Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2181:
BERGMANN AND ALMÁSY

by John H. Lienhard

Today, two car salesmen rewrite history. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Did you see the Oscar-winning movie, The English Patient? In it, the horribly-burned Hungarian pilot László Almásy was a fictional version of an actual person. The real Almásy flew airplanes for Austria in WW-I, then went to work as a representative of Austria's Steyr Automobile Company.

Almásy became interested in Egyptian history when he made a demonstration motorcar trip down the Nile into the Sudan. He was soon driving Steyr trucks into the deserts of southwest Egypt -- both to show off their ruggedness and to explore the region. That led to several expeditions by both motor vehicle and airplane.

He studied and mapped the little-known archaeological remains in the Gilf Kebur Caves. He discovered a tribe in Nubia, descended from 16th-century Magyars who'd served with the Turks. He also made the dubious claim that he'd found the legendary Zerzura Oasis.

His work, however, was generally significant. But, since he later served Germany with Rommel's Afrika Corps, he was accused of using his prewar archaeology as cover for spying. More likely, he simply accepted patronage for his expeditions wherever he could find it. He died in 1951, not from a fiery airplane crash, but from dysentery. He was then selling Porsches.

Almásy's ghost was lately called up by another automobile company man. Former Ford management trainee Carlo Bergmann went to Egypt to study marketing strategies. But, when he visited a camel market, he became enchanted with the culture of camel drivers.

And he made the most amazing career shift: he became a camel driver! 1999 found him in the area near Central Egypt's Dakhla Oasis. Since, unlike Almásy, Bergmann had traded his car for a camel, he moved far more slowly -- far more intimately with the ground. So, when he spotted shards of pottery in the sand, he recognized them as ancient detritus along an old trade route.

He went to work with a trio of German archaeologists to study the three-hundred-mile trail southwest to Almásy's Gilf Kebir Plateau. They found enough markers to support Almásy's notion that this series of settlements and way stations once connected Egypt into sub-Saharan central Africa. It's now called the Abu Ballas Trail, and it turns out to be littered with remains. It bisects the 90-degree angle formed by the southwest borders of Egypt.

So how old is the trail? Bergmann thinks the primitive hieroglyphics found along it represent an embryonic stage in the evolution of writing. He believes writing moved into what became the Egypt of the Pharaohs, rather than having been born along the Nile. That's kicked up resistance, of course, and a fight is on.

Still, Bergmann's contributions to our knowledge of this ancient trade route have finished what Almásy had suggested. Two car salesmen turned attention to this old pathway, but the second one traded his car for a camel with stunning results.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


E. Young, Pharaohs from the Stone Age. New Scientist, Jan. 13-19, 2007: pp. 34-38.

For more on Bergmann, see: http://www.carlo-bergmann.de/Discoveries/discovery.htm

For more on the ancient hieroglyphs, see this page about a location near the Abu Ballas Trail: http://aars.fr/cmt_rnd_Ingol_7.html

For more on the Libyan end of the Abu Ballas Trail see, http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/ancientroute.htm

For more on László Almásy see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1szl%C3%B3_Alm%C3%A1sy

Images below courtesy of Google Earth: Above: the Dakhla Oasis in Central Egypt. Below: the Gilf Kebir Plateau in Southwest Egypt These define the Northeast and southwest ends of the Abu Ballas Trail.

Dakhla Oasis
Gilf Kebir Plateau

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.