The Vanishing Persian Army of Cambyses

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.

When your dad is Cyrus the Great, you have a lot to live up to.  He began the Achaemenid Empire and reigned over the territory from Asia Minor to India.  Unfortunately, Cyrus met his match in a warrior queen named Tomyris and went to his long home.   (More on her in this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/tomyris-the-woman-who-brought-down-cyrus-the-great/ )  This left his son Cambyses in charge.  There had been a bit of trouble when he was overseeing things for his father in Babylon.  No one is quite sure, but the Chronicle of Nabonidus indicates there was an issue during the very important New Year’s Akitu festival.   Possibly with Cambyses being armed during the ceremony, which was expressly forbidden.  However, all of this was glossed over as Cambyses was the chosen heir and took the throne around 530 BCE.

To set Cambyses off on the right foot, he took up the conquest of Egypt.  Although the Egyptian empire had been weakened, it was no pushover.  Pharaoh Amasis was ready to fight and had allied himself with Greek mercenaries to augment their navy.  Unfortunately, their Greek allies turned coat and didn’t fight.  There is no record of a sea battle, and the Persians marched in six months later and defeated the Egyptian army.  Amasis was dead and his son Psammetichus was captured and surrendered, receiving honorable treatment.  What is telling also is the admiral of the Egyptian fleet, Wedjahor-Resne, became Cambyses’ right hand man soon after the conquest.  Perhaps there was some more turncoating afoot?  Who knows.  What is known is Cambyses was recognized as the new pharaoh of Egypt with Wedjahor-Resne by his side as adviser.

However, not everyone was ready to play nice with the Persian conquerors.  According to Herodotus, in 524 BCE the priests at the Temple of Amun at the Oasis of Siwa rejected Cambyses.  That wasn’t going to stand, and Cambyses sent an army of 50,000 soldiers from Thebes to march into the desert and take care of these rebel priests.  Herodotus reports the god Amun must not have liked someone trying to beat up on his priests and sent a sandstorm to swallow up the army.  Since that day, no one has found hide nor hair of them.  And that was that.  Well, not exactly.  Experience has shown you can’t die from a sandstorm alone.  So what happened to the 50,000 men?

19th century engraving of The Lost Army of Cambyses. Public domain.

19th century engraving of The Lost Army of Cambyses. Public domain.

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper believes he has the answer.  In 2014 he published his findings and based on his research, he believe the army was not headed for Siwa but for the Dachla Oasis.  This was the location of a shadowy figure in Egyptian history, Petubastis III.  He is thought to have been a local price and possibly a member of the old royal line.  He was the leader of the rebel movement against Cambyses.  Kaper found an inscription by Petubastis III that he defeated the lost army of Cambyses via an ambush.  After this, he was crowned pharaoh in the lower Egypt capital of Memphis.  He believes Cambyses’ successor Darius I put forth the sandstorm story to cover up his predecessor’s shameful defeat.

However, two other archeologists, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, believe they found the resting place of the lost army.  They believe the army did not travel the well known route, but tried to sneak to Siwa around the back.  Instead of gaining surprise in battle, they only found the khamsin, the strong, hot wind from the Sahara desert.  In an excavation in 2009, they found a mass grave with hundreds of bleached bones and skulls.  Amongst the bones were Persian artifacts, such as arrow heads and horse bits.  Additional excavation has not been started according to the Egyptian authorities.

So was the army lost to natural elements or a military blunder?  Without additional study, we will never know.

ER