Such news deserves to make the headlines. Imagine the King of mighty
having to admit the loss of 50,000 of his soldiers who simply disappeared in
the Egyptian desert. What happened? Persia
We owe the story to the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC), who tells us how Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, sent a large detachment of soldiers from
As no tangible evidence ever surfaced, the story was moved to the land of tales till first surveys of the area were carried out in 1996. Researchers noticed some human remains next to a large natural rock shelter
During the following years, ancient maps were studied closely and the researchers came to the conclusion that in 525 BC, Cambyses’ army did not follow the known caravan route but a different itinerary that existed already during the 18th Dynasty. From El Kargha, the army marched westwards to Gilf El Kebir, passing through the Wadi Abd el Melik, from where they headed toward Siwah. The advantage was that this route was not controlled by the Egyptians, meaning that the Persian soldiers would not have to fight for every single oasis on their way. To prove this theory, geological surveys were carried out along said alternative route. What they found was astonishing: many dried up springs as well as artificial wells made from hundreds of pots buried in the sand, which afterwards were dated to Cambyses’ days. There definitely was enough water to make this desert march possible.
In 2002, the team decided to investigate the oral Bedouin stories about thousands of white bones that had emerged from the sand several decades ago after a sandstorm. Surely enough, they found a mass grave with hundreds of bleached bones and skulls. Among the remains, there were a number of Persian arrowheads and a horse bit, identical to what was known from Persian pictures.
The conclusion is that the army was surprised by a cataclysmic sandstorm that lasted for more than one day, although starvation from lack of food and water may also have played a role.
This statement still stands although the Egyptian Supreme Court of Antiquities (i.e. Zahi Hawass) do not authorize any digging in the area as Mr. Hawass refuses to believe the story.
My afterthought on this story is that this episode of Persian history must certainly have been known to Alexander when he set out for the Oasis of Siwah and it makes me once more aware of Alexander’s courage and determination.