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From Tunisia’s Ghorfas To Its Cave City Of Matmata

posted on: Aug 23, 2017

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Ghoraf Ouled Soltan in Matmata, Tunisia

By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

The winter sun shone brightly as we left the island of Jerba – Tunisia’s paradise isle – in the early morning. Our goals were the ghorfa towns surrounding Medenine, then later the cave homes of Matmata. After about a two-hour leisurely drive, we were near Metameur on the outskirts of Medenine. In this, the heart of the land of the ghorfas, we stopped to explore these unique honeycombed structures. Built in the days of yore, they were erected, to protect the farmer’s harvest of grain, olives, and other agriculture products.

At first sight, they seemed to be structures with a lunar aura. Their architecture style, a series of cells or hives piled on top of each other two or three stories high, gave them a make-believe mystique. In the past they were used by the Berbers as fortified granaries – as a secure storage place for their crops. They were also used as safe living quarters in times of war and, in some instances, as homes. Today, a number of them have been converted into tourist abodes and others have been turned into shops, selling Bedouin handicrafts.

Road sign to Matmata

Another hour’s drive, after leaving these strange structures, and we were in Matmata – a troglodyte (underground) town that has fascinated visitors for untold centuries. As we neared this tiny underground city, we could clearly see the ochre hills of Matmata with their barren peaks rising to 750 m (2,460 ft). Soon we entered a landscape that was truly a panorama of contrast.

The rose-coloured landscape fissured by countless centuries of wind and scorching sun had a wild-rugged appearance. The naturally formed conical hills were deeply eroded and separated by narrow ravines. It was a veritable bizarre moon landscape of savage and unspoiled beauty with an eerie atmosphere.

Just before the town of Matmata, we stopped to visit our first troglodyte home – a well-known tourist spot. After examining the dwelling, we departed for the ‘mother of all troglodyte towns’. A few minutes after, from a high point on the road, we could see among the craters many above-ground buildings and the occasional olive and palm tree. As we drove into town, it became apparent not all the people had moved out of their underground homes – puffs of smoke curled skyward from some of the craters. Yet, the place that appeared uninhabited during my previous visit now appeared to be mostly a town above ground. It was apparent that the modern age had reached Matmata.

Surrounded by an inhospitable terrain, this once almost invisible town, the largest of the nearby troglodyte communities, in the last few decades, has become an inviting tourist site. Matmata’s exotic setting lured Steven Spielberg to use the encompassing lunar landscape to great effect in his films ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and George Lucas’s filming location for ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’, using Hotel Sidi Driss as Luke Skywalker’s homestead.

Ghoraf Ouled Soltan in Matmata, Tunisia (left), Scene from Star Wars (right).

Ghoraf Ouled Soltan in Matmata, Tunisia

 

Matmata, Tunisia 

Matmata, Tunisia 

Matmata, Tunisia 

Ghoraf Ouled Soltan in Matmata, Tunisia

Ghoraf Ouled Soltan in Matmata, Tunisia

Image result for From Tunisia’s Ghorfas To Its Cave City Of Matmata

Ghoraf Ouled Soltan in Matmata, Tunisia

The town with some 7,000 inhabitants has been populated for perhaps 2,000 years. Through the centuries, its people eked a living from their tiny terraced fields of barley, figs, olives and date palms, irrigated from hand-honed cisterns and dams in which was gathered the water from the rare rains. Before tourism, the produce from these tiny plots was the villagers’ only income.

For comfort and shelter from invaders, the Matmatans developed grotto homes that were ideal for the extreme heat and cold of the desert climate. Naturally air-conditioned and heated, they are cool and pleasant during the hot summer months and warm in winter. The Matmatans enjoy the town’s pure, dry air, conducive to a healthy life and, hence, over centuries, due to these homes, the town’s inhabitants have been noted for their good health and longevity.

Each hole in the ground is a separate dwelling, honed in the soft rock or clay. To begin building the home, a shaft about 10 m (33 ft) wide and 8 m (25 ft) deep is sunk into the ground. An entrance to the pit is then dug on a gentle slope. This is followed by hollowing-out two level arched rooms, interconnected by narrow passageways, on the vertical face at the bottom of the shaft. Under the base of the pit, a small sewer is dug out to allow the occasional rainwater to flow away. Access is by way of the sloping tunnel, or by a ladder that is removable in times of danger.

The base of the shaft, which is called a haush (courtyard), is at times planted with trees and flowers. In it, the children play and the housewife, dressed in the colourful blue and red futa (dress), cooks the daily meal.

The bottom chambers are used as living quarters, a shelter for livestock and to store tools. At the back of the chambers, narrow shelves are cut into the walls on which provisions are stored. The upper level cubicles, which can only be reached by climbing, are the storage rooms, usually used to store grains and olives.

 

In the past, the upper compartments were also used as nuptial chambers. After the newlyweds had climbed into the room, the rope was withdrawn, making it an ideal love nest – inaccessible to the curious.

Many of the Matmatans have become sophisticated due to their association with thousands of annual visitors. The worldly ways they have acquired help to make visitors feel at home, and this has engendered an ever-increasing number of tourists.

To take advantage of these countless visitors, the town’s merchants have built hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops in abandoned cave homes. The services and aura they offer, plus the camel rides and excursions to the lunar-like countryside are turning Matmata into a mecca for foreign travellers seeking the exotic.

Matmata, Tunisia 

Tourists come in great numbers from all of Tunisia’s resorts. Tour buses pick them up from their hotels and bring them to the ghorfas and Matmata, usually in large groups. However, for those who wish to relish for a while life in Matmata, the above ground Hotel Ksar El Amazigh is the place to stay. Here, travellers can live in comfort for a few days while they enjoy the town’s fascinating atmosphere. In the undreamed luxury for Matmatans of the past, one can reflect about primitive ghorfas and cave homes while living in the best of what the modern age has to offer.

-Habeeb Salloum