László Almásy

Almásy László Ede

Borostyánkő (Austro-Hungarian Empire), August 22, 1895 – Salzburg (Austria), March 22, 1951

Almásy László was one of the most would famous researcher and cartographer of Sahara in the 19th century. He was born in 1895 in Borostyánkő (now Bernstein, Austria) into a Hungarian noble family.

From his young age, he showed a strong interest in cars and airplanes. After completing his high school studies in England, he became a pioneer of Hungarian aviation and he was an acclaimed military pilot in World War I. From 1926, as a sales representative of the Steyr car and machine factory in Graz (Austria), he completed several shorter distance travels to Egypt and Sudan.

He led his first longer expedition in 1929, when he discovered and traversed a section of the ancient Dar el-Arbain, the “Forty Days Road” caravan lane. Over the next decade, Almásy followed the footsteps of the legends of the Sahara , especially the Libyan desert. He was involved in the rediscovery of the legendary Zarzura, an oasis believed to be lost.

In 1931, on his way from Hungary to Egypt with Count Nándor Zichy, he was stormed and crashed in Syria .

In 1932, Almásy organised a new expedition with the financial help of the British Sir Robert East Clayton into the territory of the huge plateau in the desert, called the Gilf Kebir (Great Wall). During this expedition in addition to cars, an airplane was also used for patrolling. As a result of this expedition, they were able to locate two mysterious valleys.

Despite the unfavourable financial conditions, the climax of Almásy’s exploratory career was the expedition in 1933, when he managed to find the third valley, the “Valley of the Acacias” (Wadi Talh). So that the legend of the three valleys of Zarzura became a reality.

However, the most significant discovery that Almásy did in his career was the prehistoric site in the Gilf Kebir area. This prehistoric caves had painted images which he found in the rock cavities above the source of Ain Dua in the Uweinat Mountains. In the caves he observed depicted about 800 animals in white, red, brown, and yellow colours and some sort of human forms which were painted in black. On the walls of the caves in the “Valley of the Images” (Wadi Sura) , he recorded Neolithic imgages of palm, ostrich, gazelle and giraffe painted in red. He also discovered the cave of the so-called Swimmers . From the plant and water depictions, he concluded that there were once intermittent or permanent rivers and stagnant waters.

In the years before the World War II, he worked for the Egyptian royal family and the Cairo Institute of Cartography. He was one of the founding member of the Egyptian Desert Research Centre and his name is associated with the establishment of the Egyptian sport aircraft Aero Club and the foundation of Cairo’s first airport (Almaza Air Force Base).

Almásy had to leave Egypt before the World War II, despite offering his services to the British and then to the Italian army. He had to return to Budapest as an enemy. Almásy, an internationally well-renowned desert expert, was sent to the German army in 1940 as a reserve lieutenant of the Hungarian Air Force.

As a desert scout of the Rommel-led Africa Corps, he carried out several successful covert operations. In 1942, two German spies were transported from Libya to Egypt through the desert, deep behind the enemy lines, all the way to the Nile. The Operation Salaam was one of the most adventurous, secret enterprises in the war.

Almásy was arrested in Budapest after the World War II and acquitted him of war crimes after months of cruel conditions in prison. Almásy was able to return to Egypt in 1947, hoping to continue his previous research work. He died in Salzburg in 1951 because of a serious infection. He was buried in the Salzburg public cemetery.

The words “Father of sand” in Arabic and “Pilot, Sahara researcher, discoverer of the Zarzula oasis” can be read on his tombstone.

Because of his service in the German army Almásy László could hardly be mentioned in Hungary for decades. and even professionals tried to wipe him out of the public consciousness, even though he kept the whole of Europe in his time with his discoveries and travels. His travelogues and outstanding cartographic performance, he was the one who, by finding the Hungarians, made our attachment to Nubia even closer.

(The source of this biography: Dr. Zsolt Török)

(Photo: MTI)