22 July 2011

Tataouine – the Real Tatooine

The name is best known the world over as the fictional home planet of Luke Skywalker. Yet Tatooine is not only a dry desert planet of a binary star system in the Arkanis Sector.  It has been on the world map (at least the one of planet Earth) a lot longer than George Lucas - yet in a somewhat different guise.

A small city in the North African country of Tunisia, Tataouine (one of many spellings) is home to the ksour – amazing fortified granaries used by the Berber population. 

Yet for millions of movie goers they are instantly recognizable as the slave dwellings of the city of Mos Espa, the childhood home of Luke’s father, Jedi gone (very, very) bad Anakin Skywalker. In Berber, the city of Tataouine has two meanings, Eyes or Water Springs – that despite the fact it looks as arid as a city can get.

George Lucas used the area of Ksar Ouled Soltane in Tataouine when he filmed The Phantom Menace but his Star Wars connection with Tunisia goes back to the original Star Wars episode when he chose various locations in the country to depict the wider world of the fictional desert planet Tatooine.

He named the planet, with a slight variation in spelling, after the historic French garrison city.  This was perhaps a homage or perhaps simply because to Western ears the place does have a cool, out of this world ring to its name. Yet the buildings that served as a backdrop for Mos Espa are to be found in one part of that city - in an area known as Ksar Ouled Soltane.

Ksar Ouled Soltane began life several hundred years ago as a ksar.  This is a fortified granary which is spread out around a courtyard.  The granaries are multi-storied and made from adobe.  They are always located, like the one in Tataouine, on the top of the hill.  In this way the valuable grain was better protected from raiding parties intent on stealing it.

Although the granaries are now uninhabited the filming of Star Wars there has assured their survival.  As well as becoming one of the more important stops for anyone visiting Tunisia for a vacation which focuses on the history of the place, the granaries of Tataouine has also become a pit stop for fans of the Lucas movies undergoing an exotic Star Wars themed vacation.

By all accounts the place has not become themed beyond the point of redemption. There is only a single tourist shop there and while some of the locals do go around in Obi Wan-Kenobi robes it is sometimes difficult to tell whether it is in homage to the Jedi master or their traditional clothing.

There are no hotels in the town and very few restaurants so those visitors who arrive come in hired cars or mostly buses and only stay for a few hours.   This at least assures that when you visit you do not feel surrounded by other tourists.

The granaries of Ksar Ouled Soltane have, in this way, a feeling of exclusivity for those who arrive there. You might almost, after all, be somewhere in the Outer Rim Territories – but do watch out for the Hutts. Nasty lot by all accounts.