Cambyses II was the emperor of Persia (ruled 530–522 BCE) and successor to Cyrus the Great. Eager to emulate his father’s deeds of conquest, and to extend Persian rule across all the known nations (ie civilisations) of the world, Cambyses invaded Egypt in 525 BCE, defeating the last true Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus III. Yet today he is remembered not for his feats of conquest, but for his lost army – a force of 50,000 warriors, dispatched to conquer a tiny oasis kingdom, that vanished into the desert and was lost without a single survivor or the slightest trace being discovered for more than 2,000 years.
Desert explorers and adventurers including Count László Almásy – the model for the English patient in the book and film of the same name – have sought to uncover their final resting place and solve their mysterious disappearance.
Herodotus and Cambyses
The primary source for the tale of Cambyses and his lost army is the ancient Greek traveller and historian Herodotus, an intrepid man who travelled all over Egypt just 75 years after the Persian invasion. Herodotus followed in Cambyses’ footsteps and recorded the local tales and histories of the invader.
Unfortunately his impartiality is questionable; he had the typical ancient Greek antipathy towards the Persians and his Histories slander Cambyses remorselessly, painting him as a despot, madman and general ne’er-do-well.
Herodotus first recounts how Cambyses managed to cross the difficult Sinai desert region and meet the Egyptians with his army intact, which is relevant because it shows that the Persians were capable of coping with desert transits. They recruited Arabian tribes to create water depots at regular spots along the route – in effect, artificial oases – and in this manner were able to arrive at the battle site in good order and defeat Psammetichus.
Later, Cambyses travelled to the major Egyptian cult centres to be crowned pharaoh but, according to Herodotus, made only a perfunctory effort to learn about or pay respect to their customs. He then decided to launch military expeditions against the Ethiopians (to the south), the Carthaginians (along the coast to the west) and the ‘Ammoniums’ – ie the inhabitants of the Siwa Oasis, a small fertile enclave deep within the Western Desert, which was famous for the Oracle of the Temple of Ammon (the Siwan name for the Egyptian god Amun-Ra, whom the Greeks equated with Zeus). The priests of the temple were used to commanding respect from Egypt’s rulers, who were supposed to obtain ‘divine’ favour to legitimise their overlordship. Alexander the Great made sure to do this when he conquered Egypt 200 years later, but Cambyses, it seems, failed to follow the proper forms and disdained the Siwans.
The Siwan expedition
Cambyses took his army south along the Nile to launch his Ethiopian expedition, stopping at Thebes to detach a force to send to Siwa in 524 BCE. According to Herodotus, in Book III of his Histories, an army of 50,000 men was ordered to ‘enslave the Ammonians and burn the oracle of Zeus’. Led by guides, the army set off into the desert, reaching ‘the city of Oasis’, known to the Greeks as ‘The Isles of the Blest’ (modern-day Kharga), seven days’ march to the west. After this, they were never seen again, although the Siwans themselves were somehow able to give Herodotus a rough account of what happened next:
this is what the Ammonians themselves say: when the Persians were crossing the sand from the Oasis to attack them, and were about midway between … [Siwa] and the Oasis, while they were breakfasting a great and violent south wind arose, which buried them in the masses of sand which it bore; and so they disappeared from sight. Such is the Ammonian tale about this army.
This is the full extent of what we know about the lost army, which has led many scholars to doubt the episode ever happened. Perhaps Herodotus was simply inventing the tale to make Cambyses look more foolish. Why would the Persian emperor waste his time launching a strike on Siwa? Why would he send such a huge army to conquer such a small place (probably only a few thousand residents at most)? Above all, why would he send them via such a perilous route with so little preparation or precaution?
Herodotus himself suggests, albeit indirectly, some of the answers. A possible motive for the expedition is that Cambyses was angered by the attitude of the priests of the Temple of Ammon, who – themselves angry at a perceived lack of due deference – may have been spreading the word that his kingship was illegitimate. They may even have predicted his death. Herodotus also drives home the point that Cambyses was an irascible drunk, given to fits of spite and cruel rage, and quite capable of nursing a lethal grudge. He was also unhinged enough to doom his men with inadequate planning and preparation.
An alternative explanation is that Siwa was only intended as a way point on a longer journey. Perhaps the real targets were lands further to the west. Cambyses’ intended assault on Carthage had been called off because the Phoenicians who provided his navy refused to move against their kin who had set up the colony at Carthage. Perhaps he intended to approach them by land instead – this would account for the apparently disproportionate size of the expeditionary force.
If Herodotus is right, the Persian army met a bleak end. The region they were travelling across includes barren depressions of bare rock and boulders; wind-sculpted buttes; plains of salt and dust; vast sand seas of impassable dunes; searing desert winds hotter than 40°C that blow for days on end; massive sand storms that will bury anything that stands still; and an utter absence of water. How the Ammonians knew the fate of the lost army is unclear, given that they specifically told Herodotus that not one soldier had reached Siwa, but perhaps they simply assumed the most likely scenario.
The army in the desert
Apart from being a great unsolved mystery, the miserable desert fate of the lost army of Cambyses also presents the intriguing likelihood that there could be a huge find of skeletons, armour, clothing, weapons and equipment from the ancient Persian era awaiting discovery. The army would have included in its number soldiers from many different parts of the antique world. In the uniquely arid conditions, with the possibility that sand may have covered and protected, the remains could be amazingly well preserved. There could be an archaeological treasure trove somewhere in the Sahara.
Herodotus provides a few clues about the possible location of the lost army, describing the army’s route from the oasis known as ‘Island of the Blest’, which is today a major agricultural town known as Kharga. From here they would presumably have tried to follow the traditional caravan route to Siwa, which goes via the oases at Dakhla (a few hundred kilometres to the west) and then Farafra (a few hundred more to the north-west). From Herodotus’ account it sounds as though the Persians may have got to Dakhla or even Farafra, but were then lost as they attempted to complete the final leg of the journey. Even narrowing it down this far, however, leaves a dauntingly vast area to examine. If the Persians got lost out of Dakhla and started going in the wrong direction they could have ended up pretty much anywhere in the Western Desert.
The Western Desert is one of the hardest places in the world to be looking for lost relics. It is vast, covering about two-thirds of modern-day Egypt: an area of 680,000 square kilometres (263,000 square miles), equal to the combined size of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. The conditions, as described above, are incredibly harsh and desolate. Even modern vehicles with four-wheel drives and special equipment cannot cope with some of the dunes found in the sand seas. Much of the area is restricted owing to the security issues of the region: millions of landmines from World War II, the proximity of the border with Libya and sensitivities about oil operations and terrorism. And there is always the likelihood that any finds that are stumbled across will soon be covered up by the shifting desert sands, never to be seen again.
The enigmatic Count Almásy
Undaunted, many desert adventurers have dreamed of solving the mystery of the lost army. Probably the most famous was the Austro-Hungarian playboy, pilot and desert explorer Count László Almásy, whose life and times provided the model for the Ralph Fiennes character in The English Patient. Almásy started off as a self-taught dabbler in the exotic world of desert discovery, but his expertise with motor vehicles and his reckless disregard for personal safety led him to pull off some amazing escapades.
During the 1930s he was part of a crowd mainly composed of genteel British officers interested in desert travel and exploration, who were primarily fixated on locating the semi-legendary Zerzura, the Oasis of Little Birds, alluded to in medieval writings. Almásy amazed the other members of the Zerzura Club, as they had named themselves, by successfully discovering this hidden oasis, but his search for Cambyses’ army was less successful and even more dangerous.
Almásy was an avid fan of Herodotus, and in 1936 determined to follow the tracks of the army as described by the ancient Greek. His journey is described by Saul Kelly in the book The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura. Kelly tells how on a previous expedition Almásy had discovered pottery fragments that suggested how the Persians had hoped to cross the waterless desert. By burying huge caches of amphorae (jars) along the intended route, and employing local tribesmen to ferry water to them, they could effect a similar operation to their successful crossing of the Sinai.
This at least was Almásy’s theory, but when he ventured into the desert from Farafra on his 1936 expedition, he discovered not caches of jars but a series of cairns that he described as ‘ancient hollow, circular pyramids of stone about the height of a man’, which seemed to mark the route across the forbidding sand seas. Perhaps the Persians had employed scouts to build them, hoping to follow them all the way to Siwa.
Kelly relates that the Almásy party then ran into problems that gave him an insight into the probable fate of Cambyses’ force. Their progress was halted by impassable giant dunes, and the hot desert wind called the khamsin (or khamaseen) blew up, whipping their vehicles with scalding, 44°C+ storm-force winds. All but one of the vehicles broke down and they were lucky to make it out of the desert alive in the third, following a corridor between two towering dunes until they reached Siwa four days later. Almásy planned a further expedition, but war broke out and he never got another chance.
In the last decade there have been some slightly confused reports about discoveries in the Western Desert that sound almost too good to be true. According to Professor Mosalam Shaltout, chairman of the Space Research Center at the Desert Environment Research Institute of Egypt’s Minufiya University, an Italian-led expedition in December 1996 which was surveying for meteorites stumbled across archaeological remains in the El Bahrein Oasis area of the Western Desert. Aly Barakat, a geologist with the team, found a dagger blade and hilt, pottery shards, apparently human bone fragments, burial mounds, arrowheads and a silver bracelet, which, on the basis of a photograph, was identified as ‘most likely belonging to the Achaemenid period’ (ie ancient Persian).
Meanwhile, in 2000 there were widespread reports that a team of oil-prospecting geologists, said to be from Helwan University, in Cairo, had stumbled across similar finds in the same area, spotting scattered arrow heads and human bones.
In 2003 geologist Tom Bown led an expedition to the area, accompanied by archaeologist Gail MacKinnon and a film crew, to follow up Aly Barakat’s discoveries, which they, controversially, said had been suppressed by the Egyptian authorities. Bown claimed to have found remains at the same site, near the El Bahrein Oasis, at a place later named Wadi Mastour, the Hidden Valley. In fact he reportedly went as far as describing seeing thousands of bones littering the desert.
Yet another follow-up expedition in 2005, however, cast serious doubt on the claims of both Barakat and Bown. A team from the University of Toledo, in Ohio, together with British and Egyptian associates, travelled to the site near El Bahrein. They located a broken pot found by both Barakat and Bown, although they identified it as Roman, but they failed to find any other suggestive remains beyond a few burial sites, which they claim are common in the desert. Instead of fields of scattered human bones they found large numbers of fragments of fossilised sand dollars (sea urchin-like creatures that leave distinctive round calcite cases), which are apparently easy to mistake for human bones and could explain the previous claims.
Can Herodotus be trusted?
So despite tantalising claims and hints, the lost army of Cambyses has apparently not been found yet, nor any definitive proof that it really existed. The cairns and pottery found by Almásy and the weapons and bones allegedly seen by Barakat and Bown may not be what they seem, or perhaps they simply belong to some of the many other groups who have made the perilous desert crossing – for instance, the notorious Forty Days Road slave caravan used to follow the route through the Western Desert via Kharga.
Ultimately the credibility of the tale comes down to Herodotus. In this sense he was not highly regarded even by other ancient writers, some of whom felt the sobriquet ‘the Father of History’ bestowed upon him by Cicero should be changed to ‘the Father of Lies’. As already noted, he was biased against the Persians and his portrait of Cambyses has a touch of the pantomime villain. In fact it seems from other contemporary sources that many groups in Egypt welcomed the invader, and an inscription specifically records Cambyses as honouring the Egyptian religion and customs in a praiseworthy manner. This does not mean that Herodotus made up the story about the lost army, or even that his sources deceived him, but it does add another layer of uncertainty to an already difficult search.
Should you choose to believe him, however, you may be able to join the hunt yourself. In 2004 a tour operator called Aqua Sun Desert set up a desert safari to explore the Western Desert area around Dakhla, Farafra, Siwa and El Bahrein and to look for evidence of the lost army. It was reported at the time that the tours would continue for five years. As Aqua Sun manager Hisham Nessim says, ‘If we discover anything about the lost army, it will be the discovery of the century.’