The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East…. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.

This passage, narrated by Almásy (the English patient) in Chapter IV, describes his view of the desert. To Almásy, the desert is not only a place, it is an entity with qualities and characteristics all its own. It has tremendous power not only to erase identity, but to transcend time. In the desert, Almásy feels more connected to the ancient people who came before him than anywhere else in the world. He knows that he has seen and experienced the same desert that ancient peoples made their home. The desert also gains its mystique from its inability to be claimed or owned. Though centuries of people have tried to mark it off and name specific parts after themselves, Almásy realizes that such a measure is foolish. The desert, which is immortal, transcends any one claim on it.

The desert plays an important function in the novel, not only as a backdrop for action but also as a significant entity in itself. Open, barren, and empty, the blank geography of the desert highlights the foolishness of war between nations. In the desert, Almásy notes, "all of us…wished to remove the clothing of our countries." When men are up against such a harsh enemy as the vast nature of the desert, the different ethnicities among them become meaningless. Living in the desert helps Almásy to realize this, and thus shape his own view of the world.