Star Wars, Tunisia, And Science
July 24, 2013

Star Wars, Tunisia, And Science

A galaxy long, long ago and far, far away may not be so far away, after all, as parts of Tatooine can be found in Tunisia. George Lucas used six different sites in that country as settings in the Star Wars saga, using them in every film except The Empire Strikes Back.

Some of these sites are natural landforms. Near the city of Tozeur is a canyon that Star Wars fans would recognize as the Juntland Wastes. This is the place where Luke met Ben for the first time. The same site was also used in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The English Patient.

Other sets used buildings that already existed and used them as backdrops for various scenes. Two such buildings were used on the island of Djerba. One of these is, in actuality, a small house used by fishermen for storage. In Episode IV, it is the house of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The other is a temple, seen in the movies as Toshi Station in Anchorhead.

Near the town of Medinine are a couple of ancient Berber granaries that served as the slave quarters in Episode 1 and the exterior of Anakin Skywalker’s house.

One of the more intriguing places is in the town of Matmata. Matmata is known for its troglodyte structures, which serve as homes for some of the local Berber community. One of these structures is the Hotel Sidi Driss, which served as the interior of the Lars homestead. You can actually spend the night in Luke Skywalker’s home. However, as a hotel, it gets poor marks from Trip Adviser. There is a small museum there of Star Wars memorabilia.

Other sets were built just for the movies. For the most part, after filming, the sets were left in place in the Tunisian desert. Because of the hot, dry climate, much of what was built is still there, relatively intact.

For example, not far from Tozeur is the igloo-like exterior of the Lars family homestead. Until recently, it was in bad repair. A Belgian fan decided it needed to be fixed. He set up the “Save the Lars Homestead Project” and raised $10,000 to patch and re-plaster the set.

In 2010, artist and photographer Rä di Martino sought out some of these sites and took pictures to create a series she calls No More Stars. In describing her project she says, “This is a series of photographs taken in the abandoned movie sets of the film saga Star Wars, filmed through the years in different locations in the south of Tunisia. Unexpectedly, those sets have been left on location, probably because in the middle of nowhere and because no-one from the local authorities complained and therefore after years some of it have now become ruins, almost as some sort strange archaeological sites. The particular hot and dry climate has helped maintain intact many parts of the sets, or buried under the sand just sections of it. The sets visited are in four different locations.”

One of the most extensive sets depicts Mos Espa, the Tatooine spaceport in The Phantom Menace. The set, built in 1997, is in good condition and is composed of 15-20 buildings (some of which are only facades.) There are also moisture vaporators scattered nearby in the desert. People have set up residences in some of the buildings. The site is on the Chott El Gharsa salt lake on the northern edge of the Sahara. It is popular with tourists.

Here’s where the science comes in. The Mos Espa set is in the path of a large barchan sand dune. These are crescent-shaped formations created by strong desert winds. Since 2002, the dune has moved from 140 meters away to only 10 meters away, moving at a rate of about 15 meters a year. They are heading towards the Qui-Gon’s Alley part of the set. It will be submerged under the dune and then reappear on the other side. A similar barchan inundated a nearby set in 2004, causing extensive damage.

Why would this be of interest to scientists? Because the people of Tunisia know better than to build structures in barchan-prone areas. Dunes migrate. The presence of these buildings, which can serve as a marker, provide a unique opportunity to study the movement of the dunes and measure their progress. The migration of barchan dunes is one of the most rapid examples of geomorphological change, but has been little studied in the area. Two tools are making the study work well at this time. One is the ready availability of satellite imaging. The second is the easy access to data available on the Internet without having to have specialized equipment or software. Also helpful is the wide availability of on-site photography over several years, due to its popularity as a tourist attraction. Meteorological data is obtained from a nearby airport.

In addition to its pure science aspects, the report shows concern for the economic impact of the barchan encroachment. “Given the importance of this site to the tourism industry of Tunisia, it may be that it is a candidate for mitigation measures, not being pursued at present,” the report indicates. “These could include erecting fences or walls, bulldozing the approaching dune (which would take considerable effort and would have to be repeated with each oncoming dune), or moving the site out of the path of the dunes.”

So, my advice is to hurry up and buy a ticket to Tunisia while there is still time. Spend some quality time in Mos Espa. Visit with the Lars family in Matmata (doesn’t that sound like a Star Wars name), but stay at a different hotel.

Image Credit: Istomina Olena /

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