One of the sets from the Phantom Menace was left standing and open to the public — thanks to Indiegogo and a squadron of volunteers, it’s still here.
Say what you will about the film — so much movie-making wizardry happens behind closed doors or distant places that the average mere mortal never gets to see or touch a piece of history for themselves. While Tozeur, Tunisia definitely qualifies as ‘distant’, it’s doable by a train ride and a guided tour.
Tozeur, Tunisia holds the former Star Wars set of Mos Espa, the Tattooine settlement that was home to Anakin and Shmi Skywalker in the 1999 movie Phantom Menace. In the real world, this involves a journey across unmarked roads, deserts, and a more violent ride a car than I’ve experienced in a car accident. Getting here requires a guided tour, but one that’s easily arranged through your hotel once you arrive. There’s no need to book ahead or online, since these places are bound to charge you more than someone on the ground.
Some 50 kilometers from the city of Tozeur, the road started smooth enough and easy enough to drive. If you weren’t looking at sand, you were seeing white salt or the Atlas mountain range. Plants (tamaris) and fences used to stop the desert and prevent sandstorms from reaching the road.
The standard tour will take you to a couple other places — the first picture comes from the first stop, La Grande Cascade (the great waterfall). If Thailand is on the ‘banana pancake trail’, Tunisia is quite clearly on the pizza trail. Crafts, cloths, clothes, and your name in Arabic banged out on a bracelet can be found amidst the geoids, mica, amethyst, and brown desert roses. With Tunisia’s tourism industry as it is, every tourist coming through this area is pleasantly received — but eventually hawked. Like most places in Tunisia, it’s low-pressure and easy enough to negotiate, especially if you’re buying more than one thing.
The other place you’ll visit on the standard tour is the abandoned Chibek / Chibeka village. Hire a local guide (10 dinars) or hike the hills to enjoy the sights yourself. The village was abandoned in the 1960’s after a flash flood made it uninhabitable, but there are enough buildings around in a labyrinthine pattern to make it a worthwhile stop.
It’s not what we came to Tunisia for, but that’s the beauty of traveling, perhaps.
Called Ong Jemel, the distinctive ‘camel’s neck’ has been featured in The English Patient along with the Phantom Menace. There’s a small souvenir shop here, but watch your step as it can be slippery on the salt lakes!
“What do you mean ‘no road’?”, I asked our guide, Tijiani. I might have sounded a little panicked.
“We have to be very careful driving through here”, “you see the tracks through the salt”, he said. Wind moves salt from the salt lake, and phosphate comes from this area.
“The Star Wars set is 50 kilometers through the desert,” Tijiani said. There are no signs for it — nothing at all, save the tracks of the four-wheel vehicles before it. While smooth at time, taller people will want to watch their heads! Our guide tended to follow an existing trail instead of carving his own path, but either way it’s bound to be very bumpy.
Finally, we arrive at Mos Espa. A kid with a fennec fox will angle for a few dinars to have your picture taken with it, and don’t be surprised to see a few souvenirs for sale.
It might be a little hard to picture these from the movie, but this is perhaps the impetus you needed to rewatch the movie again.
Plenty of photo ops here — with almost no one else around, no cell phone coverage, and nothing on the horizon, it’s about as ‘pure’ a shot as you can get.
It doesn’t take much to see what the movie never showed you.
Not pictured here are a few signs from the Save Mos Espa group, which raised a fair bit of money in 2014 to preserve and restore the site. If they hadn’t, you might only be seeing the tops of the building. It’s a little ironic that a country can painstakingly preserve a Roman-era coliseum and priceless works of ancient mosaic art, yet has put virtually no effort into a more modern icon of culture.
This is just one of several Tunisian desert sites used in the filming of Star Wars. There are issues, however, due to local conditions (“It’s like a giant mud field, with ruts that can swallow a tire,” our guide said) and time constraints. If you’re looking to get to all the ones mentioned in this Guardian piece, you’ll need a minimum of a few days once you’ve arrived.
Overall, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime destination for any Star Wars fan. It’s a bear to reach, even after you’ve arrived in Tunisia, but the exoticness makes it worthwhile.
Name: Mos Espa, set of Anakin Skywalker’s home in Tozeur, Tunisia (the camel’s neck is called Ong Jemel locally)
Address: desert, Tozeur, Tunisia, (Approximate GPS: 33.994007, 7.842756)
Directions: Starting from Tunis, Tunisia, take a train to Tozeur. This is an 8–9 hour ride on a second-world train system, so bring snacks and drinks, and expect delays. Once in Tozeur, make your way to your hotel and inquire about tours that are available. There’s no public transportation to the destinations, which are scattered throughout the desert — realistically the only way to arrive is to take a guided tour.
Admission: free (tour costs will vary)
Website: no official website