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.
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”
László Almássy – the real “English Patient”
While Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient and the subsequent Oscar-winning film rescued his name from obscurity, both took liberties with the truth to cast “Count Ladislaus de Almasy” as a romantic hero whose love for another man’s wife sealed their fates and left him dying of burns in an Italian villa. The real story is rather different – not least because he was, in fact, gay.
Born in 1895, in Hungary, László Ede Almássy learned to fly while at boarding school in England. During World War I he was a fighter ace and then an aide to the last Habsburg monarch (who once mistakenly called him “Count” – a title that stuck), serving as his driver during two farcical attempts to regain the throne in 1921. Almássy then became a salesman for the off-road-car manufacturers Steyr, for whom he won many races, and in 1926 took Steyrs into the desert on the first of his numerous Sahara expeditions, about which he wrote several books. The Bedouin called him Abu Ramleh – Father of the Sands.
In 1932 he initiated the Zerzura Expedition, with co-explorers Lord Robert and Lady Dorothy Clayton-East-Clayton (the fictional Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton), the Irish desert surveyor Patrick Clayton (no relation) and Squadron Leader Godfrey Penderel. Unlike in fiction, Lord Clayton died of a sudden illness back home, and although his widow returned to the desert to continue searching for Zerzura, she didn’t meet Almássy again or share his discovery of the Cave of Swimmers – nor did she perish there in 1939, but rather in a fall from her plane in England six years earlier. Thus the motive for Almássy’s collaboration with the Germans in The English Patient is pure invention.
As a reserve officer in the Hungarian air force (allied to Nazi Germany), he could hardly refuse being posted to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which used his expertise as a spotter and his photos for their official handbook – to the fury of his old companions in Egypt, many of whom were now in the LRDG. Thanks to the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, the British knew of Almássy’s infiltration of two German spies into Egypt, whom he guided through the Gilf to Kharga Oasis in 1941.
He later made amends by visiting Patrick Clayton in an Italian POW camp and getting him moved to a better one. Almássy himself wound up in a Soviet camp where he lost his teeth from scurvy, before a People’s Court cleared him of being a Nazi sympathizer after testimony that he had sheltered Jewish neighbours in his flat in Budapest. His final years were spent in Africa, where he flew gliders and ran safaris. After catching dysentery in Egypt, he died in a clinic in Salzburg in 1951.