László Almásy, the Real "English Patient"

by Zsolt Török

"I love the desert. I love the endless wasteland in the trembling mirror of the fata morgana, the wild, ragged peaks, the dune chains similar to rigid waves of the ocean. And I love the simple, rugged life in a primitive camp in the ice-cold, star-lit night and in the hot sandstorm alike."
-- László Almásy
The Unknown Sahara
[translated by Z. Török]

The English Patient is a fictional story of love and war based on the life of the Hungarian explorer Count László Almásy. While Michael Ondaatje's novel and the Academy Award-winning film portray the "English" patient as a haunted man devastated by war and by the death of his lover, the real László Almásy's true love was the desert itself.

Almásy left a legacy of mapping and exploration, and unraveled some of the last mysteries of the African desert. I was born in the Hungarian town where he lived during the 1930s and have spent twenty-five years trying to put together his life from little scraps of information. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the legend of the "Father of Sands," as the native Bedouins called Almásy, from the truth about his mysterious life.

On the Road
Almásy came from a noble but untitled Hungarian family. His father, György, explored inner Asia during the early twentieth century, collecting birds and wildlife specimens. László expressed an early interest in modern technology, especially motorcars and airplanes. He drove his father's Oldsmobile at the age of ten and built a glider some years later. He attended a private boarding school in England, where, at seventeen, he obtained a pilot's license.

A pioneer of early aviation, Almásy became one of the best pilots in the Hungarian air force. As the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was collapsing, the last Hapsburg king, Karl IV, tried to restore his Hungarian throne. Almásy drove the king's car, and, in return, the king made him a count - at least that is what Count Ladislas de Almásy claimed when he appeared in Egypt in 1926.

As a representative of the Austrian company Steyr Automobilwerke, Almásy test-drove a car along the Nile from Alexandria to Sudan. Later, he led expeditions that were part test-drives and part safaris. In 1929 he journeyed across east Africa, the Sudan, and Egypt, using two Steyr motorcars. The 12,000-kilometer trip was a turning point in his life, because he rediscovered an old caravan path - the Darb el Arbain, or Road of Forty - the ancient route connecting Egypt and Africa. Hundreds of thousands of slaves had traveled from well to well down the several-kilometers-wide road. The journey took forty days for the lucky, but the weak died en route, and human and camel bones mark the ancient road.

Almásy fell in love with the immense wasteland of the Sahara during the expedition. Crossing the sands of Libya, he heard old-timers tell legends of the desert around the campfire. The story about the lost oasis of Zerzura particularly lured Almásy. Kitab al Kanuz, or Book of Hidden Pearls, a medieval Arabic manuscript written for treasure hunters, mentions Zerzura. It was said to lay in the heart of the desert, guarded by a white bird. Only a brave man could enter the secret village, full of gold and treasures. In the palace he could find a sleeping queen, who could be awakened with a kiss.

In Search of Zerzura
Almásy's successful venture into Libya encouraged him to attempt longer expeditions in search of more undiscovered mysteries, namely the three lost wadis (valleys) of Zerzura. Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875), an English explorer, heard about Zerzura from the inhabitants of the Dachla Oasis in Egypt and mentioned it in his writings. Nineteenth-century explorers, such as Gerhard Rohlfs, also wrote of the place. But twentieth-century expedition technology revolutionized desert exploration. Automobiles made it possible to push deeper and deeper into unknown territories. By the time Almásy entered the world of Zerzura seekers in the early 1930s, only the innermost section of the Libyan desert remained unmapped.

Almásy, who spoke six languages, including Arabic, and was welcome in the Egyptian king's court. Prince Kemal el Din became Almásy's patron in his search for Zerzura. In 1926 the prince had discovered an enormous sandstone plateau called Gilf Kebir. After consulting scientific reports, maps, historical documents, and native Bedouins, Almásy concluded that Zerzura must be somewhere in the unexplored Gilf Kebir region, near the end of the route from the Dachla Oasis to the Kufra Oasis. In 1931 he attempted to use his light aircraft for reconnaissance but crashed in Turkey on the way. He survived the incident without any injuries but had to postpone his plans until the next year.

In 1932 a young English baron, Sir Robert Clayton East-Clayton, joined Almásy's quest. His plane, a Haviland Gipsy Moth I called Rupert (the name of the plane in the novel and the film), figured prominently in the expedition. Wing-Commander Penderel of the Royal Air Force and Patrick Clayton of the Desert Survey, both English, also came along. They located two valleys in the Gilf Kebir plateau from the air - possibly wadis of Zerzura - but could not reach them in their Fords. Almásy undertook a dangerous trip across unknown territory to fetch water from the Kufra Oasis, surprising the Italians who had captured the territory the year before. The officers of the colony kept a sharp eye on the Egyptian border after Almásy's unexpected visit. Despite his efforts, however, the party eventually ran out of petrol and water and had to return to Cairo.

Unfortunately, Almásy lost his supporters just as the desert race was heating up. Both Prince Kemal el Din and Sir Clayton died. Then his rival, Patrick Clayton (no relation to Sir Clayton), persuaded the Desert Survey to send a surveying expedition into the Great Sand Sea. Clayton made a detour, reaching the Gilf Kebir from the north to look for the valleys they had seen from the air the previous year. He found the entrance to the main valley, Wadi Abd el Malik, and explored it. Then he went on to the Kufra Oasis, where he met Sir Clayton's young widow, who joined his expedition. Together, they surveyed a second valley, Wadi Talh.

Meanwhile, Almásy was having difficulty raising money. His international expedition did not set out until March 1933, along with Penderel, Arnold Hoellriegel (an Austrian journalist), Hans Casparius (a German photographer), and László Kádár (a Hungarian geographer). As they mapped the southern and eastern sides of the Gilf Kebir, they jokingly called their camp "The Great Sand Hotel." They discovered the Aqaba Pass notched between two sides of the plateau. On April 17 they arrived at Kufra, just missing Patrick Clayton. This second visit to the oasis convinced the Italians that Almásy was an English spy.

From Kufra, Almásy led his expedition to the western side of the Gilf, where he discovered Wadi Talh - the third valley of Zerzura. The ancient legend had turned into reality. With the three valleys discovered, Almásy could finally draw Zerzura on the map.

After this success, Almásy's party visited a famous well in the Uweinat Mountains, south of the Gilf near the present-day intersection of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan. There Almásy discovered prehistoric rock paintings in a small cave above a well known as Ain Dua. The pictures showed antelopes, giraffes, and even swimmers, which convinced Almásy that the Sahara had not always been a desert. The rock paintings were a scientific sensation and, perhaps, the most important result of Almásy's work.

A Shifting World
Once the large, blank spots on the map had disappeared, Almásy became a desert surveyor and researcher. In 1936 he published a scientific account of his expeditions. He wrote about Herodotus, the cave paintings, and desert scenes, and the account apparently became a reference source for Ondaatje's novel and Anthony Minghella's screenplay. However, in the real story, British authorities - for unclear reasons - would not allow Almásy to stay in Egypt, and he had to return to Budapest.

When Germany opened up the east African front during World War II, the army needed desert experts. Almásy's fame had spread to Germany after his book, The Unknown Sahara, was published there, and he was compelled to serve as a Hungarian officer in General Rommel's German Afrika Korps. He made maps, wrote desert manuals, and set up ventures with his reconnaissance patrol. His most famous mission was a secret operation in which he took two German spies from Libya through Allied lines to Egypt in 1942. Despite the Allies' efforts, Almásy always seemed to know the terrain better than they. Even without reliable maps, he navigated from memory. The operation is one reason some believed Almásy to be a spy. But he was never a German spy or a Nazi. Rather, he served in uniform as a desert advisor.

Almásy was in Hungary when the Red Army invaded. They arrested him, but he escaped, only to be recaptured by the Russian military police. The police beat and interrogated Almásy for months before handing him over to the Hungarian authorities. The Russians probably were unable to identify Almásy, otherwise they would not have let him go. The Hungarian People's Court tried him as a war criminal but eventually released him as well for "lack of evidence." We can only speculate on their surprising show of mercy.

In 1947 Almásy fled Hungary with Russian agents in hot pursuit. From Italy he returned to Egypt with British assistance. He wanted to continue his explorations and find the lost army of the Persian king Cambyses. Herodotus had written about an enormous Persian army that was lost in the Great Sand Sea in the fifth century b.c. Unfortunately, Almásy's untimely death stopped short his explorations. During a visit to Europe in 1951, he died of dysentery and a liver disorder - only three weeks after he was made the director of the Desert Institute in Cairo.

Almásy remained true to his first love throughout his life, putting nationalist orientations aside. "Some ask me what profit humanity has from the exploration of the desolate sea of rocks and sands, a few miserable vegetation spots or a well with bad water," he wrote. "Why waste money and risk your life for this? I can only reply with an expression from the Bedouins: 'The desert is horrifying and merciless, but anyone must return to the desert who could ever comprehend it.'"

Zsolt Török is a professor of cartography at Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary. With his Cartart FacTsimile workshop, he revives the traditional art of mapmaking and globemaking. Török is currently working on a book about Count László Almásy.

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László Almásy: The real Hungarian desert explorer

László Almásy (1895-1951) the important Hungarian desert explorer is a real person, while his character in the Oscar-winner film, The English Patient is mostly fictious. The aim of this paper is to give a comprehensive biography of one of the last romantic explorers.
The last Austro-Hungarian explorer was born at Borostyánkő (now Bernstein) in a Hungarian noble, but not titled family. He showed early and elementary interest into motorization during his education, that was finished in England, where he obtained his pilot licence. As a pioneer aviator he served in the Monarchy's army and became a much decorated Air Force pilot. After World War I, as a royalist he drove King Karl IV to Budapest in two restoration attempts and was made a count. After the war Almasy worked as a representative of Steyr cars in Szombathely, won numeorus car races.
He first drove a car along the Nile into the Sudan in 1926, and returned for experimental shorter journeys in the following years to demonstrate the hardiness of Steyr cars. In 1929, as a prelude to his later desert expeditions, using two Steyrs he penetrated East Africa, the Sudan and Egypt. Rudi Mayer, an Austrian filmaker made a documentary of the 12 000 km long and adventurous journey. The negative material was found and restored by his son, Kurt Mayer, who presented the 110 minutes long silent movie last year. This documentary film offers an exceptional visual experience with real African scenes from the late 1920s. Also, one can see the real Almásy, who led the expedition. The film shows him as a tall, lean Hungarian aristocrat with good sense of humour and special communication skills.
By the 1930s Almásy developed a passion for the desert, and joined the company of other explorers in solving the mysteries of the Libyan Desert. In this period an interesting transition is observed with the appearance of modern vehicles and this also revolutionized the technology of desert expeditions. Almásy was an excellent driver and aviator and coluld apply the new technology at outstandingly high level. On the other hand, the lack of corporate support forced him to mount international expeditions. In 1932 Sir Robert Clayton, Wing-Commander Penderel and Patrick Clayton joined Almasy in an expedition to find the legendary lost oasis, Zerzura. The Almásy-Clayton expedition combined first motor-cars wih light aircraft ( Havilland Gipsy Moth I) for reconnaisance in this area, and two wadis in the Gilf Kebir plateau were discovered from the air.
In 1933, during the Almásy-Penderel expedition, Almásy found the third valley, Wadi Talh, also vast areas of the Gilf region were explored, including the Aqaba pass. Dr. László Kádár, later President of the Hungarian Geographical Society, geographer of this expedition made several important geomorphological observations. The most important result of he 1933 Almasy expedition was the discovery of the prehistoric rock painting sites in the Uweinat and Gilf Kebir region (Ain Dua, Karkur Talh, Wadi Sora). During the following years Almasy led more desert expeditions, explored and surveyed the Gilf Kebir, the Great Sand Sea and the Wadi Hauar in the Sudan. Meantime he worked in Egypt as a flight instructor at Al Maza airfield.
In 1939 when he was not allowed to stay and work in Egypt he returned to Hungary. In Budapest he was found by the Abwehr, and as a reserved captain of the Hungarian Air Force he was ordered to join the German Afrika Korps. In 1941 and 1942 he served as a desert expert and led secret missions, including the most audacious Operation Salaam, when he took two German spies from Libya to Asyut across the desert. After World War II he was tried by the People's Court in Budapest and released. In 1951 he died of dysentry in Salzburg as the nominated director of the Desert Institute of Cairo.
(Summary of the paper published in Hungarian in the Hungarian Geographical Society’s Journal, Földrajzi Közlemények, Vol. CXXI., No. 1-2, pp. 77 - 86.)

Dr. Zsolt Török is an Almásy - researcher, who was born in the Hungarian town where the explorer lived during the 1930s. He has spent twenty-five years trying to put together the life of the legendary person. He published his first study on Almasy in 1989 and became on expert in the field, he was interviewed by The New York Times and several other newspapers and televisions in Hungary and abroad. He is working on a documentary with Kurt Mayer and he is writing his book that will presents surprising and never published facts of the real "English" patient, whose real life is certainly more than one novel.

Copyright by Dr. Zsolt Török, 1997

Török Zsolt:
Salaam Almásy
Almásy László életregénye

ELTE Eötvös Kiadó
ISBN 963 463 160 6
160 oldal, fóliázott karton, 980 Ft

"A különös regény főhőse gróf Almásy László, az a kalandos és rejtélyes életű autóversenyző. pilóta, sivatagkutató, felfedező majd felderítő, akit nemrégiben Az angol beteg című, kilenc Oscar-díjat nyert és világsikert aratott mozifilm főszereplőjeként ismerhettünk meg.
A film kitalált figurája helyett azonban ennek a könyvnek a lapjain a történelmi személy kel életre: az igazi Almásy.
Negyedszázados kutatómunkám eredeményeit legjobb tudásom szerint szőttem egybe ahhoz, hogy ennek a rendkívüli embernek az életregényét megírhassam. Ez a könyv számos olyan dokumentumot is tartalmaz, amelyek a világon először kerülnek a nyilvánosság elé."

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