local mountain, visiting caverns, rivers and a waterfall.

Ong Jemal, camel's neck, rock formation near Tozeur, Tunisia

Ong Jemal rock formation near Nefta and Tozeur.

They head west towards the town of Nefta to climb Ong Jemal, a rock formation that resembles a camel’s neck and head. From the top are views of the surrounding desert and sand dunes, and was Darth Maul’s lookout in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

Star Wars sites Mos Espa and Lars Homestead near Nefta and Tozeur in Tunisia

Mos Espa (L) and Lars Homestead (R) near Nefta and Tozeur.

The final two Star Wars structures they visit are Mos Espa near Ong Jemal, and Lars Homestead, the home of Luke Skywalker, on the northwest edge of Chott el Djerid sand lake. Other than the movie-set structures here, there are only quads and camels camped here.

Sbeitla archaeological site in Tunisia

The Roman archaeological site of Sbeitla.

    TOZEUR TO TUNIS

Today is the 6-hour drive back to Tunis, with a stop midway at the Roman archaeological site of Sufetula (current Sbeitla). Similar to El Jem, Sbeitla grew in affluence through olive cultivation and as a crossroads of ancient trade routes. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire ruled in Tunisia for over a century. In 647 CE, the battle of Sufetula between the Byzantines and the Arabs marked the decline of Byzantine rule in the region and the arrival of Arab and Muslim rule. The region was called Ifriqiyyah during Arab rule, which came from the Roman word for Africa.

doorways and door frames of Dar Ben Gacem hotel in the medina of Tunis

Doorways and door frames of Dar Ben Gacem Hotel in the medina of Tunis.

After another 3-hour drive, they arrive at Dar Ben Gacem hotel in the medina of Tunis, one of the first Arabo-Muslim cities of the Maghreb, built in 698 CE. They are reunited with the mom and regale her with the stories from the south over dinner at the hotel. This was also when the father-son duo say good-bye to their guide Firas. They continue to stay in touch via WhatsApp, and hope to meet again, whether in Tunisia or elsewhere.

Sidi Idriss Hotel in Matmata

Sidi Idriss Hotel in Matmata.

    TRIP OVERVIEW

Day 1 Friday: Arrival, Tunis to Sousse
Day 2 Saturday: Sousse, El Jem, Matmata
Day 3 Sunday: Matmata, Tataouine, Tozeur
Day 4 Monday: Tozeur
Day 5 Tuesday: Tozeur, Sbeitla, Tunis
Day 5 Wednesday: Tunis
Day 6 Thursday: Carthage, Sidi Bou Said, Tunis
Day 7 Friday: Departure

    SOURCES

El Jem – Perseus
The Amphitheater of El Jem – UNESCO
Scafidi Travels for Bradt Travel Guide to Tunisia
Star Wars – The Guardian
Troglodyte Homes of Tunisia -The Atlantic
Chott el Djerid – Atlas Obscura
Lars Homestead – Atlas Obscura
Sufetela – Perseus
Medina of Tunis – UNESCO

All photos taken by this San Francisco-based family.
May 2023

    CHECK OUT OUR GUIDES TO TUNIS:


TUNIS – Where to eat, sleep and shop
TUNIS – Shop local
LA MARSA – Where to shop and sleep

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