Mystery Surrounding Lost Army of Persian King Cambyses II May Have Been Solved

Prof Olaf Kaper, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, believes he may have solved one of the greatest mysteries in ancient history – what happened to the 50,000-man army of Persian King Cambyses II in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC.

Persian warriors, a detail from the frieze in Darius' palace in Susa. Pergamon Museum / Vorderasiatisches Museum, Germany. Image credit: Mohammed Shamma / CC BY 2.0.

Persian warriors, a detail from the frieze in Darius’ palace in Susa. Pergamon Museum / Vorderasiatisches Museum, Germany. Image credit: Mohammed Shamma / CC BY 2.0.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Cambyses II, the oldest son of Cyrus the Great, sent his army to destroy the Oracle of Amun at Siwa Oasis. 50,000 warriors entered the Egypt’s western desert near Luxor. Somewhere in the middle of the desert the army was overwhelmed by a sandstorm and destroyed.

Although many scientists regard the story as a myth, amateur as well as professional archaeologists have searched for the remains of the Persian soldiers for many decades.

Prof Kaper never believed this story. “Some expect to find an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sandstorm,” he said.

Prof Kaper argues that the lost army of Cambyses II did not disappear, but was defeated.

“My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert, its final destination was the Dakhla Oasis.”

“This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III.”

“He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses II, and in this way managed from his base in the oasis to reconquer a large part of Egypt, after which he let himself be crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.”

The fact that the fate of the army of Cambyses II remained unclear for such a long time is probably due to the Persian King Darius I, who ended the Egyptian revolt with much bloodshed two years after Cambyses II’s defeat.

“Darius I attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the event all Herodotus could do was take note of the sandstorm story.”

During the past ten years, Prof Kaper has been involved in excavations in Amheida, in the Dakhla Oasis.

Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks.

“That’s when the puzzle pieces fell into place,” Prof Kaper said.

“The temple blocks indicate that this must have been a stronghold at the start of the Persian period. Once we combined this with the limited information we had about Petubastis III, the excavation site and the story of Herodotus, we were able to reconstruct what happened.”

The discovery was presented today at the International Conference of the ERC project BABYLON held in Leiden, the Netherlands, June 18-20, 2014.

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Olaf Kaper. Policies of Darius I in the Western Desert of Egypt. International Conference of the ERC project BABYLON. June 19, 2014