Page 1. " the tall cypresses sway "
Tuscan landscape
Creative Commons AttributionTuscan landscape - Credit: Jackie Pix

The Mediterranean cypress tree is a common sight through Italy, often lining roads and gardens, particularly through Tuscany. The ancient Etruscan people, and the Romans after them, believed the tree freshened the air, and it was often associated with funeral rites.

Page 1. " this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling "

This describes a fresco, common in Italy, where an image is painted onto the walls or ceiling of a room.

Page 5. " We were in the Sand Sea "

Great Sand Sea
Creative Commons AttributionGreat Sand Sea - Credit: Al lanni
There are three Sand Seas in the Libyan Desert, which stretches across Egypt, Libya and into north-west Sudan. It makes up part of the Sahara.

The three Sand Seas cover about one quarter of the desert, and the dunes can reach up to 512 meters in height.

Page 5. " Nomads, you see. Bedouin. "

The name Bedouin is derived from the Arabic word, bedu, which means 'inhabitant of the desert'. The Bedouin are a set of traditionally nomadic tribes, who dwell across Arabia, the Negev, and the Sinai.


Some famous Bedouin proverbs:

When you sleep in a house your thoughts are as high as the ceiling, when you sleep outside they are as high as the stars.

I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, I, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors, All of us against the foreigner.


Bedouin: Nomads of the Desert by Alan Keohane

Bedouin Poetry: From Sinai and the Negev by Clinton Bailey



Page 5. " They knew about planes that since 1939 had been falling out of the sky. "

World War II Plane, North Africa
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeWorld War II Plane, North Africa - Credit: gbaku
The year 1939 marks the beginning of World War II. The deserts of North Africa ceased to be a playground for the desert explorers of the 1920s and 1930s, and became a theatre of war. Pilots were often shot down over the desert.

Page 6. " He could smell the oasis before he saw it. "

Siwa Oasis, Egypt
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSiwa Oasis, Egypt - Credit: Walid Hassanein

An oasis is a remote and isolated patch of lush vegetation and water found in the desert. If big enough, the oasis can sustain communities, farming and animals.

Page 6. " such soft dates to be chewed by the man beside him "
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeDates - Credit: Hunda

The Siwa Oasis is famous for its olives and sweet dates. The oasis sits on the border of the Egyptian Sand Sea. It is believed the unique minerals in the water of the Siwa Oasis, combined with saline soils, produce the sweet, large dates.

Siwa is also famous for the ancient oracle temple of Amun. Alexander the Great made the journey to Siwa before embarking on his campaign to conquer Persia.

The dates are also sold stuffed with almonds and chocolate. If you're lucky enough to make it to Siwa, shops specializing in dates are located around Market Square, and prices range from around 7 to 8 LE for a 500 gram box.

Dianabuja, on her blog, gives a great background to the food of Siwa Oasis, including some gorgeous local recipes using dates and olives.

Page 6. " the villa that had been a war hospital "
War hospital in Villa garden
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumWar hospital in Villa garden - Credit: Nigel Dutt

As the Allies advanced through Italy, villas were often turned into war hospitals. Many of the villas in Fiesole were used, including the one pictured.


Page 6. " the war moving north, the war almost over "

RAF men in Italy
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumRAF men in Italy - Credit: Nigel Dutt
This places the time period of the Italian narrative close to the end of World War II.

Italy had formally surrendered in 1943, but the other Axis powers continued to fight in Italy. The final Allied victory against Axis powers in Italy came in the spring of 1945.

Page 7. " no one except the English patient and herself in the Villa San Girolamo "

Villa le Balze
GNU Free Documentation LicenseVilla le Balze - Credit: Sailko
The Villa San Girolamo is a real place in the small hill town of Fiesole, just outside of Florence. The Villa San Girolamo is now a hotel, formerly a convent, and has beautiful gardens overlooking the city of Florence.

Next door to the Villa San Girolamo is the Villa le Balze, which Micheal Ondaatje used as a model for the Villa in The English Patient. The Villa le Balze has an interesting history, being occupied by German forces in World War II, and shelled by the Allied army. Now owned by Georgetown University, their site provides a wonderful history of the building, including photographs. 

This New York Times travel article, written in the 1989, talks about staying at the Villa San Girolamo when it was still run by nuns. Sadly, times (and prices) have changed somewhat.

Page 9. " the grass garden at Kew "

Grass Garden at Kew
Creative Commons AttributionGrass Garden at Kew - Credit: Andy Rob
The Kew Gardens (more properly known as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) are stretched over 121 hectares in south-west London. They are home to over 30,000 different kinds of plants.

The grass garden was created on its current site in 1982.

You can take a virtual tour of the Kew Gardens.

Kew Gardens is also a short story by Virginia Woolf.

Page 10. " He was known to everyone along the camel route from the Sudan north to Giza, the Forty Days Road. "


Page 11. " caused by a mortar-shell attack on the villa two months earlier "

A mortar is a weapon made up of a tube, into which an explosive shell is loaded. During World War II mortars were used to fire across enemy lines.

In Fiesole, mortar shells were launched at the villas being used as strongholds for German forces, causing a great deal of damage. At the Villa le Balze, as described in The English Patient, mortar shells and machine gun fire caused a lot of damage:

"In August 1944, advancing forces believed German troops to be defending the Villa on the night of their attack on southern slopes of Fiesole, and light artillery was brought to bear. Artillery shells destroyed a large part of the Villino roof, a nearby garden wall, and on the main house caused major damage to the south and east loggias. ... One shell even crashed through the roof and upper floor and lodged itself in the library, but, miraculously, it did not explode."

From History of the Villa, on the Georgetown University website.

Page 11. " she pulled out The Last of the Mohicans "
Last of the Mohicans cover
Public DomainLast of the Mohicans cover - Credit: PHILTHEGUNNER60

 The Last of the Mohicans is a novel by American writer James Fenimore Cooper, first publish in 1826.

Set in 1757, during the French and Indian War, the story follows Nathanial 'Natty' Bumppo and two Native American Indians, Chinganchook and his son, Uncas, who is the titular last of the Mohicans. Their adventures follow an abduction narrative, as they try to free two English women, daughters of Colonel Munro, from a tribe of Hurons, led by the villianous Magua.

Cooper takes real places, characters and events, and weaves the story with imagination. This use of realism and imagination echoes Micheal Ondaatje's own use of fact and fiction in the construction of The English Patient.

The themes of The Last of the Mohicans also echo the themes of The English Patient. Both novels are concerned with notions of nationality, identity and loyalty.

Read The Last of the Mohicans at Project Gutenburg.

Listen to The Last of the Mohicans at LibriVox.

Page 12. " She felt like Crusoe finding a drowned book "

Robinson Crusoe on Book Drum

Page 12. " A Narrative of 1757. "

This is the subtitle of The Last of the Mohicans.

Page 12. " There was the Villa Medici, where the generals lived. "

Built between 1451 and 1457 the Villia Medici is one of the oldest Renaissance villas. It is perched on the hillside of Fiesole, above Florence, and near both the Villa San Girolamo and the Villa le Balze.

After it was built it became a meeting place for artists and philosophers.

The gardens and the villa itself are beautiful, and well preserved.



Page 16. " a copy of The Histories by Herodotus "
Page 16. " There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco "

The winds discussed here come from Herodotus, though Ondaatje has extended and amplified the list (what more would you expect from a poet?).

Weather Online provides a good database for different winds of the world.

Below is a clip from The English Patient film, where Ralph Fiennes' character gives a version of this paragraph. Interestingly, the movie takes this speech (delivered to Hana, which shows her bond with the patient) and moves it to an intimate moment between Almasy and Katherine Clifton.

Page 17. " Herodotus records the death of various armies engulfed in the simoom who were never seen again. "

Herodotus quote

Page 18. " the various routes of the Crusades "
Page 18. " knew when Alexander had traversed it in an earlier age "
Page 18. " In Tassili I have seen rock engravings from a time when the Sahara people hunted water horses from reed boats. "
Page 18. " In Wadi Sura I saw caves whose walls were covered with the paintings of swimmers. "
Page 19. " rock drawings in Nubia "
Page 19. " Harpoons are still found in the desert. These were water people. "
Page 19. " All of Europe were fighting their wars in North Africa, in Sidi Rezegh, in Bagouh. "
Page 19. " reached the valley within the red high canyon walls "

red rose city of Petra

Page 19. " they took him to the far reach of the siq "

al- Siq - Petra

Page 20. " taught him the game of Pelmanism "
Page 21. " For the echo is the soul of the voice exciting itself in hollow places. "