A spaceport in the Sahara | AspenTimes.com

A spaceport in the Sahara

Andy Stone
Aspen Times Weekly
Andy StoneAbandoned in the middle of the desert, these buildings were the stage set for the spaceport Mos Espa from the first Star Wars movie. The man is dressed, not in a Star Wars costume, but in traditional Tunisian robes.

TATAOUINE, Tunisia – I might not be the best person to write about this.

Sure, I saw the first Star Wars movie in 1977, when it was released. I even waited in line for an hour or so to make sure I got a great seat.

But after that, I confess, I lost track. I heard that the first movie later became “Episode IV: A New Hope.” So movie number one became Episode IV. That, I am sure, makes perfect sense to the people who knowingly refer to it as “ANH” (for, I assume, A New Hope) in some of the dozens of Internet posts I read before starting this little item.

Clearly, I am out of my depth here.

But, as we planned our trip to Tunisia, I saw that we were going to visit the town of Tataouine. That name rang a bell and I eventually remembered that Luke Skywalker’s home planet in that movie long, long ago was named Tatooine.

It didn’t take much research for even a non-enthusiast like me to discover that Tatooine (the planet) was most certainly named after Tataouine (the Tunisian village).

Along with that came the information that large parts of five of the six Star Wars movies were filmed in the Tunisian desert.

Fair enough.

But what I didn’t even begin to realize until we were in Tunisia was that Star Wars tourism is a thriving business.

I found out on our second day in the desert, when our guide took us to visit an abandoned set in the middle of nowhere. It was, as I later found out, the Star Wars spaceport of Mos Espa.

From the outside, the buildings look real enough – although they don’t match any other architecture in the country. From the inside, they are clearly stage sets, chicken wire, two-by-fours and spray-on cement.

The streets of the spaceport are littered with left-over space trash and strange machines. The few native Tunisians who are there, mostly to sell souvenirs to tourists, wear full-length robes with pointed hoods that look like Star Wars costumes, but are actually real native dress.

The next day we drove across the salt flats of Chott el Jereid, a vast empty wasteland that served as setting for various Star Wars scenes.

At one stopping point, crudely lettered signs reading “Guerre des Etoiles” – “Star Wars” in French – pointed out to the flats. Again, bits of strange machinery stood out on the salt.

Th day after that, after another long drive across the desert, we found ourselves in a spot that was both very real and a strangely alien Star Wars setting.

This was the Ksar Ouled Soltane, a centuries-old Bedouin fortified granary that was used in “Episode Something-or-other: The Phantom Menace” as a setting for the slave quarters of Mos Espa, where (it says right here) Anakin Skywalker lived as a boy.

Comparing this very real place to the invented buildings of the stage set we visited two days earlier made it clear yet again that reality is much more fantastical than anything we can imagine.

That night we stayed in the town of Matmata, famed for its underground “troglodyte” homes. Not really caves, these homes are dug deep into the earth for protection from enemies and the violent desert heat.

One of the underground homes was used in the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV, remember?) as the Lars Homestead, home to Luke Skywalker.

That old home is now the Hotel Sidi Driss, a serious attraction for true Star Wars fanatics who are thrilled to sleep where Luke once laid his fictional head. Fair warning: By all reports, it is a truly nasty place to stay. Decide just how fanatic you really are.

The Sidi Driss is also, according to some, the site of the original “Star Wars Bar.” Others insist that this is pure rumor and that the “real” Star Wars Bar is actually in a seedy little village on the isle of Djerba.

And now, for certain, I am way, way out of my depth.

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