Can 50,000 troops really vanish into the sands of the Sahara? The Lost Army of Cambyses is one of the most puzzling mysteries of the ancient world, with many researchers continuing to put stock into the only account available on the tragedy of the Persian army, whose mission according to ancient historian Herodotus was to lay siege to the Siwa Oasis located far across the western Sea of Sand. However, the army would never reach its destination, nor would any of the troops make their way back across the desolate landscape to report on the fate of their fellow Persians. The inaugural episode of Into the Portal dives into the quagmire of ambiguity surrounding the Lost Persian Army, exploring all the juicy details surrounding the Persian king Cambyses and his various attempts at conquering the northeastern tip of Africa including Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia. Hosts Amber Rae and Andrew McKay then turn to examine the many avenues of research taken by modern academia, journalists and venture capitalists to piece together the many fragments of this fascinating mystery.
In this blog post for Episode One: The Legend of the Lost Persian Army of Cambyses II we will explore the details of the legend as it is written in Herodotus’ account, its basis of legitimacy, and some of the other juicy tidbits The Histories has to offer. The Legend of the Lost Persian Army is sourced from The Histories, written by ancient historian Herodotus between 434-425BCE. The account reads as follows:
“The force which was sent against the Ammonians started from Thebes with guides, and can be traced as far as the town of Oasis, which belongs to Samians supposed to be of the Aeschrionian tribe, and is seven days’ journey across the sand from Thebes. The place is known in Greek as the Islands of the Blessed. General report has it that the army got as far as this, but of its subsequent fate there is no news whatsoever. It never reached the Ammonians and it never returned to Thebes. There is, however, a story told by the Ammonians themselves and by others who heard it from them, that when the men had left Oasis, and in their march across the desert had reached a point about mid-way between the town and the Ammonian border, a southerly wind of extreme violence drove the sands over them in heaps as they were taking their mid-day meal, so that they disappeared forever.”
- (The Histories, Book III, 26-27; page 181-182 Penguin Classics 2003 ed.)
Much has been said regarding the vague nature of the account and the credibility of Herodotus as a Greek historian writing about Egypt and Persian occupation. The main points of contention revolve around The Histories reliance on second, third and fourth hand accounts sourced from lower tiered Egyptian priests, the fact that Herodotus wrote the account over 75 years after the event itself amidst a tumultuous time in Egyptian history characterized by Persian occupation, as well as his tendency to exaggerate in other areas of the text (note the story about the horde of field mice chasing away an entire army). However, the nature of the account including its ‘casual’ placement within the text, as well as the attribution to Ammonian sources all arguably point to the idea that there was very little purpose for its falsification on the part of Herodotus.
Some researchers, such as Dr. Olaf Kaper, argue that King Darius I of Persia doctored the account of his predecessor to save the embarrassment (which is more embarrassing, losing an army in a foreign desert deemed the Sea of Sand or having them all slaughtered by Egyptian forces?). However to some this idea does not hold up to scrutiny as Herodotus was not receiving this particular information from the Persian king, and it could be argued that the falsified story would not have stuck in Egyptian history; presumably someone someplace would have had a different account of the army being defeated at Dahkla Oasis as theorized by Kaper.
My biggest question, if Kaper’s theory is correct, is why the rebel king Petubastis IV wouldn't’ have taken credit? Kaper basis his idea of a battle between the 50,000 Persians and Egyptians at Dahkla on the evidence of massive construction of temples and other buildings that the rebel king Petubastis IV had erected in the area. However, it should be noted that it remains a point of contention amongst Egyptologists as to which Petubastis was responsible for the construction, as there are at least four sprinkled throughout the vast history of the ancient Egyptians. Despite efforts at reconstruction at the Dahkla site (which was repeatedly destroyed in ancient times) ambiguity remains as to which Petubastis was responsible, though Kaper remains convinced that he has the right king in the right era to assert his theories regarding the fate of the Lost Army (see Kaper’s TedX talk: https://youtu.be/41TPZWAgPoM )
But this reasoning lacks a direct correlation, only proving that this King Petubastis IV, whom very little is known, ruled long enough to have temples built with his inscription. This leaves irritating gaps in Kaper’s tidy conclusions, and further adds to the endless mystery of the Lost Army. My only supportive thoughts on this perspective come from the idea that perhaps if the Persian hold over Egypt were strong enough at the time to obliterate all other voices and accounts, the myth of the sandstorm would be all that is left for Herodotus at the time of his writing, however unlikely this may be…
One of my favorite aspects to The Histories was Herodotus’ insistence on the “mad Cambyses” narrative. Herodotus repeatedly points to “a serious physical malady” called the “sacred sickness” (The Histories, Book III, 33-35) that drove the decisions at home and on the Egyptian campaign – most notably being the decision to send poorly equipped troops west and south to their eminent demise. Some other anecdotes Herodotus uses to support his theory of the “mad Cambyses” include the murder of his brother Smerdis after a dream messenger ‘revealed’ to Cambyses “Smerdis […] sitting on the royal throne and that his head touched the sky” (The Histories Book III, 30-31) Others include reference to Cambyses marrying two of his sisters (both of which he would eventually have put to death) despite the fact that this was not a custom in either Persia or Egypt at the time. (The Histories, Book III, 31-32)
Also of note is the story in which Cambyses interrogated one of his closest friends and advisors, Prexaspes, about the Persian peoples opinion on their ruler. The tale goes that Prexaspes replied to the king that he was highly praised, with the only point of criticism relating to Cambyses’ love of wine (Book III, 33-35). The enraged king turned his spite on Prexaspes, shooting his son through the heart with a bow with the logic that if the arrow pierced the boy’s heart, Prexaspes spoke truth and would be forgiven (Book III, 35-36). It would appear that in Herodotus’ account of the Persian king, there was no real way to win with this guy! Whether or not Herodotus’ portrayal of Cambyses was entirely accurate, it is notable that this is not a positive image of the Persian king – and yet is not something that Darius attempted to squash. This contradicts the notion that The Histories and the account of the desert sandstorm was ultimately influenced by Persia so as to cast a false positive light on rulers such as Cambyses II, as argued by Dr. Kaper.
As academics continue to struggle over this enduring historical mystery, it becomes less and less clear if we will ever have the answers we seek.