The plateau known as the Gilf Kebir is a flat-topped limestone plateau, located about 150 kilometers north of Gebel Uwaynat. coveringover 7,770 square kilometers.
It is situated in the southwestern corner of Egypt, about 720 kilometers from the Nile and 960 kilometers from the Mediterranean. Like a huge shelf -the size of Switzerland-, it is nearly dissected in two by a large cap. It rises 300 meters from the desert floor (1075 meters above sea level), forming one of the most formidable barriers in Africa.
Dozens of “wadis” (valleys) extend into the desert around its perimeter. These “wadis” were formed by water erosion in a much wetter climatic phase thousands of years ago, in the late Tertiary age.
A great division occured then, draining water in all directions, north, south, east and west.
Wind and water have combined to work away at the Gilf Kebir for over 100,000 years. Although it probably took its present form in the late Tertiary, or early Quaternary time, the only reason it is still standing is its tough cap of solidified sandstone. The northern portion of the Gilf Kebir is drowning in whitish colored sand from the Great Sand Sea. It is helping the wind break down the Gilf into small islands and cones. The sand at the middle of the plateau is of reddish color. Wadi Hamra, as its name indicates, is filled with red sand. The southern portion of the Gilf is 5.800 square kilometers.
The Cave of Swimmers was discovered in October 1933 by the Hungarian explorer László Almásy. It contains rock painting images of people swimming estimated to have been created 10,000 years ago during the time of the most recent Ice Age.As a bit of trivia, one may note that the fictional story, the “English Patient”, was based on the life of Almasy. He came from an untitled Hungarian family, but claimed to have driven the car of the last Hapsburg king, Karl IV. In return, the king made him a count.
Almásy devoted a chapter to the cave in his 1934 book The Unknown Sahara. In it he postulates that the swimming scenes are real depictions of life at the time of painting and that there had been a change in climate since that time. This theory was so new at that time that his first editor added several footnotes, to make it clear that he did not share this opinion.
The cave is mentioned in the book The English Patient and the film based upon it.** The cave shown in the film is not the original but a film set created by a modern artist.
Substantial portions of the cave have been irreversibly damaged by visitors in the years since the film was released. Fragments of the paintings have been removed as souvenirs, and some surfaces have cracked after water was applied to ‘enhance’ their contrast for photographs. Modern graffiti has been inscribed upon the wall, and tourist littering remains a problem. Steps have been taken to reduce future damages.
El-Mestekawi Cave was discovered during an expedition in 2002. It is by far the largest site, both in terms of the number of paintings and engravings as well as in terms of variety. Not all the paintings are of the same colour, with some being painted over the other indicating different periods and thus adding to the site’s value. Handprints dominate the half- buried wall with alternating paintings of human figures, different animals and representations of hunting scenes. There were also works of art so surprising that they left me truly puzzled and above all impressed, including one representation of a headless bull, repeated in various parts of the cave. Could this be the mystical water creature which, according to legend, had the power to bring rain?
Another image which was found particularly perplexing was that of the footprint. While handprints regularly act as background for other paintings in most parts of the cave, there are only two footprints — one engraved and another painted. If one stands right in the middle of the cave, lift one’s head slightly, two adjacent carvings will be found. Both are astounding, and appear to have been created by a highly imaginative avant- garde.
Most unfortunately, some irresponsible tourists spray water on rock art in order to secure a more vibrant photograph. Although it works, there is also a hefty price to pay in the form an accelerated deterioration of the art itself. Having been dry for thousands of years, the sandstone on which most of the rock art is painted reacts negatively with water. Soon enough, the colours start to fade and the paint starts to peel. Water spraying and camera flashes are lethal when it comes to rock art.