Monday 8 May 2017

Gay Indiana Jones and the Lost Treasure of Zerzura

…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 policy.

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!

No comments:

Post a Comment