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Kala’a Guermessa

OVERVIEW

Site: Kala’a Guermessa

GPS: 32.986201, 10.251390

Location: Guermessa, Tataouine Governorate (southeast Tunisia) 

Description: Amazigh mountain citadel (7th century CE)

Star Wars recce:
Episode I Tunisia (December 1995)

Source: Original recce photograph

Star Wars scouted set concept:
Mos Espa spaceport | various elements

Star Wars connection discovery:
Galaxy Tours (10 February 2021)

Isolation: Although arguably more impressive than Kala’a Chenini, Kala’a Guermessa receives comparatively very few visitors, creating a palpable sense of remote isolation framed by its two peaks of assorted ruins engulfing the stand-alone Sidi Hamza Marabout.

Challenges: The remote location of the site paired with the relatively steep ascent to access the ruins on both peaks likely resulted in only minimal consideration to transform Kala’a Guermessa into fictional Mos Espa.

Canon reference: The name Guermessa is associated (since 2015) with one of the three moons of fictional Tatooine. Nearby Chenini and Ghomrassen represent the names of the other two moons. All three locales “orbit” around Tataouine city.

Accessibility: Easy; foothills terrain; paved roads; parking area (32.986875, 10.252415) in close proximity; low-impact uphill hike (ca. 250 meters) on marked path to central area of the site.

LOCATION

Modern Guermessa (alternately: Guermassa) is located in a remote area of the central Jebel Dahar mountain range 15 km southwest of Ghomrassen, a Tataouine Governorate regional administrative center. The services provided by the modern village have drawn local Amazigh Guermessi (alternately: Guermassi) tribal families to entirely abandon ancient Guermessa, situated approximately 1.5 km to the northwest.

SITE

The Guermessi tribe erected the ancient mountain village in the 7th or 8th century CE as a defensive kala’a (Arabic: “citadel” or “fortress”), digging multiple layers of fortified subterranean (troglodyte) structures into the sloping strata (limestone, clay, marl, and dolomite) of two adjacent peaks (ca. 355 meters apart) strategically located on the northern end of the Jebel El Hadada mountain range (elevation: 548 meters) high above the surrounding Ferch plain. The founding of Kala’a Guermessa is traditionally linked to a miracle of much-needed rainfall at the arrival of two marabouts to the region from Kairouan (Tunisia): Sidi Ibrahim and his servant Sidi Bando. The whitewashed Sidi Hamza Marabout (dedicated to the son of Sidi Ibrahim) functions as the center point of the ancient ruins between the two peaks.

As peaceful relations developed between the local Amazigh and nomadic Arab tribes, the horizontally terraced kala’a fortifications on the slopes of Ras Oum Moutmana (alternately: Ras El Metmana)—the flat-topped south peak at the site—were expanded to include family-specific ghorfa chambers built in front of the fortified structures, forming a collective cliffside ksar complex for crops storage. Only the east and south sections of Ksar Guermessa have survived with some pockets of the south section partially restored. The north peak at the site is home to layers of lateral subterranean ruins.

IDENTIFICATION

Jon Bradley Snyder (author/editor) reported on the principal Episode I recce to Tunisia (early to mid-December 1995) in Star Wars Insider 29 (Spring 1996). In his article (“On-Location: Tatooine”) Snyder published photos (taken by David West Reynolds) with generic captions for several of the Tunisian sites visited during the recce. No names or clear identifications were provided for any of the visually documented sites. Multi-faceted research confirms that one of the recce photos in the article (page 57; top row, right-hand side) captures a panoramic view of the Kala’a Guermessa north peak with its unique arrangement of subterranean ruins compacted near the top of the peak and interspersed intermittently down the face of the west-side slope. Reynolds stood along the footpath on the north side of Ras Oum Moutmana approximately 30 meters southwest of the Sidi Hamza Marabout to frame the recce photo. The caption associated with the photo reads: “Though it looks like a matte painting, this mountain city is real, standing deep in the remote wastes of southern Tunisia.”

The remote location of the site deep in the Tataouine region paired with the relatively steep ascent to access the ruins on both peaks likely resulted in only minimal consideration (at best) to transform Kala’a Guermessa into fictional Mos Espa. Despite no enduring effort to preserve the ruins, views of the north peak west-side slope at the site remain more or less unchanged since the 1995 recce.

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Kala’a Chenini

OVERVIEW

Site: Kala’a Chenini

GPS: 32.912024, 10.263603

Location: Chenini, Tataouine Governorate (southeast Tunisia)

Description: Amazigh mountain citadel (late 12th century CE)

Star Wars recce:
Episode I Tunisia (December 1995)

Source: Original recce sketch

Star Wars scouted set concept:
Mos Espa spaceport | various elements

Star Wars connection confirmation:
Galaxy Tours (5 August 2022)

Tourist attraction: Kala’a Chenini, marked by the whitewashed Al-Farajeen Mosque as the distantly visible landmark for the bustling ancient mountain village, remains one of the most visited sites on the tourism circuit in southern Tunisia.

Challenges: The popularity of the site coupled with its remote location and the relatively steep ascent to access the ruins likely resulted in only minimal consideration to transform Kala’a Chenini into fictional Mos Espa.

Canon reference: The name Chenini is associated (since 2015) with one of the three moons of fictional Tatooine. Nearby Guermessa and Ghomrassen represent the names of the other two moons. All three locales “orbit” around Tataouine city.

Accessibility: Easy; foothills terrain; paved roads; parking area (32.911507, 10.263003) in close proximity; low-impact uphill hike (ca. 215 meters) on marked path to central area of the site.

LOCATION

Modern Chenini is located in a remote area 14 km west of Tataouine city, the Tataouine Governorate capital in southeastern Tunisia. Members of the historically nomadic/semi-nomadic Amazigh Zenata tribe, one of the largest Amazigh tribal federations in Maghrebi North Africa and among the earliest to adopt Islam in the 7th century CE, inhabit the modern village, distinguished as one of the last remaining Tunisian locations in which the distinct Zenati dialect is actively spoken. Perched above the village approximately 1 km to the southwest stands ancient Chenini. Clusters of houses scattered in all directions around the base of the ancient site seamlessly blend the past and present.

SITE

Seeking refuge from the dominate Arab Hilalian tribes, the Zenata tribe erected in the late 12th century CE the ancient mountain village as a defensive kala’a (Arabic: “citadel” or “fortress”), digging multiple layers of fortified subterranean (troglodyte) structures into the sloping strata (limestone, clay, marl, and dolomite) of an isolated curved peak (ca. 830 meters long) that extends from the northwest side of Jebel Charenn (elevation: 644 meters), the second tallest mountain range in the Tataouine region. Family-specific ghorfa chambers, forming a cliffside ksar complex for crops storage, represent the oldest fortifications at Kala’a Chenini. An excavated inscription dates one of the ghorfas to 590 AH (1193/1194 CE); the first ksar structures were certainly built years/decades earlier. Although the fortified dwellings at Kala’a Chenini have not been inhabited for centuries, some of the ancient ghorfas continue to be used as grain storage depots by Zenata families.

Kala’a Chenini is one of the most popular sites on the tourism circuit in southern Tunisia. Al-Farajeen Mosque, a compact whitewashed structure placed prominently in the approximate center of the curved Kala’a Chenini peak, functions as the distantly visible landmark for the ancient mountain village. The steady mix of local and touristic activity at the two-storey Café Haute Chenini, situated just southeast of the mosque, injects a relaxed yet pulsating energy into the surrounding cliffside subterranean ruins. This unique atmosphere starkly contrasts the abandoned silence that prevails at Kala’a Guermessa, located roughly 8.5 km to the northwest.

IDENTIFICATION

Archaeologist David West Reynolds, serving as the Star Wars locations specialist during the principal Episode I recce to Tunisia (early to mid-December 1995), documented the scouted sites with photographs and sketches. Reynolds released six recce photographs to Jon Bradley Snyder (author/editor) for publication in Star Wars Insider 29 (Spring 1996), leaving the remaining photos and all sketches concealed from public view. Although Reynolds assumed for decades that the unpublished recce visuals were locked away in Skywalker Ranch files as part of an Episode I “Tunisia reference kit” he had prepared for George Lucas (writer/director) and Rick McCallum (producer), a targeted search more than 25 years later through his personal archives uncovered a small cache of Episode I documents, to include his original recce sketch drawn at Kala’a Chenini in early December 1995.

Reynolds posted the “Prequel Location Scouting” sketch, clearly labeled as “Chenini,” on 24 April 2022 via Instagram (account: archaeology.of.star.wars). The sketch depicts the front and northeast side of Al-Farajeen Mosque folded into a picturesque display of background hilltop ruins. Reynolds stood approximately 15 meters southeast of the mosque entrance to frame the drawing. Replicating this exact positioning is no longer possible due to the post-1995 construction of a large elevated platform upon which rests the café, outdoor sitting areas, a cell tower, and a water storage tank.

The popularity of the site as a high-traffic tourist destination coupled with its remote location deep in the Tataouine region and the relatively steep ascent to access the ruins likely resulted in only minimal consideration (at best) to transform Kala’a Chenini into fictional Mos Espa. Despite no systematic effort to preserve the ruins, views of the mosque and surrounding ancient structures remain more or less unchanged since the 1995 recce.