In 1971, filmmaker George Lucas began developing an idea for an 'epic space opera'. His idea soon began to take shape and in 1977, the original Star Wars movie changed the world forever. An unexpected and unparalleled success which fused myth and fairy tale with futuristic special effects and created an epic story and a mythology in a galaxy all of its own, the first episode of the Star Wars saga shattered the box office and revolutionised movie making. The force was undeniably with Lucas as he went on to direct two equally successful sequels in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in 1983 and the original Star Wars trilogy became a worldwide phenomenon. In the decades since, an entire 'expanded universe' has also emerged, including books, comics, video games, prequels and sequels and Star Wars has become one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. Since 2011, May 4th has also become 'Star Wars Day' as millions of fans around the world celebrate Lucas' epic space saga and in honour of the occasion we go on a fantasy-fuelled galactic journey across our very own planet, checking out filming locations and mind-blowing fan homages along the way, as we explore some of the very best Star Wars-themed spots on earth.
65 kilometres from the Guatemalan town of Flores and 530 kilometres north of the Central American nation's capital, Guatemala City, the ruined city of Tikal stands alongside Mexico's Chichen Itza and Palenque as one of the most iconic ancient Mayan sites on earth. In its heyday, Tikal was capital and beating heart of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms ever known, ruled over by a total of 27 different kings, and archaeologists believe that the site dates back nearly two thousand years. Alongside its altars, stelae, royal burial chambers and causeways, Tikal is most famous today for its plazas and its eighteen mercurial Mayan step pyramids which rise above the tropical jungle of north-central Guatemala's Petén Department.
In George Lucas' original Star Wars movie, released in 1977 and which was later renamed 'Star Wars: A New Hope' in 1981, Tikal was used as a filming location for the jungle moon of Yavin 4. Specifically, the world-famous Mayan step pyramids were used as Ruins of Massassi, the main military stronghold of the Rebel Alliance. At the conclusion of the first Star Wars movie, Tikal as the jungle moon of Yavin 4 would go in the series' history as the staging point for a daring flight operation lead by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo as they destroyed the Death Star, a moon-sized and mobile battle station which was the ultimate weapon of the saga's evil Galactic Empire. Image Credit: Zimbio
Every year, the city of Liège in eastern Beligium hosts the International Ice Sculpture Festival. The event takes places on Liège's Place des Guillemins and to mark the release of the seventh instalment in the main Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens, in 2015, 61 figures carved from solid blocks of crystalline ice depicting beloved characters form the entire franchise were the festival's star attraction. Every one of the figures was intricately and masterfully carved by a highly-skilled ice sculptor and each of the finished carvings was kept in its own individual ice box which was set at a constant temperature of minus sex degrees centigrade, with visitors being advised to wear gloves, scarves and other winter clothing if they wished to get an up-close view.
The iconic characters of the Star Wars movies are no strangers to ice and snow planets and a full tour of the 'Ice Star Wars' exhibition first took visitors through a hall featuring ice carvings of characters from the Galactic Empire such as Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine and Wilhuff Tarkin, designer of the Death Star. Visitors could also sit in a frozen replica of Palpatine's throne and in addition to sculptures of series protagonists Yoda and Han Solo, one of the most popular features was a recreation of the saga's Galactic Civil War and a highly detailed ice carving of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon. The exhibition also featured nine large ice busts of some of the saga's central characters, including Vader, Princess Leia, Yoda and Luke Skywalker wearing his classic Jedi robes.
With the exception of the USA, the North African nation of Tunisia boasts more Star Wars filming locations that any anywhere else on the planet and in total, no fewer than four of the saga's episodes feature shots and sequences filmed in the deserts and oasis towns of southern Tunisia. Historically, the south of Tunisia has been famous for its date production but when George Lucas decided to name Luke Skywalker's home planet, the desert moon of Tatooine, after one of the region's cities. it became known worldwide for much more than the sticky brown desert fruit harvested there. Three hundred kilometres to the west, a vast array of Star Wars locations are clustered around the oasis town of Tozeur and its immediate surroundings, including the 'sand igloo' outside which Luke Skywalker watches the 'double sunset' in 1977's original Star Wars.
35 kilometres northwest of Tozeur on the southern shores of Chott El Jerid salt lake, Star Wars set designers built an entire desert star spaceport which series fans will instantly recognise as Mos Espa. Whereas the sand igloo which served as Luke Skywalker's family home was taken apart after the original trilogy and rebuilt for both 2002's Attack of the Clones and 2005's Revenge of the Sith, the set and props used for Mos Espa in The Phantom Menace were left standing. Most famously, the location also saw the filming of the Boonta Eve Classic podrace in Mos Espa's Grand Arena, won by Anakin Skywalker before he went on to join the evil Galactic Empire and become known as Darth Vader.
Mind-boggling and stunning landscapes are a trademark of the hundreds of moons, stars and planets of the Star Wars saga's far-away galaxy and when George Lucas sent out location scouts for the original Star Wars in 1977 and again for 2005's Revenge of the Sith, his photographers returned with shots of one of Europe's most famous mountain ranges. The village of Grindelwald is located 74 kilometres southeast of the Swiss city of Bern and sits at nearly 3400 metres above sea level in the Bernese Alps. The village is also one of Switzerland's most popular alpine resorts and in addition to being a mecca for skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports, Grindelwald is surrounded by no fewer than twelve towering mountains, including the Mönch, the Eiger, the Schwarzhorn and the Wellhorn.
While no filming for Star Wars ever took place in Grindelwald, the village was brought to the attention of the franchise's fans when its snow-dusted and icy surrounding landscapes provided background photography and inspiration for the snow planet of Alderaan, the home of Princess Leia. The area's alpine terrain were considered the perfect backdrop for Alderaan and some of the more famous natural landmarks around Grindelwald also featured in the series as Cloudshape Falls and the Isatabith rain forest. As the snowy planet of Alderaan, Grindelwald is also one of the saga's more infamous locations when in 1977's original Star Wars, the planet was blown to pieces by the Galactic Empire, who used it as a test subject for the superlaser of the Death Star.
Nestled serenely in the Indian Ocean, 642 miles southwest of Sri Lanka and 380 miles from southern India, the Maldives are one of planet earth's most sought after vacation spots and the epitome of authentic tropical island paradise. Laamu Atoll is located at the southern end of the Central Maldives and is also the largest single area of land in the country. Laamu has historically been known as Haddhunmathi and at the end of the 12th century, Maldivian king Sri Gadana Aditya ordered his kingdom's history to be recorded on copper plates known as Lōmāfānu and which document the islands' conversion from Buddhism to Islam. In 1923, archaeologist H.C.P Bell used the Lōmāfānu plates to excavate Laamu's Buddhist sites, including a temple and a stupa, and in the process rediscovered a largely unknown chapter of Maldivian history.
As well as being one part of one of the most dreamy holiday destinations on earth, Laamu was also a dream posting in paradise for Galactic Empire engineers as the coral atoll also served as the filming location for the remote tropical moon of Scarif in 2016's Rogue One, the most recent movie instalment of the saga and a direct prequel to 1977's original Star Wars. In Rogue One, Laamu Atoll as Scarif is a faraway tropical planet which conceals one of the Galactic Empire's most important military installations, a top-secret research centre in which blueprints were drawn up for the early development of the Death Star. In Rogue One's climactic and explosive battle scenes, a team of Rebel Alliance soldiers led by Jyn Erso successfully infiltrates the tropical moon of Scarif and manages to steal the schematics for the Death Star.
Shadow puppetry, or Wayang Kulit, is one of Southeast Asia's most famous and instantly recognisable forms of traditional entertainment. Sadly, the art form has lost its appeal and almost faded into obscurity in recent years but some Malaysian artists and craftsmen have sought to breathe new life into shadow puppetry by incorporating themes and storylines from modern popular culture. In 2013, Malaysian shadow puppet designer, Chuo Yuan Ping, began work on a show fusing science fiction with tradition, basing his idea on 1977's original Star Wars instead of the classcal Javanese Hindu-influenced shadow theatre stories. Rechristened 'Peperangan Bintang', Chuo's Star Wars Shadow Theatre staged its first performance in Kuala Lumpur's Merdeka Square.
Made from the usual cowhide, the shadow puppet playing the part of Darth Vader was given fanged teeth and sharp claws in the traditional style of villains from Wayang Kulit's shadow plays. Star Wars' Dark Lord was also renamed Sangkala Vedeh for the performance and the sound of his trademark and imposing deep voice from the movies was achieved using a digital voice modulator, with all characters' voice actors performing their lines in Malay. In another tip of that hat to the Star Wars saga, attendees were given the choice of watching the action unfold from either the white side or the black side of the shadow screen, with audience members choosing the latter referred to during the show, in true Galactic Empire-fashion, as the 'Dark Side'.
The northeast of subtropical southern China's Guangxi Province is widely regarded as the most picturesque and visually stunning region in the entire country. Most famously, Guilin is the main hub of the region and the city as well as the iconic natural features clustered around it are pockmarked with karst mountains and hills which rise up from the banks of the Li River. Moon Hill, Elephant Hill, Seven Star Cave and the mind-boggling Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces are just some of the Chinese travel icons in and around Guilin and just over an hour downstream along the Li River, the town of Yangshuo is equally as popular. Guilin has also attracted scores of China's most famous artists, such as Song Dynasty poet Fan Chengda and Ming Dynasty painter Tang Yin, and a popular Chinese saying has it that 'Guilin's Scenery is the Best Under Heaven'.
Ironically, Guilin is often referred to as one of China's 'Star Cities' and in the 2005 instalment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith, Guilin, Yangshuo and the surrounding areas along the Li River were chosen as principal photographic locations for the mist-shrouded and temperate jungle moon planet of Kashyyyk, home of the Wookies. Guilin was portrayed as Kashyyk in Revenge of the Sith as a jungle planet with one never ending season which orbits around a single star. The cloud-enveloped jungle moon also served as the home planet of one of the most beloved, and hairy, characters in the entire Star Wars series in Chewbacca, loyal friend of Han Solo and co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon.
In the run up to the highly anticipated release of 2015's The Force Awakens, Japan was one of the many nations around the world which caught Star Wars fever. Tottori Prefecture, on the northern coast of Japan's Chūgoku region in the far west of the largest island of Honshū, is home to its namesake Tottori Sand Dunes, an almost desert-like landscape formed over 100,000 years ago by millions of tonnes of sediment from the Chūgoku Mountains being carried into the Sea of Japan via the Sendai River. To mark the release of 2015's episode of the saga, 54-year-old Japanese sand artist and sculptor Katsuhiko Chaen decided to craft his own Star Wars homage on Tottori's famous dunes using only sand and water.
The result was an amazingly detailed three dimensional wall of sand featuring characters from the franchise and Chaen named his masterpiece Tsuna no Star Wars, or 'Star Wars in Sand'. 160 tonnes of specially-crafted sand made from compressed silicon dioxide were hauled in for the project by sixteen ten-ton trucks and on completion, 'Star Wars in Sand' measured 3.4 meters high, 7.4 meters across and 4.2 metres deep. Prominent among the characters on display were C-3PO and R2-D2 as well as incredibly detailed X-Wing Starfighters, a Millennium Falcon and the Death Star. Naturally, neither Anakin Skywalker or Darth Vader were present in the finished sculpture as Chaen rightly remembered the character confessing his hate of sand in 2002's Attack of the Clones.
690 kilometres north of Tokyo, the village of Inakadate in Japan's Aomori Prefecture has a unique tradition of creating art in the rice fields which surround it. When rice harvesting season rolls around in Japan during spring and summer every year, rice art can be viewed from above in Inakadate as the village's farmers have painstakingly and meticulously used purple and yellow Kodaimai rice along with their local green and white Tsugaru rice to create mind-bogglingly detailed murals in their paddy fields. This highly creative rice art tradition in Inakadate dates back to 1993, with nearly 200,000 visitors every year making the trip to the village to view its agricultural artistry.
Inakadate's rice harvesting heritage dates back over two thousand years and since the rice art tradition began nearly 25 years ago, murals have depicted notable figures from Japanese culture and history, including legendary Samurai warriors, Shinto gods and Geisha. Modern Japanese pop-culture icons such as Godzilla have also been featured, but the idea for Inakadate's rice murals in 2015 came from a galaxy far, far away. As Star Wars fever engulfed Japan that year for the release of The Force Awakens, Inakadate's farmers worked their rice-inspired magic to create murals which included a humongous Star Wars official logo alongside C-3PO and R2-D2 as well as newer characters from the movie which arrived later that year in December.