Matmata’s unique architectural gem in southern Tunisia
A long, dusty road unfolds before travellers’ eyes as they make their way through the desert and into Matmata, an old Berber village in southern Tunisia. Best known for its underground houses carved into the stone, Matmata’s unique architectural structure and treasured Berber heritage make it a popular tourist spot.
“Like many other villages and towns across Tunisia, Matmata has witnessed the succession of many civilisations which enriched its cultural heritage,” said Abderrahman Lachheb, president of the Association for the Safeguarding of Old Matmata.
“It has preserved the Amazigh language, which makes it unique among other towns but its history remains unclear.”
He added: “The town has a panoramic view of its surroundings as it is 450 metres above the sea level. Located between the eastern coast of Tunisia and the desert, the town is a connecting point for the surrounding towns, which are Gabes, Kebili, Medenine and Tataouine, all major towns of southern Tunisia.”
Matmata is famous for its unusual housing structure, known as “troglodyte.” Carved in the form of a pit, houses in Matmata are dug up in the perimeter to form caves, which are used as rooms and homes connected through passageways. About 1,200 of the homes have been preserved and some are still used by locals. Others have been converted into hotels and guesthouses.
“Half a century ago, visitors to the town of Matmata would not see anything on the ground. Everything was built underground and families would gather in the pits or the yards of their homes. All these newly built houses came recently,” Lachheb said.
Historians said the houses were structured to help the old town’s mostly Berber inhabitants cope with hot weather because the cave-like dwellings moderated temperatures and shielded off the sun. The homes could have doubled as fortresses during attacks from neighbouring tribes, some noted. During the era of French colonisation, houses in Matmata were used to hide resistance fighters.
“The Berber tribes often resorted to the hills to use it as fortresses and shields against enemies,” Lachheb said. “They used the mountains as homes and there are 17 fortresses preserved in the mountains. When they left the mountains, they built these houses carved in the ground.”
He added: “They dug pits of 10 metres and expanded the perimeter from 15 to 20 metres then they built the exit and they carved the rooms in the perimeter of the pit with rooms for family members as the father was the head of the family. Everything happens under the ground even the olive oil mill was dug into the ground.”
One of the few remaining Berber villages in Tunisia, Matmata is thought to be named after a tribe that sought refuge in the mountains during the Islamic conquest.
“The town used to be called Athwab in Amazigh, which means ‘the land of happiness and well-being’,” said Lachheb. “All religious components used to live together, which (is shown through) the different religious monuments that the town has, such as the Quranic school, Jewish temples and other monuments that were preserved through the years.”
Thanks to its unique architecture and scenery, Matmata is featured in several popular films, including two “Star Wars” episodes. It is the site of the annual Athwab Festival of Cinema, which was started by locals to celebrate the town’s contribution to film-making.
In Matmata, “Star Wars” fans can even spend a night in the home of Luke Skywalker. The cave-home featured in the movie was turned into the Hotel Sidi Driss, a popular stopping point.
In addition to film sites, Matmata hosts important historical and religious monuments and is known for its distinctive olive oil, which is a staple of the local economy.
Among its key sites is Sidi Moussa El Jemni, a shrine that contains “highly precious and rare manuscripts,” Lachheb said.
Much like its underground houses, Matmata’s beauty and serenity unravel before visitors. Whether visiting traditional houses, exploring the town’s Berber heritage or enjoying the breathtaking scenery, Matmata is one of southern Tunisia’s most treasured spots.
Roua Khlifi is a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.