Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. The Leiden Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved the riddle.

It must have been a sand storm, writes the Greek historian Herodotus. He tells the story of the Persian King Cambyses, who entered the Egyptian desert near Luxor (then Thebes) with 50,000 men. The troops supposedly never returned; they were swallowed by a sand dune. A fantastic tale that was long the subject of many debates.

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it: 'Since the 19th century, people have been looking for this army: amateurs, but also professional archaeologists. Some expect to find somewhere under the ground an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sand storm, let alone have an entire army disappear.'

Petubastis III

Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated. 'My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert; its final destination was the Dachla Oasis. This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III. He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses, 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 of Cambyses 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' defeat. Like a true spin doctor, he attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the events, all Herodotus could do was take note of the sand storm story.

Kaper made this discovery accidentally; he was not looking for it actively. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he was involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in the Dachla 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', says the Egyptologist. '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 will be announced on Thursday at an international conference. Kaper: 'I expect there to be a great deal of interest in the subject. I look forward to the discussions that will follow.'


Explore further

Tomb dating back to 1100 B.C. found in Egypt (Images)

Provided by Leiden University
Citation: Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery (2014, June 20) retrieved 25 April 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2014-06-egyptologist-unravels-ancient-mystery.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
0 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 20, 2014
My grandfather was a merchant seaman. In the mid 1870s his ship docked in Alexandria and took on a load of bones bound for Marseilles, France. The bones were to be ground up into bone meal for fertilizer. After putting out to sea, someone in the crew took a look inside one of the bags and discovered that the cargo was human bones. Their theory at the time was that these were the remains of Napoleon's soldiers who had been slaughtered in Egypt, but it is possible that they could have been much older.

Jun 20, 2014
Or, like alexander and napoleon (and sadaam hussein) he led them there to dispose of them. Professional armies can become a severe problem to Leaders. After a time they cant be repatriated because populations have swelled in their absense and there is no longer a place for them. And they have become used to violence and plunder and so will tend to form street gangs like the freikorps if they have nothing better to do.

And an idle army will become a political force in order to maintain status and funding. Sadaam explained that the reason he invaded kuwait was that his army was 'beginning to be a problem'. So he led them out into the desert where the US conveniently carpet-bombed them into mush.

Alexanders army had begun to get restless as well and longed to return home. So he led them into the arabian desert where 90% of them died. Napoleon was brought back from retirement because there were still too many restless, idle frenchmen left. He led them into russia with similar results.

Jun 20, 2014
My grandfather was a merchant seaman. In the mid 1870s his ship docked in Alexandria and took on a load of bones bound for Marseilles, France. The bones were to be ground up into bone meal for fertilizer. After putting out to sea, someone in the crew took a look inside one of the bags and discovered that the cargo was human bones. Their theory at the time was that these were the remains of Napoleon's soldiers who had been slaughtered in Egypt, but it is possible that they could have been much older.
Sometimes they are put to more constructive use.
http://mannaismay...d-bones/

"There are more than 200 miles (320 km) of labyrinthine tunnels under Paris, and a small part of that (1.1 mi or 1.7 km) is an underground ossuary which holds the remains of six to seven million people."

Jun 20, 2014
@Pooya,
I agree with you that Kaper's support for his theory looks very sketchy, and this article shouldn't have claimed that he has "Unravelled the ancient mystery".

Hopefully, Kaper will be presenting much more evidence when he presents his theory at an international conference Thursday.

Jun 20, 2014
I believe the initial discovery was some years ago; this is the beautiful thing about history - it will wait for us!

Jun 20, 2014
The comments written make more sense than the article. "However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sand storm, let alone have an entire army disappear." Is but one example of how poorly researched this article is. Terrible article.


Jun 20, 2014
And yet Dick Cheyney wasn't at the scene at the time, Hard to believe someone can spin the outcome of the battle like that without Dick at the Helm !!!!!

Jun 20, 2014
An amazing political story considering Dick Cheyney wasn't there at the time, can you imagine the repercussion of the circumstances?...the details?...and yet it was all covered up for all this time, sounds like a job for modern politics to me.

Jun 21, 2014
I think it more plausible that the true story lies somewhere between Herodotus' version and Dr. Kaper's theory. A conscript army travelling across the desert would be subject to low morale and a sandstorm (which CAN kill, sorry Dr. Kaper) would have decimated and totally demoralized the soldiers. If some were killed by the storm and others were ambushed by the Egyptians, the remaining few would have returned in disgrace. Considering that an army of 50,000 would have been considered a "mighty host" in that age, this would have been a great embarrassment to Darius. By blaming it all on the sandstorm, an act of God so to speak, the loss would appear more acceptable.

Jun 21, 2014
Modern historians doubt the account of arrian and others that Darius fielded over a million soldiers against Alexander's 50000 Macedonians at gaugamela. But if those Persian troops were hapless young conscripts who had been forced to march for days with little food or water, and then were made to stand in formation the entire night before the battle as arrian describes, then 50000 Macedonians would have had no problem slaughtering the lot of them.

Gaugamela was way out in the middle of nowhere. Alexander had gotten there days in advance and had prepared a killing field surrounded by inward-pointing spikes.

And he arose late on the morning of the battle, looked out at Darius' forces and exclaimed 'Ah. He did just as I expected him to.'

Of course. Both were in cahoots to form a world empire. Both Alexander and Darius' chief advisor were schooled by Aristotle on just how to do this. It involved the orchestrated slaughter of millions of Asians and their replacement by Greeks.

Jun 22, 2014
The article has some photos and says:
"Bronze weapons, a silver bracelet, an earring and hundreds of human bones found in the vast desolate wilderness of the Sahara desert have raised hopes of finally finding the lost army of Persian King Cambyses II."

That doesn't sound anywhere NEAR 50,000...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more