Page 133. " There is, after Herodotus, little interest by the Western world towards the desert for hundreds of years. "

Herodotus, known as the 'father of history', wrote his famous 'inquiries', better known as The Histories, as a way to explore the origins of the Greek and Persian wars. In doing so, he created the idea of recording history. 

However, Herodotus's history is not how we think of history today - he recorded myths, stories, heresay and information across Europe, Asia and Africa, including the desert regions discussed in The English Patient.

You can read Herodotus's The Histories here.

Listen to the first paragraph of Herodotus being read in Ancient Greek.

A wealth of information on Herodotus, including translations, essays and books can be found here.

Page 133. " From 425 B.C. to the beginning of the twentieth century there is an averting of eyes. "

The year of 425 B.C. marks the death of Herodotus. The narrator is suggesting that the Western world loses its knowledge and interest in the deserts of North Africa.

Page 133. " modest lectures given at the Geographical Society at Kensington Gore "
Royal Geographical Society, Kensington
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeRoyal Geographical Society, Kensington - Credit: David Cane

Founded in 1830 in Kensington in London, the Royal Geographical Society operated with the aim of advancing the field of geographical science.

The society has been linked with a number of famous explorers and expeditions, including the exploration of the Eygptian and Libyan deserts outlined in The English Patient.

Noted explorers linked with the society include Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, George Mallory, Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hilary.

Page 133. " These lectures are given by sunburned, exhausted men who, like Conrad's soldiers, are not too comfortable with the etiquette of taxis, the quick, flat wit of bus conductors. "

Ondaatje is likely referring to Joseph Conrad, born in 1857, the author of the famous novella Heart of Darkness. The story follows Marlow, an Englishman, on a foreign assignment as a ferry-boat captain in Africa. While employed to transport ivory downriver, Marlow is also assigned to return Kurtz, another trader, who has established himself as a god among the natives.

You can read Heart of Darkness, originally published in three parts, here.

For further information, take a look at the Wikipedia page.

The most famous adaptation of Heart of Darkness is Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, which moves the setting of the story to the Vietnam War.



Page 134. " John Bell, director of Desert Surveys in Egypt, asked these questions in 1927. "

Egyptian Desert
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeEgyptian Desert - Credit: walid.hassanein
John Ball (called John Bell in the novel), born in England in 1872, was the director of the Egyptian Survey Department, and one of a number of desert explorers in the 1920s and 1930s. The quotes on this page of Ondaatje's novel are taken directly from Ball's article 'Problems Of The Libyan Desert', in The Geographical Journal, Vol. 70.

This article gives an overview of Ball's activites, and the activities of other British desert explorers of the time.

Page 134. " By the 1930s the paper grew even more modest. "

The geographical questions and analysis raised in the Geographical journals of the 1920s and 1930s are characterised by a desire to explore and excavate the history and geographical nature of the world. You can find a number of the older journals available for download by using Google books.

For example, Volume 7 can be found here.

Page 134. " By the mid-1930s the lost oasis of Zerzura was found by Ladislaus de Almasy and his companions. "

Ladislaus de Almasy. HISTORY of real person v character.

Search for Zerzura.

Page 134. " In 1939 the great decade of Libyan Desert explorations came to an end, and this vast and silent pocket of the earth became one of the theatres of war. "

North Africa, including Egypt and Libya, saw significant military action during World War II. While Egypt remained neutral, it became a base for Allied troops during the war. Italian, and later German, troops were stationed in Libya.

The second battle at El Alamein proved to be a turning point in the war - it was the first battle the British Commonwealth forces won against the Germans.

During this period, the 'desert Europeans' that made up the explorations, like Almasy, who was Hungarian, were split up and the expeditions cancelled. Nationality became an important issue, which divided loyalties, and is a theme that Ondaatje explores in The English Patient.



Page 135. " that dead knight in Ravenna, whos marble body seems alive, almost liquid "
Tomb of a Knight in Salisbury
Creative Commons AttributionTomb of a Knight in Salisbury - Credit: Andrew Micheals

The English patient is compared to the statue of a knight at rest on his tomb. He is being imbued with the qualities of a crusader knight, a saintliness.

Ravenna is a city in Italy, which during the Medieval period was host to the exiled Dante Alighieri, considered one of the greatest Italian writers.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri


Page 135. " In 1930 we had begun mapping the greater part of the Gilf Kebir Plateau "
Gilf Kebir
Creative Commons AttributionGilf Kebir - Credit: imolcho

The Gilf Kebir, which translates as 'the Great Barrier' is a large rocky plateau in the south-west of Egypt. While remote, it is known for its beauty and geological interest, plus the thousands of cave paintings and rock carvings.


The most famous of these is arguably the Cave of Swimmers, discovered by Almasy on the 1932 expedition.

Page 135. " The City of Acacias. "

Tha Acacia tree grows through the desert near the location of a water source like a wadi or oasis. When searching the Gilf Kebir for Zerzura, Almasy sighted acacia trees, which indicated the location of what he believed was Zerzura.

Page 135. " Tebu and Senussi tribes "

The Tebu and Senussi tribes are among a number of nomadic tribes who occupy the southern Libyan desert. They are Muslims, and are both linked to the Kufra oasis.

Page 136. " In The Book Of Hidden Treasures, the Kitab al Kanuz, Zerzura is depicted as a white city, white as a dove. "

"...You will find palms and vines and flowing wells. Follow the valley until you meet another valley opening to the west between two hills. In it you will find a road. Follow it. It will lead you to the City of Zerzura. You will find its gate closed. It is a white city, like a dove. By the gate you will find a bird sculptured. Stretch up your hand to its beak and take from it a key. Open the gate with it and enter the city. You will find much wealth and the king and queen in their place sleeping the sleep of enchantment. Do not go near them. Take the treasure and that is all."

- Unknown Author, 15th Century

The Book of Hidden Treasures, or The Book of Hidden Pearls, is hard to track down. While the book is mentioned in the articles of the desert explorers, there appears to be no translations available. All internet links reference the quote above.

Page 136. " Kemal el Din in 1925, who, almost solitary, carried out the first great modern expedition. "

Prince Kamal El Dine Hussein was in line to succeed to the Egyptian throne, but he voluntarily renounced the succession. He was interests lay in desert exploration and in Suffism, the mystical branch of Islam.

During the 1920s Kemal mapped great parts of the Gilf Kebir. Suffering from ill health, Kemal went on to fund Almasy's efforts to locate Zezurra and map the Gilf Kebir in the 1930s.

Page 136. " We gathered at Dakhla and Kufra as if they were bars or cafes. An oasis society, Bagnold called it. "
Dahkla Oasis (500 * 333)
Creative Commons AttributionDahkla Oasis - Credit: Argenberg

Dakhla and Kufra are two oasis towns in the south-eastern part of Egypt.



Page 136. " We passed around hot glasses of tea. "
Bedouin making food and tea
Creative Commons AttributionBedouin making food and tea - Credit: Craig Finlay

Drinking tea is an important custom in Bedouin societies; guests will always be offered hot tea. It is served very strong and sweet, with no milk. An aquired taste, but one that grows on you after a hot day in the sun.

Bedouin Tea recipe



Page 136. " we were in the sandstorm that hit us out of clear morning "
Sandstorm Over Egypt
Public DomainSandstorm Over Egypt - Credit: NASA

Sandstorms, or dust storms, are common in dry regions. They occur when sand or dust is lifted into the air and carried across great distances.

Sandstorms were especially dangerous to early explorers in arid regions as the build up of sand could bury an entire expedition, or erase tracks and landmarks.

In the novel Ondaatje quotes directly from Hassanein Bey's description of a sandstorm, in 'Through Kufra to Darfur' (1942).




Page 137. " I walked through a souk "

Souk in Damascus, Syria
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumSouk in Damascus, Syria - Credit: Petra Kamula
A souk is a traditional commercial centre or market found in Arab or Berber regions.

Page 138. " three ceremonial glasses of tea flavoured with amber and mint "
Mint tea
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMint tea - Credit: Olve Utne

Mint tea is a classic tea which hails from Morocco, but is now common across all of North Africa. Flavoured with fresh mint, the tea is very strong, and traditionally prepared by men. It is not served with meals, but is usually associated with hospitality - often it will be served to guests.

It is traditional to serve the tea three times, as the tastes changes as the tea steeps - it even has its own proverb:

Le premier verre est aussi amer que la vie,

le deuxième est aussi fort que l'amour,

le troisième est aussi doux que la mort.

The first glass is as bitter as life,

the second glass is as strong as love,

the third glass is as gentle as death.


Mint tea recipe

Page 138. " He was out for the day on some small expedition, cataloguing fossil trees. "

Fossil plant
Public DomainFossil plant - Credit: Woudloper
Expeditions carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries discovered the existence of fossilised remains of plants and animals in the North African deserts.

"We slowly recognized this as the level on which all our explorations were to be made. The giant trunks of fossilized trees began to appear -- trees that were borne down the rivers from the great forests of the south, their petrified trunks, from thirty to seventy feet in length, protruding from the sand, which was an auspicious sign of the proximity of the remains of quadrupeds, for both were washed down together. Remains of crocodiles, also, and of great turtles, began to be seen, and we were convinced that we were in the very fossil-bearing tier itself."

Osborn, HF. 1907. The Century Magazine (74). 'Hunting the ancestral elephant in the Fayûm desert: Discoveries of the recent African expedition of the American Museum of Natural History.'

A discussion of fossils found in the Egyptian desert.

Page 138. " Looking for the lost army of Cambyses. "


Relief of men from Persepolis
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeRelief of men from Persepolis - Credit: Marc_do
Cambyses was the second King of the Achaemenid or Persian Empire. During his reign Cambyses invaded and conquered Egypt.

Famously, Herodotus tells of the lost army of Cambyses, who disappeared somewhere in the Egyptian desert:

"The men sent to attack the Ammonians, started from Thebes, having guides with them, and may be clearly traced as far as the city Oasis, which is inhabited by Samians, said to be of the tribe Aeschrionia. The place is distant from Thebes seven days' journey across the sand, and is called in our tongue "the Island of the Blessed." Thus far the army is known to have made its way; but thenceforth nothing is to be heard of them, except what the Ammonians, and those who get their knowledge from them, report. It is certain they neither reached the Ammonians, nor even came back to Egypt. Further than this, the Ammonians relate as follows:- That the Persians set forth from Oasis across the sand, and had reached about half way between that place and themselves when, as they were at their midday meal, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear. Thus, according to the Ammonians, did it fare with this army."

Herodotus, The Histories. Book 3. Translated by George Rawlinson.


Despite many expeditions, attempts to discover the lost army have failed. However, in 2009, a pair of Italian archaelogists claimed to have discovered the remains of a Persian army near Siwa Oasis. However, the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, has said the claims are "unfounded and misleading".

Below is a short news story on the discovery.

Page 138. " Just the Bedouin and us, crisscrossing the Forty Days Road. "

Shadows of camels in the desert
Creative Commons AttributionShadows of camels in the desert - Credit: Shawn Allen
"The historic Forty Days' Road connected the el-Fasher area of Sudan with Assiut in Egypt, via the Selima and Kharga Oases. This was the path followed by the great ancient camel caravans of old, a trade route dating back at least 700 years."

The above quote comes from an article called Riding the Forty Days' Road, by Angela Stephens.

In Search of the Forty Days Road by Michael Asher

Page 139. " The places water came to and touched... Ain, Bir, Wadi, Khottara, Shaduf. "

These are all places to do with the movement and use of water.

See the glossary for translations of the terms.

Page 139. " By now we travel in A-type Ford cars with box bodies and are using for the first time large balloon tires known as air wheels. "

These cars were an innovation of the desert explorers. They were very useful in aiding travellers from becoming bogged in the sand.

Page 140. " the Senussi raids during the Great War, when the black giant raiders crossed a desert which supposedly has no water or pasture "

The Senussi are a religious sect of tribesmen from Libya. During the First World War (also known as the Great War), the Senussi attacked Egypt, which was occupied by the British Empire. The Senussi were persuaded to attack by the Ottoman and German Empires, as part of a strategy to capture the Suez Canal.

One of the campaign's strategies saw the Senussi advance through the Sahara desert, much in the same way as the lost army of Cambyses. The Senussi successfully captured the oasis towns of Baharai, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharge in 1916.

The British Empire forces included British, South African, Australia and New Zealand, and Indian Sikh troops. An interesting account of the Australians in the Senussi battles can be found here, with some great pictures.

Page 140. " We find jars at Abu Ballas with the classic Greek amphora shape. "

Greek Amphora
Creative Commons AttributionGreek Amphora - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Abu Ballas, also know as Pottery Hill, is a stop on a caravan route through the Sahara desert.


Page 140. " Later Bermann says like the screeching of bats, quoting Herodotus. "

The Garamantians have four-horse chariots, in which they chase the Troglodyte Ethiopians, who of all the nations whereof any account has reached our ears are by far the swiftest of foot. The Troglodytes feed on serpents, lizards, and other similar reptiles. Their language is unlike that of any other people; it sounds like the screeching of bats.

Herodotus, The Histories. Book 4. Translated by George Rawlinson.


Page 142. " It is when he is old that Narcissus wants a graven image of himself. "
Narcissus by Caravaggio
Public DomainNarcissus by Caravaggio - Credit: Michelangelo Caravaggio

The Narcissus myth is the story of a beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection. The most famous version is told by Ovid, the Roman poet in his Metamorphoses.

Not recognising himself

He wanted only himself. He had chosen

From all the faces he had ever seen

Only his own. He was himself

The torturer who now began his torture.

Ted Hughes, Tales From Ovid. 1997. Faber and Faber.


You can read the Metamorphoses at the Internet Classics Archive, or listen to the myth being read aloud.


Metamorphoses by Ovid

Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes

Page 142. " a young man named Geoffrey Clifton "

Geoffrey Clifton is loosely based on the young, British baronet Robert Clayton-East-Clayton.

Clayton overheard of Almasy's search for Zerzurra at a dinner party, and was captivated by the idea. He made contact with Almasy, and joined the desert expedition of 1932, providing part funding and use of his Gypsy Moth plane. He brought his new wife (of two weeks) with him to the desert.

Like in the novel, Sir Robert did die young, at the age of 24. Only a few months after returning to England he died from an infectious disease contracted in the desert.

During the 1932 expedition Sir Robert wrote in his diary, and later reported to the Geographical Society. The expedition did not go according to plan, and this quote gives you an insight into his humour and goodnaturedness:

(1) Never trust an Arab guide; (2) always carry enough petrol to get back to your starting-place; (3) keep notes of every journey (it was Penderel's notes that gave us a clue to where we were); (4) take glasses; (5) never forget that the desert is always waiting to hit you below the belt, so don't give it the chance.

Robert Clayton-East-Clayton, Geographical Journal. Vol. LXXI, No. 3, p. 252.


For more information on the desert explorers and their expeditions, I would highly reccomend Fliegel Jezerniczky's wonderful website.

I would also highly reccomend the two authorative books on the period:

The Hunt For Zerzurra by Saul Kelly

The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy by John Bierman


Page 143. " They jumped off the wing of the Moth. "

The planes used to survey the desert and the Gilf Kebir were Gypsy Moths. After Almasy's plane crashed, another was provided by Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton.

Page 143. " He had named his plane Rupert Bear. "

The plane Sir Robert brought to the expedition was called Rupert, after the cartoon bear that was so popular at the time.

Page 143. " Katherine Clifton began to recite something "

Katherine Clifton is loosely based on Lady Dorothy Clayton-East-Clayton. Lady Dorothy was known to her friends as 'Peter' and was keen to join her husband on his 1932 expedition with Almasy to serch for Zerzurra, although she was told to remain in Cairo, which must have frustrated her.

Lady Dorothy is reported to have not liked Almasy, perhaps due to reports of his alleged homosexuality.

Following her husband's death, Lady Dorothy assembled another expedition into the desert to continue on her husband's work. While the expedition failed to locate Zerzurra, it did complete (for the first time) the 'great journey' from the Gilf Kebir, through the Sand Sea, to Siwa Oasis, something that Almasy had been planning.

Lady Dorothy was also to die young, in an aviation incident after returning to England in 1933. While the coroner ruled her death an accident, the details surrounding the event remain mysterious.

An excellent and very detailed history of Lady Dorothy can by found on Barbara Champman's website.

Page 144. " These then, though unbeheld in deep of night/ Shine not in vain, nor think, though men were none "


Adam and Eve, Sistine Chapel
Public DomainAdam and Eve, Sistine Chapel - Credit: Michaelangelo

This passage comes from the fourth book of John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, written in 1674.

The poem follows the Christian mythos of Adam and Eve, their temptation by Satan to eat from the Tree of Life, and their eventual expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Milton is believed to have been a Calvanist and, in line with Calvanist beliefs, Paradise Lost is concerned with the tension between God's plan for each individual and free will.

That Almasy falls in love with Katherine's voice as she reads this, echoes the theme of biblical temptation.

Read Milton's works, including Paradise Lost, at Project Gutenburg.

Page 145. " I could wake and raise my eyes to the map of old settlements along the Mediterranean coast - Gazla, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh - and south of that the hand-painted wadis, and surrounding those the shades of yellowness that we invaded, tried to lose ourselves in. "

Old Map of Egypt 1766
Public DomainOld Map of Egypt 1766 - Credit: Blundell
The act of mapping is a reoccuring theme in The English Patient. In a modern world, where Googlemaps can show us just about anywhere on the globe, it is important to remember that during the 1930s, when the desert expeditions were taking place, mapping was still an art - the world was still unknowable, and there to be discovered.

The tactile nature of mapping also extends to the idea of mapping relationships, and bodies - something apparent in both Katherine and Almasy's relationship, as well as Kip and Hannah's interactions.

Page 145. " My task is to describe briefly the several expeditions which have attacked the Gilf Kebir. "

This excerpt is taken a paper called 'The Gilf Kebir' by H. W. G. J. Penderel in The Geographical Journal, June 1934. You can read the first page of the article.

Penderel was another of the British desert explorers. He accompanied Almasy and Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton on their 1932 expedition.

Page 145. " Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history. "
Intimate Room
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeIntimate Room - Credit: Ramón Peco

This is a comment on the nature of history and the way history is created and imagined. The English Patient can be read as a form of metahistory, commenting on historical events and personages, but not adhering to the strict structure of 'facts' to make its point.

The study of history, known as historiography, has the scholar consider 'how' history was made, and who the people are who are creating it.

There was some controversy when The English Patient was published. Some people believed it was wrong to 'alter' the truth of history - they felt that it was morally wrong to cast Almasy as a man motivated by love of a woman, as opposed to the various historical and political forces.

Notably, however, Ondaatje makes the point throughout his novel that history is the act of interpretation. In much the same way that Herodotus did, when he wrote his 'Histories', history is no fixed thing - it changes and evolves depending on what evidence is available, who tells the story, who listens - a myriad of ever-changing things. The same story may be told a million different ways, and still be history.

Ondaatje works with universal truths, rather than pure facts in his creation of what is both novel and metahistory. Through reading The English Patient you come to understand the personal struggle that every person involved in the events of World War II must have understood - pain, confusion, loyalty, longing, loss. These are universal themes, and Ondaatje's choice to alter the 'facts', reveals a different way of experiencing and interpreting hisotry.

On of the most well-known historians to publish on historiography is Hayden White. In 1973 he published the seminal Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteeth-Century Europe. This webpage by Vicki Rae distills White's arguments.

Page 145. " They appeared like brides in a mediaeval courtship. "

A mediaeval courtship references the restoration of a time of romance and courtly manners, where knights wooed ladies of the court.

Take a look at a modern medieval ceremony!

Page 150. " She always had the desire to slap him, and she realized even that was sexual. "

Link to explorations of violence and sexuality -...