With the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise due to hit cinemas on December 15, director JJ Abrams’ unique vision looks guaranteed to breathe new life into the old story.
However, amidst the marketing furore and celebrity dazzle that accompanies the new chapter in the space saga, it is worth casting our minds back to where the whole story began.
Yes, we know what you’re thinking and you’re right: we’re traveling to a long time ago and a galaxy far away (or Tunisia, to be precise). Five of the six Star Wars films were filmed in the North African republic, birthplace of the Arab Spring and backdrop for numerous major films. However, it’s as the setting for the original Star Wars films that will forever cement the country’s place within the collective imagination of generations of science fiction fans.
Of the films shot in Tunisia, it’s the two that started each of the trilogies, (1977’s Star Wars, a New Hope and 1999’s The Phantom Menace) which are the closest associated with the country. For fans of the original films, Tunisia has a lot to offer. Many of the original sets remain intact, giving fans the chance to interact with cinema history in a way impossible anywhere else in the world.
Traveling through the southern reaches of Tunisia, it’s easy to see what drew the imaginations of the original filmmakers here. Huge salt flats stretch through the country’s central belt, reaching out uninterrupted into distant horizons.
AT HOME WITH LUKE SKYWALKER
To the far south of the country, close to the Mediterranean coast, is the tiny desert town of Matmata, boasting a population of about 2,500. It was here that the desert dwelling Berber people dug the large central craters that were to serve as homes and protection against the worst of the elements. From the central crater, small artificial caves stretched out, serving as hearth, home and – significantly – homestead for Luke Skywalker’s adopted family.
Some of these ancient dwellings still serve as homes to the people of Matmata, though most are now used as outhouses. However, the dwelling that served as the interior for the original 1977 film is still very much in use and offers travelers the opportunity to stay the night under the same roof as the savior of the galaxy for as little as Dhs88. The bargain price notwithstanding, potential Jedi need to be aware that, even on Tatooine, you get what you pay for; toilets are shared, mold is ubiquitous and sheets tend only to be changed with each rotation of the twin moons.
Slightly north of Matmata and close to Tunisia’s eastern border with Algeria stands the desert town of Tozeur, the Holy Grail for Star Wars explorers the world over. It was here that the bulk of the exteriors of the original film were shot, as well as the Mos Espa Spaceport scenes of the 1999 film. The good news for Star Wars hunters is that Tozeur is also home to the rather grandly titled Tozeur-Nefta International Airport, allowing visitors to Tunisia direct access into the very heart of Star Wars country.
STAR WARS CANYON
Instantly recognizable from the original film, as well as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘The English Patient’ is Sidi Bouhlel, or ‘Star Wars canyon’ as it came to be known, such was the frequency with which the original crew visited it. It was here that R2D2 fell afoul of the diminutive Jawas and Luke Skywalker did likewise with the rather more statuesque sand people.
Tuskan Raiders rarely visit the canyon today, but Star Wars spotters can easily reach this iconic location by guided Land Cruiser. The canyon itself is approached on foot via the mausoleum of the same name, whose white stuccoed walls dominate the desert landscape for miles around. The canyon itself carries a sense of absolute isolation and clambering around its rocky floor as the sounds of your footsteps echo off and around its forbidding stone walls is a feeling few will ever forget. A lifetime’s memories notwithstanding, travelers should still observe some caution when visiting the location. We have it on the best of authorities that the Jundland Wastes are not to be traveled lightly.
Away from Sidi Bouhlel is the vast expanse of the Chott El Jerrid salt flats – a further lesson in isolation. At more than 7,000sq km, these are the largest salt pans of the Sahara, their sheer scale seeming to soak up and absorb visitors within it. While the twin moons of Tatooine might only shine in the imagination, visitors are entirely free to stare photogenically into the middle distance and ponder a distant career with the Rebel Alliance at their leisure.
MOS ESPA SPACEPORT AND DARTH MAUL LANDIN SITE
An hour’s ride by pod racer, land speeder, or possibly guided 4×4 from Tozeur (including a complimentary white-knuckle dune safari), are the remaining sets from The Phantom Menace. Here, within easy striking distance from the iconic Ong Ej Jemal (the camel’s neck), site of Darth Maul’s landing from the same film, the moisture condensers of Mos Espa still point dutifully skyward.
Though many years have passed since the time of young Anakin Skywalker’s departure, the plastic artificiality that, even now, lends the set the unmistakable tang of the theme park still remains. Sadly, the clock is ticking on the sets’ continued existence, as the inevitable march of both time and sand combine to obscure the last domes of Tatooine’s second most famous sport for eternity.
Unfortunately, for many fans of the franchise, the same is unlikely to happen to their memories of the film. It is impossible to guess how the franchise’s latest installment will be remembered or how time has treated Han, Luke and Lea. Similarly, no one can know if, in 37 years’ time, fans will still be undertaking pilgrimage to the new film’s locations. After all, as George Lucas will tell you, following up on a classic doesn’t always end well.
Starwars.com offers a suggested itinerary for visiting the various locations. It’s worth checking with your foreign office for travel advice and terror alert status in Tunisia following two attacks this year.
Emirates flies direct daily to Tunis. Prices start at Dhs1,700. See emirates.com