Matmata (also spelled Matamata) is a small village in southern Tunisia. Some of the local Berber residents live in traditional underground 'troglodyte' structures.
The structures typical for the village are created by digging a large pit in the ground. Around the perimeter of this pit artificial caves are then dug to be used as rooms, with some homes comprised of multiple pits, connected by trench-like passageways. This type of home was made famous by serving as the location of the Lars Homestead, home to Luke Skywalker, his Aunt Beru Lars and Uncle Owen Lars for the Star Wars movies. The Lars Homestead was in fact the Hotel Sidi Driss, which offers traditional troglodyte accommodations.
The history of this extraordinary place is not known, except from tales carried from generation to generation. The most probable one says that underground homes were first built in ancient times, when the Roman empire sent two Egyptian tribes to make their own homes in the Matmata region, after one of the Punic wars, with permission to kill every human being in their way. The dwellers of the region had to leave their homes and to dig caves in the ground to hide from those invaders, but they left their underground shelters in the night to attack invaders, which appeared to be very effective in sending the killer groups away from Matmata. A myth was made those days, that monsters emerge from beneath the ground and kill land usurpers. In any case, the underground settlements remained hidden in very hostile area for centuries, and no one had any knowledge of their existence until 1967.
The way of survival in those severe conditions was difficult: since Tunisia is famous for massive olive oil production, the men went searching for work north of the villages every spring when the olive season began, getting back home in autumn when the season was over. They were usually paid in olive oil, which they traded for other goods (in present days for money), and thus provided enough food, clothes, and other things for normal life of their families.
It was not generally known until 1967 that there were regular settlements in this area besides wandering nomad tribes. That year, intensive rains that lasted for 22 days innundated the troglodyte homes and caused many of them to collapse. In order to get help from the authorities, a delegation was sent to the community center of the region in the town of Gabes. The visit came as a surprise, but help was provided, and the above ground settlement of Matmata was built. However, most of the people continued their lives in re-built underground homes, and only a few of the families moved to the new surface dwellings.
Today, Matmata is a well-known tourist attraction, and most of the population lives on tourism and folklore exhibitions in their homes.
JOURNEYS trips that include Matmata:
Treasures of Tunisia
Cairo to Casablanca Overland Adventure from Oct. 13-Nov. 23, 2007 with Will Weber
Information based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matmata