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Laszló Ede Almásy (1895-1951)

the important Hungarian desert researcher is a real person while his character in the Oscar- winner film, The English Patient (1996), is mostly fictious. The task of this web page is to give a short and reliable biography of one of the last romantic geographic explorers. The last Austrian-Hungarian discoverer was born in Borostyánkõ ( now Bernstein Castle, Austria) in a Hungarian noble but not titled (count) family. He showed early and fundamental interest into motorization already in his early years, which became a more serious addiction while at a boarding school in Eastbourne, England, where he got his first pilot license.

As a pioneer flier, he served in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and became a much decorated pilot of the Hungarian royal Air Force. After World War I, as a royalist he drove the car of king Karl IV to Budapest in two unsuccessful attempts to get him back to the throne. After 1921 Almásy operated as a representative of the Austrian automobile maker firm Steyr (Graz, in Austria) in Szombathely, in Hungary, and as driver won numerous car races. He drove first a car in Egypt, along the Nile, into the Sudan in 1926, and came back for experimental shorter reconnaissance journeys as well as hunting in the following years. To demonstrate the hardiness of Steyr vehicles he drove first in the deep desert. In 1929, as prelude to his later desert expeditions, he penetrated East Africa, the Sudan and Egypt with two Steyr XX lorries. Rudi Mayer, a Styrian film maker created a documentary of the 12-000 kilometer long and adventurous journey.

(The negative material was found by his son, Kurt Mayer and restored. The 110-Minute-long quiet Film was presented in 1997 in Vienna.) This documentary film offers an unusual opportunity to see real African scenes from the late twenties of the last century. We can see the real Almásy who led the expedition. The film shows him as a tall, lean Hungarian aristocrat with good sense of humor and special communication abilities. Up to the 1930s Almásy developed a passion for the desert and connected the company of other desert fools or researchers. He was lured by the secrets of the Libyan Desert . In this period of the history of the geographical exploration of the Eastern Sahara one can observe an interesting transition: the new expedition technology revolutionized desert expeditions. Almásy was an excellent driver and pilot and could make use of the new technology at high level. On the other hand the lack of official support forced him to find financial support and organize international expeditions.

In 1932 Sir Robert Clayton East-Clayton, Wing Commander Penderel and Patrick Clayton (all English) joined with Almásy in an expedition, in order to find the legendary lost Oasis, Zerzura (also called Zarzura).

The 1932 Almásy- Clayton expedition combined first automobile with light airplane (Gypsy, Havilland Moth I, called actually Rupert!) for reconnaissance in this area and two wadis, dry valleys in the huge Gilf Kebir plateau were discovered from the air.

The following year both wadis were found by the expedition of surveyor Patrick Clayton, who mapped immense unknown areas of the Great Sand Sea and could make a detour for the Gilf Kebir.

In the same year, in 1933 Almásy's both patrons, Prince Kemal el Din and the young baron, Sir Clayton died and his expedition plans collapsed.

The young and brave English widow, Lady Dorothy Clayton, went to the desert in remembrance his husband - who died very shortly before his planned venture with Almásy.

she accompanied Patrick Clayton on his to Kufra after his second visit to the valleys (Wadi Abd el Malik, Wadi Hamra) and their joined expedition visited 'Zarzura' before they all returned to Cairo.

They left Kufra on the same day Almásy and his expedition arrived ...

During the Almásy-Penderel expedition, Almásy, following the route, actually a camel path described by an old Tebu man, found the third valley, Wadi Talh.

The legendary Zerzura was discovered!- in the opinion of Almásy.

Vast areas of the Gilf Kebir region were also explored, including the later infamous Aqaba pass. Dr. László Kádár, later President of the Hungarian Geographical Society, and the geographer of this 1933 expedition made several important geomorphologic observations on the physics of blowing sand.

The most important result of he 1933 Almásy expedition was the discovery of the prehistoric rock art sites in the Uweinat and Gilf Kebir region (Ain Dua, Karkur Talh, Wadi Sora).

In the following years Almasy led more desert expeditions, guided Leo Frobenius, a German ethnographer and renowned orientalist, and 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 ,which name has nothing to do with his name.

In 1939, when he was not allowed to stay and work in Egypt, he returned to Hungary. In Budapest he was found by German Abwehr, and as a reserved captain of the Hungarian Air Force he was ordered to join the German Afrika Korps. He was, however, not a Nazi, neither secret agent, during war operations he was involved in he always wore military uniform.

In 1941 and 1942 he served as a desert expert to General Rommel, and led secret missions, including the most audacious Operation Salaam, when he took two German spies from Libya to Asyut, Egypt, across the desert and deep behind the Allied lines. This does not mean at all that Almasy was ever a German agent!

The photos taken during this fantastic journey reveal the fact that Almasy commanded his car patrol in uniform and their cars (captured Fords) were marked by the German military signs. The German agents were arrested in a few days and one of them, Eppler told during his interrogations a fabricated story. After the war he even published his desert tales, which became popular, despite the obviously contradictory facts.

After World War II he was captured and tried by the People's Court in Budapest. After months of interrogations and tortures he was found 'not guilty' and released. Interstingly enough, he escaped with the assitance of British intelligence... He was allowed to return to Egypt, where he would have liked to continue his scientific research work. To improve his financial background he sold luxury cars (Porsche) for Egyptian aristocrats, but could not return to the desert to find the lost army of the Persian king Cambyses (for details see Herodotus).

In 1951, while on a visit to Europe, he took ill and died of dysentery in a hospital in Salzburg , Austria as the nominated technical director of the Desert Institute of Cairo.

He was buried there in the public cemetery, his resting place was reused, found again and a gravestone was erected in 1995.

The text is based on a paper published in Hungarian in the Hungarian Geographical Society's Journal:

Török, Zsolt :'László Almásy: The Hungarian explorer of the unknown Sahara.'

In: Földrajzi Közlemények, (1997), Vol. CXXI., No. 1-2, pp. 77 - 86.

Author's Profile

Zsolt Török is a historian of cartography and geographical exploration and an Almásy- researcher since the age of ten, when he read a book of Almásy.
He was born in the Hungarian town where the explorer lived in the 1930s.
He has spent twenty-five years with research, and on the basis of the facts and documents he published his first study on Almásy in Hungary in 1989. He was interviewed by The New York Times and other newspapers and televisions in Hungary and abroad after the English Patient film had been presented.
He is the author of the Almásy biography, Salaam Almásy, published in Hungary in 1998. This is an unusual book of an extraordinary person: presents surprising and never published facts of the real "English" patient, recreates the historical atmosphere, at the same time tells a true story in the style of the desert explorer... bir_messaha.htmbir_messaha.htmRead a part of the novel! (Chapter "Bir Messaha" in English)

Dr. Zsolt Török is Associate Professor of Cartography at Eötvös University of Budapest, Hungary, and his is the only traditional map and globe maker artist.
He lives in the country with his wife, four sons, a dog and a cat.

Schlossweg 1; 7434 Bernstein


Tel.: +43 3354 6382


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