Although The English Patient locates the Cave of the Swimmers at Jebel Uwaynat, it actually lies in the Gilf’s Wadi Sura (Picture Valley), where Almássy found it in 1933, with the Frobenius expedition that was searching for rock art at Uwaynat and in the western valleys of the Gilf that had been explored by Patrick Clayton two years earlier. Clayton’s son believes that his father found the wadi and its other caves first, but it was Almássy’s privilege to discover the Cave of the Swimmers and name the valley.

Shot in Tunisia, the film of The English Patient portrays the cave as a deep, convoluted passage, whereas it is really a shallow hollow at the mouth of the wadi, shockingly exposed to the elements (like the Cave of the Archers).

Cave of the Swimmers

The Cave of the Swimmers harbours well over a hundred figures in diverse styles. Its famous swimmers are 10cm long and painted in red, with small rounded heads on stalks, tadpole-shaped bodies and spidery arms and legs. Some are diving, implying that a lake once existed here (for which there’s geological evidence).

A second group of figures are depicted standing, with clumsy limbs, thick torsos and pea-shaped heads; hands only appear on the larger figures. Most are dark red, with bands of white around their ankles, wrists or waists, similar to the hunters at Karkur Talh. Still more intriguing are two yellow figures that seem to be stretching out their arms to welcome a third, smaller, red one, which may be a child and its parents. Cattle, giraffes, ostriches and dogs are also depicted on the walls.

Cave of the Archers

Not far away – beyond a patch of cliff-face where some cretin from London has carved his name – the Cave of the Archers contains dark red and white figures of naked men clutching bows, some of them shooting at cattle – whose presence dates these pictures to the Cattle Period (5000–2500 BC) of North African rock art.

Hans Winkler of the 1938 Monod expedition termed the style of the male figures “balanced exaggeration”, since they all have wide shoulders and hips, tiny waists and tapering limbs. Feet and hands are rarely shown, and heads often omitted too – unlike the spear-carrying hunters depicted in Karkur Talh at Jebel Uwaynat, which are otherwise similar in style.

Giraffe Cave

On the sandy plain beyond the wadi’s entrance, a massive boulder perched upon smaller ones forms the Giraffe Cave, found by Clayton in 1931. Inside are giraffes, cattle and dogs, painted in black or white. Anthropologist Roland Keller believes that the giraffe images here prefigure the headless creatures in the Cave of the Beasts as early avatars of the Ancient Egyptian god Seth, whose cult accompanied the prehistoric savanna-dwellers as they were forced to move to the Nile Valley by the increasing aridity of their hunting grounds.

  • László Almássy – the real “English Patient”