It broke my brain a little when, in the early 1990s, one of my friends pointed out that the old Star Wars sets were still standing in the deserts of Tunisia.
Star Wars wasn’t some normal, standard movie. It stood in a category of its own. You couldn’t just visit the sets on a standard Hollywood backlot tour. In my mind, if you wanted to visit the locations used in Star Wars you needed an actual spaceship.
For over 20 years the dream of visiting Tunisia had rattled around in my head, until my friend Ryan and I finally embarked on the Ultimate Nerd Road Trip through Tunisia to step into some of our favorite films…
THE “SANDCRAWLER” HOTEL
We landed in the capital city of Tunis, rented a car, and navigated the confusing roads out of town. We passed the distinctively shaped Hotel Du Lac along the way. It’s widely believed that it inspired the design of the Sandcrawler from A New Hope, but I’m here to bust that myth: The Sandcrawler was designed long before George Lucas ever set foot in Tunisia.
The hotel is currently closed (and likely to be demolished in the coming years) so we didn’t bother to stop in, but since it has figured into so much of Star Wars urban legend it was nice to wave hello from the A1 highway.
We made our way south to the island of Djerba and broke up the three-hour drive with visits to some of the filming locations used in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (Covered in other posts here and here!)
Djerba was crucial in convincing George Lucas to film in Tunisia. When the production team was scouting locations for Luke’s home world they were considering Morocco, but the architecture felt too…Moroccan. When Lucas saw the unique domed-roof houses in Djerba, however, it really felt like another planet, and the decision to film in Tunisia was made.
OBI WAN’S HOUSE
Djerba is home to Ben Kenobi’s house, which is only seen in a brief establishing shot for literally five seconds, and only in the original version (it was removed for the Special Editions). But still: Ben Kenobi’s house!
It’s basically just an empty hut, I’m pretty sure local fishermen use it for temporary storage. In the film it appears to be located in a barren desert, but in reality it overlooks a serene coastline. I brought some of my original Star Wars toys with me on the trip; it felt good to bring Obi-Wan back home after all these years…
The nearby temple of Sidi Jemour served as the location for Tosche Station, which can be seen for a few seconds on screen as Luke and Obi Wan speed towards the Mos Eisley Spaceport. True Star Wars nerds may also recognize it from a deleted scene in which Luke chats with his friend Biggs. We climbed up to the spot where Luke and Biggs witnessed a space battle and imagined George Lucas’s mind turning as he soaked in all the domed architecture.
For years Ryan and I had mocked Luke’s whining: “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” Even Luke himself had trouble getting to this place. But we had made it!
MOS EISLEY CANTINA
The final stop in Djerba was a small building reportedly used as the exterior for the Mos Eisley Cantina. Unfortunately the building is barely standing and hardly recognizable from the film. I’m not sure we even took photos from the correct angle. The whole area used to be dirt roads and domed buildings but it has been paved over and modernized. It’s great for the local citizens, but somewhat heartbreaking for Star Wars fans. It was still cool to place a hand on the actual Cantina. It clearly won’t be standing for much longer, so we’re happy we got to see as much of it as we did.
ANAKIN’S SLAVE QUARTERS
Ksar Medenine – 33.347272, 10.492051
Ksar Hadada – 33.100065, 10.313713
An hour and a half from Djerba is Ksar Medenine, an old grain storage building used as the exterior of Anakin’s house in The Phantom Menace. Like most Star Wars fans, Ryan and I pretty much loathe the prequels, but they’re part of the Star Wars legacy for better or worse and hey, we’re in Tunisia, may as well make the most of it.
Ksars are another distinguishing element of Berber architecture and Lucas visited a granary similar to this one a bit further south, which also cemented his decision to film in Tunisia. Supposedly, Lucas originally envisioned these granaries as a home for the Jawas and he planned out a whole scene of them popping out of the little doors, but it was never filmed. When Lucas returned for the prequels he finally got to make use of these curious buildings.
We headed to another granary called Ksar Hadada, which allowed us to actually enter the Tataouine Governate and grab photos by the “Welcome to Tataouine” road sign. In the early drafts of Star Wars, Luke’s home planet was actually called Utapau but after Lucas visited Tunisia he decided to name it Tatooine instead. Being able to say, “Yes, I’ve been to Tatooine,” is a dream that lives in the heart of every true Star Wars fan. Seeing that simple, utilitarian road sign was actually quite a beautiful moment.
Ksar Hadada was also used in Phantom Menace and is currently a hotel. Admission to walk around the site was only a few dollars, and it included a Coke at the bar inside. I don’t think it usually includes a private guided tour by one of the guys who works there, but we got one anyway. He proudly showed us where Anakin built his pod racer and where Qui-Gon Jinn talked with Anakin’s mother. We pointed out that some of their renovations had slightly altered the appearance of the filming locations, which seemed like a mistake if they’re trying to market the hotel to Star Wars fans. He said he had told his boss the same thing but was overruled.
The hotel itself would make for a fun stay, with oddly shaped rooms and an underground dining hall. We took pictures with their cheap Darth Vader mask and light saber toy and at the end of the tour our guide let us pose for photos with his pet falcon!
C-3PO AND R2-D2 ESCAPE POD LANDING SITE
We moved on to the towns of Matmata and Tozeur, which were used in combination as the location of Luke Skywalker’s house, which is covered in an entirely separate article because it was such an incredible experience…
The short version is that we went to the “Lars Homestead” location in the salt flats outside of Tozeur and re-created the iconic “binary sunset” shot, after which we got stuck in the mud and had an extremely gracious local push us out.
If you return to the highway from the Lars Homestead and cross to the other side, you can visit the desert where C-3PO and R2-D2 crash-landed their escape pod in the beginning of A New Hope. Just follow the sign that says “Dune De Sable” and walk in a straight-ish line for about 10 or 15 minutes.
There’s no way to really recognize the landscape from the movie, we just followed the GPS coordinates and had faith.
Then a woman with a herd of goats approached us and, in a thick Arabic accent, asked, “Star War? Star War?” She waved at us to follow her.
So far, we’d had amazing luck trusting the help of the Tunisian people, so we figured we’d just go with it. She led us over a few sand dunes and we started to wonder if this was going to be a worthwhile walk with so much left to see that day. There was a hut off in the distance. She called out to a man with a camel, indicated that we wait a moment, and ran over to the hut.
She came back with our friend who helped us out of the mud the night before!
She also brought back a bag and started pulling out pieces of fiberglass. Somehow we understood that these were pieces of the original Star Wars sets! Our best guess is that they were fragments of the Krayt dragon skeleton that was left behind on those very dunes. We figured we’d take a gamble and spent about $25 on a few pieces, split between the two of us. If anyone out there knows how we might authenticate them, please get in touch! If they’re legit, it was well worth it. If not, well, they threw in a camel ride for free!
Our next stop was the Mos Espa set from The Phantom Menace, about a half hour away. Tunisians in general really don’t know or care much about Star Wars, but in recent years they seem to have realized there’s touristic value in preserving the sets, so Mos Espa has managed to remain relatively intact.
It was cool to see an entire Star Wars town, even if it was from the prequels. They had full-size moisture vaporators and we at least recognized Watto’s shop (even though the top half of it was created with CGI). Despite efforts to preserve the sets they were mostly full of sand and clearly falling apart. It’s likely they’ll be swallowed by the shifting dunes in the not-too-distant future.
We had the place pretty much to ourselves aside from a very brief encounter with a Chinese tourist group that unloaded off a bus, wandered around the site for ten minutes, and then moved on. We didn’t go to any great pains to recreate any specific shots, but hey, at least I’ll die knowing that I got to see the spot where Jar-Jar Binks stepped in poop! Classic!
Near the Mos Espa set is a patch of desert with some unusual rock formations, which was used for the landing site of the Royal Starship and the first fight scene between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn. Again, we didn’t invest much time in lining up the exact shots, but the landscape was picturesque enough on its own.
Jawa rock 34.033664, 8.281778
Tusken attack 34.036189, 8.280425
Mos Eisley viewpoint 34.038956, 8.278164
Tusken Raider sniper point 34.039253, 8.277953
The final location was certainly the most rewarding, with several iconic scenes having been filmed in close proximity to each other. Just over an hour from Tozeur is Sidi Bouhlel Canyon, which was also featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark. We pulled into the parking lot, which happens to be the spot where Luke discovered a pile of slaughtered Jawas. There are several possible entrances to the canyon, but none of them are marked, so we just walked in the middle-most direction. We figured we’d try to find the spot where Luke and Obi-Wan overlooked Mos Eisley since that was the deepest and highest location inside the canyon, according to our research. Then we’d catch all the other locations on the way back out.
Unfortunately, after maybe a half hour or more of hiking, we couldn’t find a path to the lookout. We took the highest trail we could find, and we could see the bluff from where we were, but there was no obvious way to get to it. On the walk back we grabbed this shot, though:
Later we followed a trail that led down into the center of the canyon. The first stop was “Jawa rock,” where the Jawas ambushed R2-D2. It has worn down over the years, but the cracks and indentations on the canyon wall behind it confirmed that we were in the right place. As a substitute for a Jawa robe, I pulled the hood of my USC sweatshirt (an alma mater that George Lucas and I share) over my head and we took a series of five photographs that we combined later to make it look like I was a troop of Jawas. And I was also able to place my original R2-D2 action figure from when I was a kid in the spot where the actual R2-D2 got zapped.
Not far away was the location where Luke was jumped by a Tusken Raider, and near that was the place where Obi-Wan discovered an unconscious Luke. The canyon floor has eroded over time, but we were still able to line up the rocks and the background pretty closely. When we first discovered the spot I was bummed that someone had apparently graffitied something on the canyon wall in the background, but the drawings are actually visible on the wall in A New Hope so I’m glad they still remained!
Nearby was the spot where Luke and C-3PO first found R2 and yelled at him for running away. I pulled out my action figures for a photo, and took a moment to appreciate how cool it was that I was playing with my Star Wars toys in the actual location where they filmed Star Wars.
When you’re a kid, it’s an effortless act to get lost inside your imagination, and Star Wars is a perfect conduit into a fantasy world of adventure and laser beams and space ships and friendly talking robots. As an adult, the cold truth of reality keeps us from daydreaming as wholeheartedly as we did when our Star Wars action figures were age-appropriate.
But for a moment, standing there with my lifelong friends R2-D2 and C-3PO, my childhood sandbox had grown into a magnificent desert canyon. That idealized fantasy world had become three-dimensional. A gentle breeze blew, and all was silent.
Except for Ryan and I, who giggled like children.