…or “Gay Indiana Jones and the Treasure City of the Sahara”, or “… and the Quest for the Lost Oasis”, or any one of several other titles I considered for this article.
Almost as soon as the
first Indiana Jones film hit the screen people have made suggestions as to whom
the character is based. Like the character of M from the James Bond books there
are several names who have been put forward as the “original”. Two of the most
popularly named names are Otto Rahn (1904-1939), the gay archaeologist who went
in search of the Holy Grail for the Nazis, and the straight adventurer and
explorer Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) who became Director of the American
Museum of Natural History.
Another man who can be
suggested is Count László Almásy (1895-1951).
Almásy (whether his title
was real or not is debatable but he was from an aristocratic family) is best
known as the role model for another fictional hero, the title character of the
novel and film “The English Patient”. Very little, if anything, in either the
novel or film is true, but Almásy’s real life was so full of intrigue and
adventure that he qualifies for both of my “Xtremely Queer” and “Extraordinary
Lives” series of articles. No doubt he’ll appear in one of them in the future.
Like Otto Rahn, László Almásy
was gay and on “the other side” during World War II. Even though they were
members of the SS and Luftwaffe respectively they were not in combatant roles
and acted as sources of information rather than as active pursuers of Nazi
If ever there was a story
worthy of an Indiana Jones film it is surely the search for Zerzura, a
legendary city of treasure deep in the Egyptian desert. It has been the subject
of stories and speculation since medieval times.
The fabled city of Zerzura
makes its first written appearance among the documents of a 13th century emir
in the city of Fayyum in Egypt on the Nile (I love the name the ancient Greeks
gave to this city – Crocodilopolis). In 1481 there was another manuscript
written whose title translates as “The Book of Hidden Treasures”. It is
essentially a treasure-hunter’s handbook (I’m sure Indiana Jones’s father had a
copy!). It gave the following account of a camel driver who recounted a
fabulous tale to the emir of Benghazi.
The camel driver was
travelling across the desert when a huge sandstorm blew up. He was the only
survivor of his group. Lost, dazed and delirious from thirst he claimed he was
rescued by a group of tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed warriors who took him back
to their home, Zerzura. Zerzura was a gleaming white city filled with luxury
and treasure. After a few months the camel driver, long since recovered from
his sandstorm ordeal, left the city and trudged through the desert again until
he reached Benghazi, exhausted and thirsty. The emir provided hospitality as he
listened to the camel driver’s adventure.
When asked why he left the
safety of Zerzura the camel driver became evasive. Guards found a fabulously
expensive ring in his possession. The emir surmised that the camel driver had
stolen the ring and left Zerzura before he could get caught.
The emir was fascinated by
the tale of Zerzura and sent an army of men to search for the fabled treasure
city. They never found it. And the fate of the camel driver? The emir had his
hands chopped off for stealing the ring.
It wasn’t until 1835 that
Europeans began to learn about the legendary treasure city. Reports were made
of the discovery of a long-lost oasis deep in the Egyptian Sahara and several
expeditions tried to find Zerzura’s location.
For a century nothing was
found, but the area was mapped accurately for the first time, along with a
couple of legendary oases of lesser significance. In 1926 Prince Kemal el-Din
of Egypt discovered the Gilf Kebir, a rocky plateau the size of Switzerland.
Archaeologists went mad. Was this Zerzura? The academic journals published many
articles on the subject, both for and against the suggestion. One of those who
believed Gilf Kebir was Zerzura was László Almásy.
In that same year, 1926, Almásy
had himself rediscovered a long-lost caravan route through the desert known as
the Road of Forty (it took 40 days to get from one end to the other).
In 1932 Prince Kemal
financed Almásy and a small expedition to fly over the Gilf. They photographed
two very green fertile valleys. Again, this discovery created a sensation in
archaeological circles. Travelling to the Gilf overland was difficult but they
made it the following year. What sceptics often remarked was that stories of
Zerzura mentioned 3 valleys and Gilf Kebir had only 2. Almásy’s expedition
concentrated on its western edge of the plateau – and he found the third
valley. Sceptics were harder to be convincing after that.
Although Almásy never
found any structural remains he was convinced that the lost city of Zerzura was
to be found in or around Gilf Kebir. There is, however, evidence of human
habitation. In some of the caves in the Gilf’s cliffs are rock paintings.
The quest for Zerzura
petered out after that, mainly due to the outbreak of World War II. Almásy
returned to North Africa as a Luftwaffe officer charged with producing maps of
the desert. He was also charged with the task of smuggling two Nazi spies
across the desert to Cairo. This didn’t have any effect on the Nazi war effort
as the spies were captured not long arriving.
After the war the
Hungarian Communist government charged Almásy with treason for working with the
Nazis. He was acquitted, but then a Soviet KGB hit squad went after him. He
escaped to Cairo where he befriended King Farouk who made him the first
director of the new Egyptian Desert Research Institute.
So, had the lost Treasure
City of the Sahara been found? Does Zerzura really exist? We’ll never know.
Nothing that can be described as actual treasure has been discovered, but
thanks to Count László Almásy its possible location may have been found. All we
need now is Indiana Jones to finish the job and find it!