Malmignati, Countess Dorothea Ulla
(c.1883-1930), traveller and adventurer

Biographical notes based on the research of Ray Howgego (UK) and Mariano Casas (Spain)
Text by Ray Howgego

This biography is incomplete. The author welcomes contributions from others researching the life of the elusive countess, or from those that can shed light on any of the names mentioned in this article. Please write to

Warning note: For the countess's early life we have only her personal testimony as provided in interviews for newspapers and in 'diary extracts'. In the absence of supporting evidence, much of this is difficult, if not impossible to confirm . The sources of such information are given in brackets, e.g. (2), the numbers referring to entries in the bibliography at the end of this article. Annotations and comments by the present author are given in square brackets [ ]. Many of the dates given in this article are estimated.

Early life and travels, c.1883-1913

Countess Malmignati was born Dorothea Ulla von Lincke, about the year 1883 at a place she identifies as 'Stakowitch, near Moscow' (7). [Her birth date is estimated; she states that she was married in 1904 at the age of 21. There is nowhere called 'Stakowitch' or  'Stakovich' in Russia. The suffix -ovich is patronymic and cannot be a place name.] Her father was a large landowner (7). She had a sister [unnamed] and a brother, Otto von Lincke, who became 'the tallest man in the German army, as well as one of its most experienced aviators.' [There is no record of a Von Lincke family living in Russia. Nor is Otto listed in the roster of German flying aces, although there is no obvious reason to doubt his existence.] She was sent to England for her education, then studied in Germany where she acquired a knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Slavic and Arabic (7). In 1904 she married a certain Count Molitor, whom she says was a landlord and one of the largest horse breeders in Russia who supplied most of the horses to the German army (7, 3). [There is no record of a Count Molitor living in Russia. The noble family of Molitor, descended from Count Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, resided in France and its borderlands. The countess, however, never mentions this connection although much of her later life would be spent in France.]

Soon after her marriage she wandered with her husband through Algeria and camped with the Tuareg in the Sahara (3). In Algeria she perfected her Arabic while staying as a guest of Count Cardo on his estate at 'Tairet' near 'Figgug' [= Figuig] (7). Later she spent some time in German South-West Africa [now Namibia] where her uncle, General Lothar von Trotha, was governor. [Adrien Dietrich Lothar von Trotha was governor of South-West Africa from June 1904 until November 1905 when he was recalled as a result of his inhumane policies of ethnic cleansing.] While in South-West Africa the countess explored on horseback 'with a few native boys', and while travelling near the Karas Mountains was taken prisoner by Ovambo tribesmen. She was released three weeks later after her uncle had despatched an armed rescue party (7). In Europe the countess befriended the German airship designer August von Parseval when 'he was just a little army captain', as well as Baron von Walmand, the first owner of a private balloon in Germany. [Parseval experimented with military observational balloons in the 1890s and built his first dirigible airship in 1901.] She states that she made more than sixty aeroplane flights, most of them from Johannisthal where her brother Otto was stationed (7, 3). [The Johannisthal Air Field, 15km south of Berlin, opened in September 1909.] She later made waterplane flights at Kiel and Cowes (Isle of Wight), both times crashing and injuring her knees (7). Count Molitor appears to have died around 1910, following the death of 'both of the countess's children' (7). [The countess is then known as Countess Molitor until her re-marriage some years later.]

Throughout the following year the countess studied nursing in hospitals in 'Wisbech in Germany', and for a short time attended a German evangelical missionary college (7). [There is no 'Wisbech' in Germany.] She then returned to England [about 1912?, the chronology here is confusing] to offer her services to the Church Army and, for three days a week, take charge of a baby clinic in the 'slums' of Plaistow, east London (7). [Plaistow was never a 'slum' area but it did have a baby clinic.] At the same time she studied in the map room of the Royal Geographical Society and read explorers' accounts of Arabia. In July 1913 the countess made a balloon flight across the Alps in the company of Captain Elberlandt of the German army, who was her sister's fiancé, and a certain Baroness von Ende. The flight started at Innsbruck and came down a day later at the Italian village of Maria (7). [She states that this was the first balloon trip across the Alps, but in fact Eduard Spelterini had made several trans-Alpine flights before this date. 'Elberlandt' is not a true surname. A Baroness von Ende can, however, be traced. There is no Italian village simply called 'Maria'.] The countess then proceeded to Monte Carlo and to Paris, where, at some time, she was, or had been kept prisoner by the Apaches (3) [The Apaches were an organized gang that operated in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. The gang flourished around 1907 but continued to operate for another decade or more. The date of the countess's captivity is uncertain.]
[Note: There are records of a certain Countess Molitor residing in the fashionable Parc Monceau district of Paris in 1910. However, this might not be the same person as there are others of the same name: Comtesse Beatrice Molitor (1851-1929), and another Comte and Comtesse Molitor who died in 1918 and 1920 respectively.]

The journey through Arabia, 1913-14

The countess arrived in London around the autumn of 1913 and made contact with John Scott Keltie, secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, stating that she was looking for somewhere to explore. [Keltie was secretary of the RGS from 1892 to 1915.] Keltie envisaged a short journey that 'a woman might succeed in accomplishing', but when he happened to mention the Rub' al Khali, the 'Empty Quarter' of the southeastern Arabian peninsula, the countess decided that this would become her goal (7). Her initial intention was to travel from Jidda to Muscat, taking with her small scientific balloons and other instruments, and possibly even an aircraft, and that she would find the estimated $10,000 for the trip by selling her estates in Russia (7). [James Wellsted had skirted the fringes of the Rub' al Khali in the 1830s; Leo Hirsch in 1893 had spied it from the Wadi Hadramawt; and since the 1880s explorers had ventured hesitantly beyond the ruins of Marib in Yemen. No European would venture significantly into the Rub' al Khali until Bertram Thomas successfully crossed it from Salalah to Doha in 1930.] In December 1913 (7) or April 1914 (11) the countess sailed from Southampton to Port Said, and from there took a steamer to Beirut, calling en route at Haifa where she accompanied a Roman Catholic bishop to the Carmelite monastery on Mount Carmel (11). From Beirut she took the train to Damascus, arriving no later than May 1914 (3). She lodged at 'the only European hotel' in the city, placed herself at the service of the British and Russian consuls, and made the acquaintance of other Europeans who could introduce her to 'friendly Arab chiefs' who might be relied upon to give her protection in the desert.

From her arrival in Port Said she kept a journal of her travels and encounters, a little of which first appeared in 1917 in Miller's True Stories of the Great War (3, reproduced in 11) but the bulk of which would form the basis of her Through Inner Deserts to Medina (1), not published until 1925. Although the two accounts agree substantially on the route taken, there are significant omissions from the 1925 version that appear only in the 1917 accounts, notably the events surrounding the outbreak of war that would prematurely cut short her journey.The countess maintains that she started her journey from Damascus on 5 June 1914 (1, 3). In her book (1) she says that before departure she was delayed in Damascus for three weeks, during which she witnessed the celebrations of Ramadan. [However, in 1914 Ramadan did not begin until 23 July, so either she could not have seen the celebrations, or her departure took place later than reported. Alternatively, she might be freely inserting events witnessed at another date. Additional confusion arises from an entry for 11 January 1914 in the diary of Gertrude Bell (18) that states that a Damascus newspaper reported the departure of an unnamed Russian countess 'for the north' about that date. It is most unlikely that the countess had reached Damascus by that date, so this allusion remains a mystery.] The countess's subsequent route is detailed in her book (1), and in various newspaper articles (3, 11), and may be summarised as follows. From Damascus she proceeded north to Adra [= ‘Ahdra], Duma and Homs, then joined a caravan to Palmyra, where she fell in with ‘Sultan al Tayar’ [Tayyar], ‘prince of the Roalla tribe’ [Rwala] who was about to lead his people into central Arabia. Having purchased three camels, she then accompanied the sultan down the Wadi Sirhan and across the Nafud desert to arrive at Umm-el-Fahnd, an oasis on the fringe of the Dahna desert, some distance northeast of Buraydah. Turning southwest, she arrived on 3 September 1914 at Zilfi [= As Zilfi], the furthest point of her travels. Her caravan then turned west-southwest towards Medina, passing through Rass [= Ar Rass], Zirzawiyah, Marwijah, Hanakiyah and Sabiya; a total distance of '900 miles'. After a brief tour of the principal sites of Medina, the countess boarded a train on the Hejaz Railway and returned to Damascus. [The Hejaz Railway was still in full operation at this date and did not suspend services until 2 January 1917. See R. Tourret, The Hedjaz Railway, Abingdon, 1988.] However, the earlier accounts of her travels (3, 11) state that while crossing the desert towards Zilfi, news arrived that war had broken out in Europe, and that at Zilfi she was placed under house arrest. [The Ottoman Empire was drawn into the war in August 1914.] 'For her own safety' she was forced to abort her projected expedition into the Rub' al Khali and be escorted under guard back to Damascus. There is no suggestion of this turn of events in her book (the various critical reviews of which are discussed later in this article).

Upon her return to Damascus the countess witnessed a city in the turmoil of war. Eventually she escaped to Beirut where the local governor held her virtual prisoner; her notes and photographs implicating her as a Russian spy. The Russian consul, himself in imminent danger of arrest, was unable to help, but assistance did arrive from the officers and crew of two United States warships, the North Carolina and Tennessee, that were in port at Beirut (3). [Shipping records confirm that these two ships were stationed off Lebanon in 1914.] After some weeks of agonizing uncertainty it was decided that the countess should merely be expelled from the country, and she was given an hour to get aboard a vessel which was sailing for Egypt' (3).

European travels and writings, 1915-25

The countess's movements over the next few years are uncertain. By 1917, when she sent several letters recording her travels to Francis Miller, she had been living for several months in Cartagena, Spain, where she reported having been attacked by a 'big dolphin' while swimming at sea. She had tried to ride on its back, but the dolphin had turned on her until shot dead by 'an officer at the fortress' (3). Sadly, one of the officer's bullets went through the countess's arm. At some time between 1917 and 1922 she married Count P. Guerrini Malmignati, 'a distinguished Italian cavalry officer' (9), and is henceforth known as Countess Malmignati. [The Malmignatis were a noble family whose residence was the Palazzo Malmignati at Lendinara in Rovigo.] In later writings the count and countess are commonly referred to by pet names, the count as Gusti Malmignati and the countess as Doushka or Dushka [Russian: 'darling', literally 'little soul']. The couple resided in Cartagena and at times in Paris.

As Beggars, Tramp through Spain
About 1922 the count and countess left Paris for southeastern Spain, and dressed as Syrian beggars meandered through southern Valencia and eastern Murcia. The journey was apparently carried out as a wager with friends at the American Womens' Club in Paris (19) or at the 'Victoria Club' (2, 4) in Spain
[no suitable club of this name has been traced with certainty]. Their experiences were narrated in the book As Beggars, Tramp through Spain (2), published in London in 1927, edited and with an introduction by Jan Gordon. [Godfrey Jervis 'Jan' Gordon and his wife Cora Josephine had travelled through Spain in a similar way at about the same date, publishing two books, Poor Folk in Spain (1922), reissued as Two Vagabonds in Spain (1931), and Misadventures with a Donkey in Spain (1925).] A somewhat belated account of the Malmignatis' travels, published after the death of the countess, appeared in the popular Hachette periodical Lectures pour Tous in 1932 (4). Both the book and the article are illustrated with line drawings by the count or countess. Although the basic framework of the narrative stands up to modest scrutiny, the account is prone to anecdotal exaggeration, and to interpolation of incidents which appear to have originated from earlier travels in the same region. For example, the travellers claim to have visited the Huerto del Cura [Priest's Orchard] at Elche and to have spoken with the priest. But, by the time of their visit the priest had been dead for ten years and the property passed to the family that now owns it. It is incidents of this type, and this is just one of many, that might lead the informed reader to question the veracity of the entire narrative.

Through Inner Deserts to Medina
In 1925, some eleven years after the events it described, Countess Malmignati published in London her Through Inner Deserts to Medina. The book was acclaimed in the popular press (16) but was assailed and vilified by the more academic reviewers who knew something of Arabia and the route she had supposedly taken. Harry Philby, who had some correspondence with the countess (26) and wrote a scathing review for the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society (13), said that 'her book did more credit to her powers of imagination than to her reputation as an explorer' (23). Robin Bidwell wrote more recently that it 'read like the script of a minor film' (23). Much was made of the fact that no date was given for her journey, none of the reviewers apparently being aware of the earlier synopsis in Miller (3) which clearly dated it to 1914.

The celebrated Czech traveller Alois Musil, who lived for many months with the Rwala in 1908-09 and again in 1914-15, had never heard of the countess. In his review (13), Musil, who was personally acquainted with many of the tribal leaders befriended by the countess, pours considerable doubt on the veracity of her narrative. He notes that Sultan al Tayyar was not the head of the Rwala tribe and that he had never taken a European woman into the desert. He states that the Rwala never camped near Palmyra and that many of the people shown in Malmignati’s photographs had been misidentified. A photograph purportedly taken at Zilfi actually showed Roman remains near ‘Ahdra, while another, supposedly of the village of Hanakiyah, east of Medina, was taken in the vicinity of the Wadi Barana, a short distance from Damascus. Musil pointed to numerous other contradictions and absurdities in Malmignati’s account, concluding that the greater part of the book was fictitious and that it was based, with a little imagination, entirely on observations made in the vicinity of Damascus.
However, the eminent archaeologist and traveller David George Hogarth (12), was considerably more sympathetic, concluding that the countess had indeed followed the route she described, and that the apparent errors and misidentifications were a result of the countess's inability to correctly recall place and personal names after a lapse of eleven years due to the lack of a serious diary and an imperfect knowledge of Arabic. In particular he points to a number of obscure villages visited by the countess that were otherwise unknown at the time of her travels, and to her descriptions of the Kuwait-Zilfi and Rass-Medina tracks that she could not have found in any book of the time. Although stating that 'geography gains practically nothing by this book', he concludes that 'we have not the slightest doubt that she did, in fact, pass along both roads.' The present author agrees precisely with Hogarth's conclusions.

Return to the Middle East (1926-28)

At some time during the mid-twenties, probably in 1926 or 1927, Count Guerrini ('Gusti') Malmignati was appointed to a post at the Italian consulate in Damascus. He arrived accompanied by his wife, and by midsummer 1927 the countess had announced her intention to try once again to enter the Rub' al Khali (8). In 1927 the countess took tea with Emir Nuri Shalaan, 'sultan' of the Rwala, in Damascus, then accompanied him to his camp the following day (9). [Nuri ibn Shalaan was hereditary leader of the powerful 'Anaiza confederation. He features prominently in Middle Eastern affairs in the early 20th century and was known to many travellers and political agents.] She returned in the winter of 1927-28 to spend two weeks with the sultan in his camp and meet 'many friends of Colonel Lawrence' [T. E. Lawrence 'of Arabia']. During the meeting a number of French officers arrived to demand payment for the damage caused by the Rwala during the Druse rebellion [1925-27]. She also met Emir Fawaz, grandson of the sultan, who had fallen in love with 'Miss Winny Cambor [Camber?], the circus girl, whom he wanted to marry'. Fawaz (who already had four wives) had arranged 'a beautiful tent for Winny and her sister Irene, but the Emir Shalaan then induced the English consul to persuade the English girls to return to England' (9). [No information for Winny and Irene Cambor has so far been traced.] The same report (9) reiterates the countess's intention to explore the Rub' al Khali, as well as suggesting that Count Malmignati was involved in Mussolini's expansionist policies in the Middle East.

In April 1928 the count and countess were encountered by Eunice Holliday who remarked on their meeting in a letter from Jerusalem (20). [Eunice Holliday came to Jerusalem in 1922 with her architect husband Cliff who had been engaged to restore part of the old city and design new buildings. She despatched regular letters home, collected and published in 1997.] Holliday describes having tea with the countess in a tent in 'Father Tepper's little wood', and that the count and countess had recently lived with the Bedouin for three months. [Father Tepper was in charge of the German Hospice at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee]. These experiences were briefly narrated by the count in two or more printed articles (5, 6). The count is described by Holliday as 'more or less negligible' with only broken English, but 'a very amusing and charming person'. The countess displayed a picture of herself that had appeared in the Daily Express (10). The count and countess remained in Damascus at least until early summer 1928. A report in Man for April 1928 (21) describes how the count chased six ostriches through the Syrian desert by car. It seems that shortly afterwards the count and countess must have returned to France and possibly resided at Saint-Cloud in the western suburbs of Paris.

The death of the Countess Malmignati (November 1930).

The date of Countess Malmignati's death, and some of the circumstances surrounding it, are known only through a handful of passing references in the diaries of the Irish writer Signe Toksvig (17), who was apparently a close friend of the Malmignatis. In the diary entry for 19 November 1930 Toksvig states that she received from 'Gusti' a black-bordered letter announcing the death of 'Doushka' in hospital. The letter also contained a plea for '300 francs' to cover the expense of the countess's cremation, as requested in her will. In return, Toksvig generously provided the sum of twenty pounds. On 29 December 1930 Toksvig received from Gusti a 'silk kerchief' that had belonged to the countess. It appears, therefore, that Countess Malmignati died in France, possibly at Saint-Cloud, in November 1930, and that the couple had fallen on hard times and were virtually penniless. Nothing more could be traced for Count Malmignati, except that, one assumes, he was still alive in 1932 when his article appeared in Lectures pour Tous (4).

Bibliography and sources

1.  Countess Malmignati, Through Inner Deserts to Medina, London, 1925.
2.  Count & Countess Malmignati (ed. with introduction by Jan Gordon), As Beggars, Tramp through Spain, London, 1927.

3.  Countess Molitor, ‘Russian Countess in the Arabian Desert. Adventures of Countess Molitor as told in her Diary’, in Francis Trevelyan Miller (ed.), True Stories of the Great War, vol. 6, New York, 1917.
4.  Count Malmignati, ‘À travers L’Espagne en Mendiant, taken from the narrative of La comtesse Malmignati’, Lectures Pour Tous, Hachette, Paris, 1932, nos. 9 & 10.
5.  P. G. Malmignati, ‘Caravaning with the Nomads of Arabia’, Travel, 52, New York, February 1929.
6.  Comte P.-G. Malmignati, 'Deux Mois avec Les Bédouins Nomades du Désert Hamad, La Tribu des Roualla', 1928 [6-page illustrated article, source unknown] Also printed as 'Dans l'Arabie Inconnue. Deux Mois avec les Bedouins Nomades du Désert Hamad', L'Illustration, 1928 [date unknown].

Newspaper interviews
7. Hayden Church ['copyright by Curtis Brown'], ‘Beautiful Countess to Dare Alone World’s Worst Spot’, The Atlanta [later, Atlanta Journal Constitution, ajc], 28 December 1913. [Dated London, 27 December 1913. Includes three illustrations.]
8.  [ ], ‘Countess Braves Death to Seek Lost Cities of Arabia’, Ogden Examiner, 26 June 1927.
9.  Countess Malmignati [with anon. intro.], ‘Famous Countess’ Adventures Amid Tents of the Sheik of Sheiks’, The Daily Express, 6 February 1928. [Includes four photographs.]
10.  [Photograph, with caption], The Daily Express, 20 March 1928.
11. Hayden Church ['copyright by Curtis Brown'], 'Russian Beauty Braves Arabian Desert', Deseret Evening News, Salt Lake City, 28 April 1917. [Dated London, 18 April 1917. Includes four photographs. Uses material from Church (1913) and Miller (1917), some of which, particularly the latter, is reproduced verbatim.]

Other newspaper articles not seen but probably syndicated versions of Church (1913)
'Countess Molitor of Russia plans to cross the Rub al Khali Plateau, a Region which no European has ever entered', Chicago Daily Tribune, 25 January 1914.
'Countess Molitor to Invade Wastes of Arabia', Los Angeles Times, 25 January 1914.
'Varied activities of Women', Chicago Daily Tribune, 1 February 1914.
[title unknown], Berkeley Daily Gazette, 20 February 1914.

Reviews of Through Inner Deserts to Medina
12.  David George Hogarth, [Review], Geographical Journal, 66 (5), November 1925.
13.  Alois Musil, ‘The Countess Malmignati. Through Inner Deserts to Medina’, The Geographical Review, 17 (2), April 1927.
14.  Harry St J. Philby, [Review], Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, vol. 13, 1925, p. 81.
15.  [Countess Malmignati’s letter of response], Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, vol. 13, 1925, p. 184.
16. [Review; not seen]: 'Through the Inner Deserts of Arabia - the Countess Malmignati is the first European woman to penetrate to the little-known Inner Deserts of Arabia', Wide World Magazine, 57, 341, August 1926.

Passing encounters with other writers and travellers
17.  Signe Toksvig, Signe Toksvig’s Irish diaries 1926-1937, ed. by Lis Pihl, Dublin, 1994 [entries for 1930].
18.  Gertrude Bell, The Arabian Diaries 1913-1914, ed. by Rosemary O’Brien, 2000, [p. 157; entry for 11 January 1914].
19.  American Womens’ Club of Paris, Bulletin 58.
20.  Eunice Holliday, Letters from Jerusalem during the Palestine Mandate, ed. by John C. Holliday, London, 1997 [entries for April 1928].
21. Man: the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7 April 1928. [This story of Count Malmignati chasing ostriches was also carried by the Illustrated London News in 1928.]

Other books mentioning Countess Malmignati
22.  Judy Mabro, Veiled Half-truths: Western Travellers’ Perceptions of Middle Eastern Women, 1991.
23.  Harry St J. Philby, Forty Years in the Wilderness, London, 1957, p. 110.
24.  Robin Leonard Bidwell, Travellers in Arabia, London, 1994, p. 137.

Archival resources
25. Royal Geographical Society. Correspondence with John Scott Keltie.
26. Middle East Centre, St Anthony's College, Oxford. Harry St John Philby Collection. Correspondence. Box 14, 3.