5 unique experiences in Malawi
November 14, 2023
Pulled by the lure of North African sun, the majority of those who travel to Tunisia are expecting an unconventional beach sojourn with a side of desert medinas, bustling souks and steaming pots of mint tea. For film buffs, however, there’s an alternative reason to explore Tunisia – the directors of Star Wars, The English Patient and Monty Python’s Life of Brian all chose the country’s palm-fringed springs, Berber villages and sprawling, sandy expanses to form the backdrop for their award-winning movies.
Read on for a rundown of the most memorable filming locations in Tunisia and how to include them on a custom-made trip planned by our knowledgeable, locally-based tour operators.
For the die hard fans, Tunisia is forever linked to the Star Wars saga – so many famous scenes from the films are located here – but only one place in Tunisia is known simply as ‘the Star Wars set’ when on the ground, and that’s Ong Jemel and the fictional village of Mos Espa.
As you embark on the long drive through the dunes of the Sahara, and pass the impressive salt lake of Chott el Gharsa, you’ll arrive at Ong Jemel. Literally meaning ‘the neck of the camel’, this refers to the neck-shaped rock face which sits on the edge of a desert canyon. Ong Jemel appears in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, when Darth Maul arrives on Tatooine and looks off towards the horizon. As a visitor, you’ll be free to climb to the top of Ong Jemel and absorb the view exactly as he did.
Nearby, Mos Espa, ‘the Star Wars set’, emerges from the desert like an otherworldly mirage. The set here appears almost exactly as it does in the movies, complete with village streets, market stalls, Watto’s shop and Sebulba’s cafe; and it’s also in this area that the pod-racing scenes were filmed. Strolling around this evocative village you can almost hear the clashing lightsabres; an unmissable pilgrimage for any fan on a Star Wars tour of Tunisia.
This inconspicuous desert ravine seems like any other at first glance, but its many appearances in the Star Wars movies led to Sidi Bouhlel’s alternative moniker: ‘Star Wars Canyon’. Nine scenes were filmed here in its craggy, meandering depths, including when the Tusken raiders attacked Luke Skywalker and the Jawas kidnapped R2-D2 in the first 1977 movie (now renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope).
Sidi Bouhlel is not only a favoured backdrop for Star Wars director George Lucas – the canyon also stars in Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The English Patient (1996). Read to the end for more Tunisian locations that were used in these famous films.
Any Star Wars tour of Tunisia wouldn’t be complete without visiting Tataouine, the namesake of the iconic desert planet, ‘Tatooine’. The Tataouine district is a film-makers’ favourite due to its sand-coloured Berber villages called ‘ksars’, which feature rounded, fortified cave-dwellings that allow inhabitants to reach underground for coolness.
Don’t miss the best preserved Berber ksar in the area, Ksar Ouled Soltane, once used as a granary in the 15th century. The village was depicted as ‘Slave Quarters Row’ in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, but with its cleverly structured vaults and otherworldly quietness, the site is intriguing in its own right. In remote desert surroundings with no facilities, it’s easy to feel you’re in a galaxy far, far away – and ponder how Berber civilisations survived in such unforgiving conditions.
Elsewhere in Tataouine, in the town of Matmata is Hotel Sidi Driss. Another Berber-built structure of traditional adobe caverns, it famously served as the interior for Luke Skywalker’s home in the original movie (aka Lars Homestead). Most of the film memorabilia at Hotel Sidi Driss was removed after the film crew left, until 1995 when a particularly enthused French fan of the movies was kind enough to restore some of the original murals and set decorations.
The Sidi Driss is a functioning hotel; guests can comfortably sleep in the cave-like bedrooms and have a cold beer in the restaurant, right next to where Luke Skywalker ate with his Aunt and Uncle before notoriously watching two suns set below the horizon.
Bonus Spot: Matmata is also the location of the final crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where they famously sang ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life’. Hardcore fans may attempt to explore the desert land around the outside of the town where the crucifixes were set up – but use the help of a local guide (!).
There are more than just cinephile reasons to include Djerba Island on a tour of Tunisia. Djerba is a blissful idyll brimming with multicultural heritage – where white-washed houses and ornate Jewish synagogues stand alongside pleasantly relaxed souks. Here, Muslim and Jewish market stalls offer all manner of locally-made crafts and goods, such as leather, silverware and jewellery.
The building that starred as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s home is located on Djerba, as featured in the 1977 movie now named Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The exterior may look slightly different when seen up close, as the scene in question – where the Millennium Falcon blasts off from fictional Mos Eisley – was CGI enhanced in later releases. These days, local Djerba fishermen still use this building to store their equipment.
Moving away from Star Wars sites and heading further north, welcome to the multifaceted capital of Tunis. As you’d expect from a former French colony, the culture and architecture here combines old-style French, mediaeval Arab and modern Islamic influences.
Though set in Italy, The English Patient used the ornate Arab architecture of Tunis to represent its flashbacks to 1930s Cairo; the real Cairo of the time being far too crowded and developed to come across as authentic. The scenes at the British Ambassador’s home in the movie were all filmed in front of traditional Islamic-style villas in Tunis.
Tunisia’s capital is a layered and deeply historic city, so wandering slowly through the impressive medina, shopping at scintillating souks, and settling in a café to watch the hubbub is the only way to truly absorb the way of life here. Sample the local food if you can; the Tunisian specialty is brik, a pastry parcel of tuna and/or egg, as well as harissa-slicked baguettes and richly flavoured cous-cous with fish.
Finally, the ‘Holy Lands’ featured in Monty Python’s Life of Brian were mostly filmed in Tunisia’s ancient fishing port of Monastir, or more specifically in the fortified monastery, the Ribat. The well maintained monastery overlooking the Mediterranean dates back as far as 797 AD, and used to house military volunteers. The octagonal corner towers, winding staircases and steep passageways formed an accessible Islamic-style backdrop that inspired many memorable scenes in Monty Python’s cult satire.
Beady-eyed fans will spot the outer wall that backed the ‘stoning’ of John Cleese; the passageway where Brian addressed the adoring crowd from his bedroom window; and even the tower he falls from when he’s abducted by aliens.
To continue along a Life of Brian themed route, a second site worth exploring is the Roman Amphitheatre of Carthage, located a 15 minute drive just outside of Tunis. This stirring historic site dates back to the 2nd century and is UNESCO-protected. For film fans, it’s also where Brian first meets the People’s Front of Judea during the ‘Children’s Matinee’ scene.
Make it happen
Most of the cinematic stops mentioned in this article are only accessible by car and tricky to find independently – but our locally-based tour operators are on the ground in Tunisia waiting to help you build the movie-led holiday of your dreams. Get in touch with our local experts today.