The Terminal Tunisian Troglodytes
March 2, 2018 10:03 PM   Subscribe

"In the arid valleys of southern Tunisia’s Djebel Dahar region, people have lived for centuries in underground houses whose earthen casing provides protection against searing summer heat and winter winds. But in recent decades, rural depopulation has meant fewer people live in the homes, which are composed of rooms hewn into the walls of an excavated circular courtyard. The few remaining families say they are attached to the homes and the land or see no way of moving."

The history of the region is not well-understood, but the troglodyte homes seem to have existed for 1,000 years, serving both as a shelter from the harsh environment and as a way to hide from raiders and armies, largely unknown to outsiders until they were flooded out in 1967 and emerged to ask the government for help. The troglodyte house communities consist of Berbers, first persecuted by French colonizers and then by pan-Arabist post-colonial authorities seeking to stamp out non-Arabic Islamic identities and languages in North Africa, resulting in limited support for traditional Berber communities like Matmata.

The troglodyte houses of Matmata were featured as Luke Skywalker's home in Star Wars: A New Hope. More pictures. Atlas Obscura.

Video, video, Al-Jazeera feature in Arabic

National Geographic, 1911
posted by Eyebrows McGee (16 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Oh wow, it looks like is Tattooine! Except, y'know, real. Very cool!
posted by limeonaire at 10:05 PM on March 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

So are these the people who were called troglodytes- that early Europeans who “discovered” the chimpanzee named the species for? Because the common chimp is of course Pan troglodytes a name that is completely absurd considering that chimps are largely arboreal (but like us are highly adaptable and can live in a number of environments) and generally don’t live in caves. The lore is that early European idiots mistoke the chimps for a kind of people they’d heard of from traders and Oops taxonomy weirdness! I’ve always wondered where the term “troglodyte” for a cave dweller came from.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:49 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

troglodyte, literally, is "hole-dweller."
From Latin trōglodyta (“cave dwelling people”), from Ancient Greek τρωγλοδύτης (trōglodútēs, “one who dwells in holes”), from τρώγλη (trṓglē, “hole”) + δύω (dúō, “I get into”).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:54 PM on March 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

Man that the term is that old makes the naming of chimps even weirder. Back on topic- I’ve always wondered in desert areas why houses like this aren’t more common. It seems to me if you’re dealing with baking days and freezing nights, using the earth as insulation is pretty cost effective and useful. That being said, in the articles they talk about how these villages only became known after floods caused some collapses, so I suppose that’s one pretty big hazard. One of the problems with deserts is of course 95% of the time no rain, so the earth is very dry. But if that 5% rain comes- very easy to flood.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:03 PM on March 2, 2018

They have these types of houses in China as well. (The author of the linked article doesn't seem to know about the Tunisian ones). I'm really fascinated by the concept, I don't know why.
posted by mumimor at 12:39 AM on March 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Found a better article
posted by mumimor at 12:41 AM on March 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

I love the photos of these, especially the aerial photos in the second link from mumimor just above. The ones that are more in terraces or the side of a hill look great to me, but living in a pit on flat ground seems less ideal. Rain could fill up your house like a bucket, and with no windows you would never know anyone was coming until they popped up over the balcony.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:04 AM on March 3, 2018

The dwarven designer in me says that stage 1 flood protection is to dig a really deep sump to collect the rain water with the knock-on effect of it serving as a cistern if you line it properly.
posted by glonous keming at 6:55 AM on March 3, 2018 [11 favorites]

But that radon, though.
posted by candasartan at 7:27 AM on March 3, 2018

candasartan, the open plan and ventilation would wick that away. In modern sealed construction with no air moving you get the radon gas collecting.
posted by nickggully at 7:38 AM on March 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’ve visited the Star Wars set here on a trip to Tunisia about 15 years ago. We actually didn’t mean to visit “Tattooine”... we had heard about the troglodyte houses and wanted to see them and the Star Wars set was a happy coincidence. The movie set was actually a family’s home and small guest house where we stayed. It was really interesting to see a whole village of these cave homes, and meet the people who lived in them. Another Star Wars tie in: the cloak that Obi Wan wears is modeled on the Berber cloak called a Bernous, and we saw lots of people in this area of Tunisia wearing them.
posted by k8bot at 8:04 AM on March 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

windows and doors are carved for a house
but it's the spaces
that make the house work

--TaoTeChing, 11 (Bill Porter, trans)
posted by sneebler at 9:59 AM on March 3, 2018

Underground architecture has a long history in Tunisia! Centuries before their descendants would build the cave houses at Tataouine, the leading citizens of Bulla Regia in Roman North Africa had a dilemma on their hands. They wanted fancy townhouses in the Italian style, with atriums and peristyles and expensive art. Unfortunately, the Roman domus was notoriously miserable to live in even in the Italian summer, and the Tunisian elites apparently weren't prepared to suffer that much for fashion. So, marrying imported style and local technique, they had their perfect Roman houses built sunk into the ground.
posted by goblin-bee at 10:32 AM on March 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

Digging pits and homes of that size must be terribly laborious. I would have thought it would be a generational thing at best - one family makes a dugout, their kids build an extension from the entrance, and so on. But no, the article says that there's still a guy who can make them, so it's presumably done all at once.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:18 PM on March 3, 2018

thought it would be a generational thing at best - one family makes a dugout, their kids build an extension from the entrance, and so on

My mother's family home in Moga, India is very much like this, though not underground. It does have a kind of lego-add-on feel to it. Two families that shared a common kitchen many many years ago and now it's three because of children that have grown up and raised their own kids. I wish I had pictures because there's a giant tree growing in the middle of a shared courtyard and at night you can go up to the roof and talk with other near by neighbors. It's very communal.
posted by Fizz at 3:27 PM on March 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Metafilter: “I get into”
posted by hambone at 5:44 PM on March 3, 2018

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