Matmata is an Oasis town in the south of Tunisia and is significant due to its underground houses. It was also one of the locations used for the filming of Star Wars. The original Skywalker house is now a hotel (The Hotel Sidi Driss) and Star Wars museum. The entrance is a gently inclined tunnel, large enough to take a fully grown camel, leading to the main courtyard. The house was also delightfully cool which is why the Berbers built the underground dwellings. Though underground, the houses retain the traditional Arabic or North African style groundplan. The central hollow (haouch) is approximately 10 metres deep and has between 4 and 8 rooms cutting off for eating and sleeping, stabling and storage. The walls are whitewashed and shelves and cupboards are cut where needed. Water is collected in cisterns. All of the rooms tend to be the same size and a wealthy family will extend the number of haouches rather than increase the size of each room.
The road from Gabes to Matmata cuts across the mountains. It was formally famous for its moon-like landscape but is now scattered with half-finished, whitewashed houses. The tradition of building underground is centuries old though the most famous caves of Matmata only date from the 19th century. Out of 700 pits that were dug there by the Hammamma Berber tribe, nearly half are still inhabited. (The tribe’s raids are also cited in Roman chronicles.) While some families now make a very good living by inviting tourists to visit their homes, others are not so welcoming and resent the intrusion of tourism. This is most likely due to experiencing one disrespectful tourist too many. The influx of tourism, influenced by the area’s connection with the Star Wars films, has rocketed in recent years to the point where the town now turns everyone who isn’t booked into a hotel in the area out at 4 pm to return to it’s normal pace.
Gasfa is the largest Oasis in the Jerid. There is little to offer tourists in the town and it lives mostly off it’s phosphate industry. It was once a Berber stronghold and then became a prosperous Roman colony under Trajan’s rule. It was also a site of Byzantine evangelism so despite the Arab invasion, the population spoke Latin until the 12th century. The Lezard Rouge Train Ride starts at Metlaoui, (about 40kms from Tozeur) and the train line follows an old mining track to a working phosphate mine. The tour guides told us that the train was used on the filming of the Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Arc. Though I have found references to Tunisia on the Indiana Jones website, I have been unable to find official confirmation of this. I have only been able to find mention of the ‘Indiana Jones Train’ on tourist travel blogs. Conspiracy or cock-up? I am unsure but the trip is well worth a go as it runs through some truly spectacular landscape.
- AA Explorer Guide: Tunisia (ISBN 9780749517175)