Over the ripples of the dunes
comes a sea whispering,
it begins as a breeze
spread from fishermens’ nets,
follows snake patterns
in channels to distant gullies.
Held within a sandstorm blur,
“There was a memory;
Arabesque, drawn as fluently
as liquid lines left over the sand.
Once, Sahara people hunted
‘water horses’ that fled
from reed-lined paddled boats.
And agile swimmers
they glanced, they floated,
upwards at the sun’s expanse
that warmed a wide lake.
In arid Wadi Sura,
desert caves remain yet alive
with deep held breaths of divers.
Silhouettes joining hands
underwater because it was grip
that would never falter;
as like the source of the water.”
And while these figures glance
from dry wall to dry wall
under torchlight illumination,
at dawn, this re-telling breeze
disappates, dives past dune waves,
hot-foots the dried lake beds
to rejoin them, the sleek swimmers
of the painted cavern walls.
Wadi Sura and the Cave of the Swimmers
Although The English Patient transposes the Cave of the Swimmers to
Ain Doua at Jebel Uwaynat, it actually lies in Wadi Sura (Picture Valley),
where Almássy found it in October 1933, with the Frobenius expedition
that was searching for rock art at Uwaynat and in the western valleys of
the Gilf that had been explored by Patrick Clayton two years earlier.
Clayton’s son believes that his father found the wadi and its other caves
first, but it was Almássy’s privilege to discover the Cave of the Swimmers
and name the valley. The film (shot in Tunisia) took liberties by making the
cave where Katherine Clifton died a deep, convoluted passage: it is, in fact,
a shallow hollow on the lip of the wadi, and shockingly exposed to the
Inside, the Cave of the Swimmers harbours well over a hundred figures in
diverse styles. The famous swimmers are 10cm long and painted in red;
with small rounded heads on stalks, tadpole-shaped bodies and spidery
arms and legs. Some are diving, implying that a lake once existed here (for
which there’s geological evidence). A second group of figures are depicted
standing, with clumsy limbs, thick torsos and pea-shaped heads; hands only
appear on the larger figures. Most are dark red, with bands of white around
their ankles, wrists or waists, similar to the hunters at Karkur Talh. Still more
intriguing are two yellow figures that seem to be stretching out their arms to
welcome a third, smaller, red one, which may be a child and its parents.
Cattle, giraffes, ostriches and dogs are also depicted on the walls.