During World War II, from the highest point within the
Bahariya depression, British, Australian and Indian forces kept a watchful
eye for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel the Desert Fox.
|The ruins of English House atop Gebel al-Ingleez
Today only a skeleton remains of this vital outpost (called "English
House" by locals) that was torn apart as a protest against colonialism.
During the war, the population of the Bahariya Oasis was divided by
politics. On one hand were the native Egyptians who chafed under British
rule and sympathized with the Axis powers on the simple logic that the enemy
of your enemy is your friend. The German-Italian forces, rolling eastward toward the
British-held Suez Canal, were looked upon by the Egyptian nationalists as
vital to a future independent state.
On the other hand were the Senussi inhabitants of the oasis, refugees from
Mussolini's occupation of Libya in the west. The Italians had deposed the
Senussi king Idris, forcing him to flee to Cairo and turning many of his
tribesmen into guerilla warriors.
The British seized the opportunity by forging a deal with the Bahariya
Senussi: Help us fight the Axis and we'll restore you and your monarch.
|Egyptian nationalists vented their anger on the
British by destroying English House
But beyond occasional acts of sabotage from the local Egyptian nationalists
pouring sugar into the tanks of their vehicles, for example the
Commonwealth forces stationed at the English House never saw any action:
the presence of the post caused Rommel to avoid Bahariya completely.
The British made good on their deal and Idris returned to a joyous Libya,
declaring an independent state in 1951. Eighteen years later, Idris was
overthrown by Muammar al Qaddafi and died in 1983, once more in Cairene exile.
Today, the only remains of English House are sun-baked stones that look down upon the oasis.
But other detritus of the war remain in Bahariya. Peter Wirth, a local
hotel owner and tour guide (who is intensely fervent of all things Saharan) has retraced the steps of Ladislaus Almásy, the English Patient of the book and film, and brought back artifacts of Almásy's travels.
|Laszlo Almasy's petrol cans, recovered from the
Those familiar with the story of The English Patient may be
surprised to learn that he was a real person. An explorer fascinated with
tales of lost oases and desert lore, Almásy's most famous discovery is that
of Wadi Sura and the Cave of Swimmers, located near the Gilf Kebir in
Egypt's southwestern corner. It isn't a deep cavern system as depicted in
the movie more like an overhang but its prehistoric paintings of
swimming people testify to a past that was not as arid and dry as today.
When war broke out, the Hungarian-born Almásy joined his country's air
force and eventually wound up teaching desert survival in Rommel's Afrika
Korps. His greatest mission was the smuggling of two German spies from
southern Libya through the Western Desert to the Kharga Oasis. There,
Almásy turned back and the spies continued toward Cairo. Even though the
two were eventually captured, Almásy's feat landed him in the annals of
Some fifty-odd years later, Wirth backtracked along Almásy's path and found
the camps and fuel depots made during his crossing. He also found German fuel cans and even discarded wine bottles and cigarette packs. All date to 1942 the year Almásy made his trek.
"I know which roads he took and I followed them," said Wirth, further explaining
that in some windless parts of the desert, the tracks from Almásy's desert
vehicles are today just as they were when made.