Matmata, one of the few remaining Berber villages in Tunisia, is known for its “troglodyte” architecture, which is an unusual dwelling style.
MATMATA, TUNISIA – As they cross the desert and approach Matmata, an ancient Berber village in southern Tunisia, a long, dusty road opens before their eyes. Matmata’s unique architectural structure and treasured Berber tradition make it a popular tourist destination. It is most famous for its stone-carved underground homes.
The Berber underground houses of Matmata are located in a dry, pocked-out landscape in the dry valleys of southern Tanisa’s djebel Dahara region. These historic structures, made famous by Star Wars, are in jeopardy due to the emigration of their inhabitants to cities and towns.
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Every Star Wars fan worth their salt is aware that Luke Skywalker’s house is not located on Tatooine, but rather in Tunisia, where the filming took place. Or, to be more specific, the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, which was selected as the location for Luke’s family home due to its unique underground architecture.
Nevertheless, the Hotel Sidi Driss is not the only underground structure of its kind. Palm-studded and olive-growing Matmata is surrounded by a landscape dotted with similar buildings. It is uncertain when nomadic tribes decided to build their underground dwellings here, and the entire region remained mostly unknown to the outside world until the 1960s, when catastrophic flooding brought it to the notice of the Tunisian government.
The dwellings themselves are built by first digging a circular, deep hole in the sandstone, which is soft enough to be shaped using simple hand tools. Then, caves are excavated around the outside of the pit to build underground chambers, leaving the main pit as a courtyard.
Once completed, the troglodyte structure provides a cool retreat from the day’s heat and a strong residence that may last for decades. Unless, of course, significant rains similar to those in the 1960s cause floods, damage, and in some cases the destruction of subsurface dwellings. Extreme drought conditions can also cause harm to the homes.
Abderrahman Lachheb, president of the Association for the Safeguarding of Old Matmata, stated, “Like many other villages and towns in Tunisia, Matmata has witnessed the passage of many civilizations, which have enhanced its cultural history.”
Some of the approximately 1,200 dwellings that have been conserved are still inhabited by people. Others have been transformed into hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. Matmata has kept the Amazigh language, which sets it apart from neighboring towns, although its past is unknown.
He continued, “At 450 meters above sea level, the city offers a panoramic perspective of its environs.” Located between the eastern coast of Tunisia and the desert, the town serves as a hub for the surrounding cities, which are Gabes, Kebili, Medenine, and Tataouine, all of which are important cities in southern Tunisia.
“Half a century ago, visitors to Matmata would have seen nothing on the ground. Families would assemble in the pits or yards of their homes because everything was built below. “Recently, all of these houses were constructed,” stated Lachheb.
The cave-like dwellings tempered temperatures and protected the sun, according to historians, so that the majority of the old town’s inhabitants, who were Berber, could endure the hot climate. During invasions by neighboring tribes, the homes could have served as fortresses, according to some. During the period of French colonial rule, buildings in Matmata were utilized to conceal resistance fighters.
Lachheb stated that the Berber tribes frequently utilized the hills as fortifications and shields against their attackers. “They used the mountains as their residences, and there are 17 fortifications still standing in the highlands. After leaving the mountains, they carved these homes into the ground.”
He said, “They created 10-meter-deep holes, widened the perimeter from 15 to 20 meters, constructed an exit, and cut quarters for family members within the perimeter of the pit, since the father was the leader of the family.” Even the olive oil mill was excavated into the earth.
Matmata, one of the few remaining Berber towns in Tunisia, is believed to have been named for a clan that took safety in the mountains during the Islamic invasion.
Lachheb explained that the city was formerly known as Athwab in Amazigh, which means “the place of happiness and well-being.” Different religious landmarks, such as the Quranic school, Jewish temples, and other monuments that have survived the years, attest to the fact that all religious components once coexisted in the community.
Matmata is featured in a number of well-known films, including two “Star Wars” episodes, due to its distinctive architecture and landscape. It is the location of the annual Athwab Festival of Cinema, which was founded by citizens to honor the town’s contribution to filmmaking.
Fans of “Star Wars” can even spend the night in Luke Skywalker’s residence in Matmata. The movie’s depiction of a subterranean dwelling has been transformed into the popular Hotel Sidi Driss.
In addition to filming locations, Matmata is home to significant historical and religious landmarks and is renowned for its peculiar olive oil, a staple of the local economy.
Lachheb mentioned Sidi Moussa El Jemni, a shrine containing “very valuable and rare manuscripts,” as one of the city’s most important landmarks.
Matmata’s beauty and tranquility unfold before guests in a manner reminiscent of its underground dwellings. Matmata is one of the most beloved places in southern Tunisia, whether you’re interested in traditional houses, the town’s Berber heritage, or the stunning surroundings.
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