Hundreds of bleached bones and skulls found in the wilderness of the Sahara desert may be the remains of the long lost Cambyses’ army, according to researchers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni

Bones, jewelry and weapons found in Egyptian desert may be the remains of Cambyses’ army that vanished 2,500 years ago.
BY Rossella Lorenzi / Nov 08, 2009

The remains of a mighty Persian army said to have drowned in the sands of the western Egyptian desert 2,500 years ago might have been finally located, solving one of archaeology’s biggest outstanding mysteries, according to Italian researchers. 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. The 50,000 warriors were said to be buried by a cataclysmic sandstorm in 525 B.C. “We have found the first archaeological evidence of a story reported by the Greek historian Herodotus,” Dario Del Bufalo, a member of the expedition from the University of Lecce, told Discovery News.

According to Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, sent 50,000 soldiers from Thebes to attack the Oasis of Siwa and destroy the oracle at the Temple of Amun after the priests there refused to legitimize his claim to Egypt. After walking for seven days in the desert, the army got to an “oasis,” which historians believe was El-Kharga. After they left, they were never seen again. “A wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear,” wrote Herodotus.

A century after Herodotus wrote his account, Alexander the Great made his own pilgrimage to the oracle of Amun, and in 332 B.C. he won the oracle’s confirmation that he was the divine son of Zeus, the Greek god equated with Amun. The tale of Cambyses’ lost army, however, faded into antiquity. As no trace of the hapless warriors was ever found, scholars began to dismiss the story as a fanciful tale. Now, two top Italian archaeologists claim to have found striking evidence that the Persian army was indeed swallowed in a sandstorm. Twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni are already famous for their discovery 20 years ago of the ancient Egyptian “city of gold” Berenike Panchrysos. Presented recently at the archaeological film festival of Rovereto, the discovery is the result of 13 years of research and five expeditions to the desert. “It all started in 1996, during an expedition aimed at investigating the presence of iron meteorites near Bahrin, one small oasis not far from Siwa,” Alfredo Castiglioni, director of the Eastern Desert Research Center (CeRDO) in Varese, told Discovery News.

While working in the area, the researchers noticed a half-buried pot and some human remains. Then the brothers spotted something really intriguing — what could have been a natural shelter. It was a rock about 35 meters (114.8 feet) long, 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in height and 3 meters (9.8 feet) deep. Such natural formations occur in the desert, but this large rock was the only one in a large area. “Its size and shape made it the perfect refuge in a sandstorm,” Castiglioni said. Right there, the metal detector of Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat of Cairo University located relics of ancient warfare: a bronze dagger and several arrow tips. “We are talking of small items, but they are extremely important as they are the first Achaemenid objects, thus dating to Cambyses’ time, which have emerged from the desert sands in a location quite close to Siwa,” Castiglioni said.

About a quarter mile from the natural shelter, the Castiglioni team found a silver bracelet, an earring and few spheres which were likely part of a necklace. “An analysis of the earring, based on photographs, indicate that it certainly dates to the Achaemenid period. Both the earring and the spheres appear to be made of silver. Indeed a very similar earring, dating to the fifth century B.C., has been found in a dig in Turkey,” Andrea Cagnetti, a leading expert of ancient jewelry, told Discovery News.

In the following years, the Castiglioni brothers studied ancient maps and came to the conclusion that Cambyses’ army did not take the widely believed caravan route via the Dakhla Oasis and Farafra Oasis. “Since the 19th century, many archaeologists and explorers have searched for the lost army along that route. They found nothing. We hypothesized a different itinerary, coming from south. Indeed we found that such a route already existed in the 18th Dynasty,” Castiglioni said. According to Castiglioni, from El Kargha the army took a westerly route to Gilf El Kebir, passing through the Wadi Abd el Melik, then headed north toward Siwa. “This route had the advantage of taking the enemy aback. Moreover, the army could march undisturbed. On the contrary, since the oasis on the other route were controlled by the Egyptians, the army would have had to fight at each oasis,” Castiglioni said. To test their hypothesis, the Castiglioni brothers did geological surveys along that alternative route. They found desiccated water sources and artificial wells made of hundreds of water pots buried in the sand. Such water sources could have made a march in the desert possible. “Termoluminescence has dated the pottery to 2,500 years ago, which is in line with Cambyses’ time,” Castiglioni said.

In their last expedition in 2002, the Castiglioni brothers returned to the location of their initial discovery. Right there, some 100 km (62 miles) south of Siwa, ancient maps had erroneously located the temple of Amun. The soldiers believed they had reached their destination, but instead they found the khamsin — the hot, strong, unpredictable southeasterly wind that blows from the Sahara desert over Egypt. “Some soldiers found refuge under that natural shelter, other dispersed in various directions. Some might have reached the lake of Sitra, thus surviving,” Castiglioni said.

At the end of their expedition, the team decided to investigate Bedouin stories about thousands of white bones that would have emerged decades ago during particular wind conditions in a nearby area. Indeed, they found a mass grave with hundreds of bleached bones and skulls. “We learned that the remains had been exposed by tomb robbers and that a beautiful sword which was found among the bones was sold to American tourists,” Castiglioni said. Among the bones, a number of Persian arrow heads and a horse bit, identical to one appearing in a depiction of an ancient Persian horse, emerged. “In the desolate wilderness of the desert, we have found the most precise location where the tragedy occurred,” Del Bufalo said. The team communicated their finding to the Geological Survey of Egypt and gave the recovered objects to the Egyptian authorities. “We never heard back. I’m sure that the lost army is buried somewhere around the area we surveyed, perhaps under five meters (16.4 feet) of sand.”

Mosalam Shaltout, professor of solar physics at the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics, Helwan, Cairo, believes it is very likely that the army took an alternative western route to reach Siwa. “I think it depended on their bad planning for sufficient water and meals during the long desert route and most of all by the occurrence of an eruptive Kamassen sandy winds for more than one day,” Shaltout told Discovery News. Piero Pruneti, editor of Archeologia Viva, Italy’s most important archaeology magazine, is also impressed by the team’s work. “Judging from their documentary, the Castiglioni’s have made a very promising finding,” Prunetic told Discovery News. “Indeed, their expeditions are all based on a careful study of the landscape… An in-depth exploration of the area is certainly needed!”

BY Rossella Lorenzi / Nov 09, 2009

Indeed, many archaeologists and adventures have been scouring the desert, dreaming of solving the 2,500- year-old mystery. Already in the 1800s, archaeology pioneer Giovanni Battista Belzoni explored the desert in vain, searching for the lost army. Perhaps the most famous desert explorer is the Austro-Hungarian Count László Almásy (1895-1951), whose life provided inspiration for Anthony Minghella’s film The English Patient. In 1936, Almásy ventured into the desert in search for clues of the vanished soldiers, but the Great Sand Sea’s giant dunes and the khamsin — the hot, strong, unpredictable southeasterly wind that blows from the Sahara desert over Egypt — stopped him. He re-emerged from the Saharan sands four days later — miraculously alive.

In the last decade there have been several contrasting reports about intriguing findings in the Western Egyptian desert. It all started with reports about the 1996 Castiglioni brother expedition, and continued with geologist Aly Barakat’s announcement of important discoveries in the area around Bahrain. The revived interest over the lost army continued in 2000: reports circulated that a Helwan University geological team, prospecting for petroleum in the Western Desert, had stumbled across scattered human bones and ancient warfare relics such as daggers and arrowheads. Announcements of future serious investigation by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) followed, but any information about that research has yet to be published.

In 2003, geologist Tom Bown, accompanied by archaeologist Gail MacKinnon and a film crew, returned to the desert. Their search proved inconclusive. In 2005, another follow-up expedition by a team from the University of Toledo, Ohio, reached the area around Bahrain, but failed to find any significant remains, apart from a large number of fossilized sand dollars, which they believed could have been mistaken for human bone fragments. Now twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni (famous for their discovery 20 years ago of the ancient Egyptian “city of gold” Berenike Panchrysos) have finally shown their findings. Presented recently at the archaeological film festival of Rovereto, the documentary is the result of 13 years of research and five expeditions to the desert. Have they really located the remains of the mighty Persian army? “We can’t tell yet. But they have shown us the first ever Achaemenid objects, thus dating to Cambyses’ time, as they emerged from the sands near Siwa. This is amazing and certainly demands further research,” Piero Pruneti, editor of Archeologia Viva.


[3.26.1] “So fared the expedition against Ethiopia. As for those who were sent to march against the Ammonians, they set out and journeyed from Thebes with guides; and it is known that they came to the city of Oasis, inhabited by Samians said to be of the Aeschrionian tribe, seven days’ march from Thebes across sandy desert; this place is called, in the Greek language, Islands of the Blest. [3.26.2] Thus far, it is said, the army came; after that, except for the Ammonians themselves and those who heard from them, no man can say anything of them; for they neither reached the Ammonians nor returned back. [3.26.3] But this is what the Ammonians themselves say: when the Persians were crossing the sand from Oasis (probably the oasis of Kargeh) to attack them, and were about midway between their country and 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.”


Discovered Stone Slab Proved to be Gate of Cambyses’ Tomb
BY Maryam Tabeshian / 13 December 2006

A huge stone slab discovered accidentally last year was proved to have once been the entrance gate to the mausoleum of Cambyses II, son and successor of Cyrus the Great. Agricultural activities by local farmers near the world heritage site of Pasargadae last year resulted in the accidental discovery of a big stone slab bearing some carvings typical of Pasargadae monuments. The discovered slab was recently proved by archeologists to have been the entrance gate to the mausoleum of Cambyses II, son and successor of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achameneid Empire (550-330 BC). “A huge stone slab measuring 1.60 meters in height comprised of 5 broken pieces was discovered last March by farmers at a distance of 100 meters from Tall-e Takht and was immediately transferred to Parse-Pasargadae Research Center to be studied by archeologists,” said Afshin Yazdani, archeologist of Parse-Pasargadae Research Center.

Tall-e Takht or ‘throne hill’ is a citadel located at the heart of Pasargadae historical complex, the first dynastic capital of the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, in Fars province. Remains of an unfinished tomb denoted to Achaemenid King Cambyses II can be seen close to Tall-e Takht, from which only a wall has survived the ravage of time. Based on studies by British archeologist David Stronach, the Tomb, also known as Zendan-e Soleiman/Eskandar (Solomon/Alexander Prison), originally consisted of an almost square, 4-meter-high tower in which a solitary, raised room was approached by a projecting monumental stone staircase. It resembles the Achaemenid era monument of Zoroaster’s Kaba in Naqsh-e Rostam historical site.

According to Yazdani, the stones used in the gate of Cambyses’ tomb are very similar to a stone slab discovered 50 years ago by archeologists. At the time, Stronach proposed a theory that the stone belonged to the mausoleum of Cambyses and drew a sketch of the original gate which he believed to have had two leaves, each comprising of 6 rectangular frames. He also drew 3 flowers each having 12 petals on the top and bottom of each frame. “As Stronach himself was uncertain about his own drawing of the gate, recent discovery of the gate proves his theory wrong. Based on the new studies, it became known that the entrance gate of what is called Tomb of Cambyses was made of two stone leaves each having two rectangular 35 by 59 cm frames with three 12-petaled flowers on the top and bottom,” explained Yazdani, adding that the height of each door leaf was found to be 1.75 meters – that is 8 centimeters shorter than the height of the wall. Archeologists believe that the gate was made shorter on purpose to allow circulation of air in and out of the mausoleum.

According to the inscriptions of Bisotun historic site, the mausoleum of Cambyses was destroyed by the Mongol invader Geomat who disguised himself as Bardia, King Cambyses’ brother and came to power shortly after Cambyses’ assassination and razed down Achaemenid temples. Achaemenid King Darius the Great clearly accounts in Bisotun inscription that he restored the Achaemenid temples after murdering Geomat. “Evidence left on the stone gate very well confirms that it was restored during the early days of Darius the Great’s reign,” added Yazdani. According to Yazdani, the new findings together with the fact that a similar structure to the mausoleum of Cambyses, Zoroaster’s Kaba, was built also by Darius the Great at Naqsh-e Rostam, proved that it was a temple whereas it had previously been variously regarded as either a tomb, or a fire temple, or a depository.

Cambyses was the son and successor of Cyrus the Great who ruled the Persian Empire from the death of his father in 530 BC to his own death in Ecbatane (Syria) eight years later. During his reign, Cambyses continued the politic of expansion started by his father. First, he took part with his father to the conquest of Babylonia and was named King of Babylon after he captured the city in 539. After rising to the throne, he invaded Egypt in 525 BC, putting an end to the 26th Dynasty of the Pharaohs and beginning a period of Persian rule that covered much of the next two centuries.

Cambyses later personally led a force up the Nile to conquer Ethiopia, but after annexing the north of the country, he ran short of supplies and had to return. While on his way back from Egypt with his army in 522 BC, Cambyses was assassinated upon order of one of his brothers, Smerdis, which he himself tried to have assassinated. At his death, after a short period during which Smerdis assumed the leadership, more palace struggles led to the rise to the throne of Darius the Great, whose task was to organize such a vast empire. The mausoleum of the son and successor of Cyrus the Great, Persian King Cambyses II, was also registered with other ancient monuments of Pasargadae historic complex in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.


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.

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.

Hard target
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.

Disputed discoveries
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.’



Angelo + Alfredo Castiglioni
email : Alfredo_Castiglioni [at] virgilio [dot] it


Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

There are two reasons to be suspicious. In the first place, Herodotus is not a very reliable author. Not because he is not interested in the truth: on the contrary, he is certainly one of the most truthloving writers of the ancient world. But it was hard to get correct information, and Herodotus was standing in a tradition that appreciated an artful presentation. So, in his Histories, Xerxes‘ failed expedition is mirrored by the failures of earlier Persian rulers. So, Herodotus says that Cyrus was defeated by the Massagetes (according to Xenophon, Cyrus died of natural causes); that Darius lost a navy in a storm at the Athos; that Darius also lost an army during a Scythian campaign; and that Cambyses lost an army in the desert. These stories are not necessarily untrue, but the repetition makes one suspicious. I would not be surprised if some of these stories were created by Herodotus because he believed they had to have happened.

But even if we assume that Cambyses sent out an expedition to the Oracle of Ammon, there is still a reason not to believe the claim by our two Italian archaeologists. What they have found, or claim to have found, is a set of Persian weapons (e.g., arrowheads), skulls, and bones. Even if we assume that they are indeed Persian, it is a serious logical fallacy to assume that they belong to soldiers of Cambyses’ campaign. The Persians controled Egypt for more than a century (from 525 to c.401) and there must have been dozens of occasions on which soldiers were sent to the west. All these expeditions may have found itself lost in the western desert. What archaeologists can find, is evidence that a Persian army got into trouble; but stating that the finds belonged to a particular expedition is introducing a secundum quid. I think we must be suspicious.

Safari Operator’s Tours to dig for lost Army
by Maria on Jan 03, 2004

Tourism companies, however, see it as a potential cash cow. “It is a great opportunity,” says Hisham Nessim, manager of Aqua Sun Resort. “We will give tourists a chance to participate in solving this ancient mystery and we will sell it as a touristic product.” Nessim, a former desert rally driver, leads the Egyptian Exploration Desert Team (EEDT), an exploratory “archaeological” mission funded entirely by private tourism firms. The plan, approved by the Ministry of Tourism, is to comb the Western Desert in 4WD vehicles packed with paying tourists hot on the trail of Cambyses’ army.

Archaeologists have reacted with suspicion and horror. “It’s a very, very bad idea,” contends Salima Ikram, associate professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. “The more people go trampling through the desert, the more they muck up the archaeological evidence.” A foreign archaeologist, preferring not to be named, railed: “Do you think that if they find anything they will leave it intact? Of course not. They’ll pick it up, manhandle it and take home a few souvenirs. This is just the sort of sh-t we don’t need.”

Nessim brushes off his critics, who he says are blowing things out of proportion. Hundreds of desert safari expeditions take tourists to the Western Desert each year. The only difference here is that the safari’s route winds through areas deemed likely to contain remains of the lost army. Any evidence discovered will be referred to experts for analysis. “My license is not to dig, so if I find something I must report it to the authorities,” Nessim says, indicating that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has no objections to the project. So far, Aqua Sun and co-sponsor Emeco Travel have organized two expeditions. Neither trip, each of which went ahead despite last-minute cancellations, made significant discoveries.

“We still have far to go. This secret has been hidden for over 2,000 years and we can’t expect to find it in just two trips,” says Nessim, who is reportedly cooperating with US space agency NASA to prepare a route for a third mission. “There are some places on the ground that I suspect and they [NASA] will check with satellites.”Remote sensors will also scan an area 50 km southwest of Siwa Oasis, where a Helwan University geological team prospecting for oil in 2000 discovered human bones, arrow-heads, frayed textiles and daggers in the dunes. The find sent shivers of excitement through the archaeological community, but an SCA team dispatched to excavate found nothing at the GPS coordinates they were given. The sand may have simply swallowed the evidence.

“The dunes in the Great Sand Sea move about 30-50 cm a year to the south and southeast because of the prevailing wind,” explains geologist and EEDT guide Bahei El-Asawi. “It’s hard to find anything, because the sand can cover one area and expose another.” The nature of the desert adds a challenge, says desert safari specialist Hani Zaki of Emeco Tours, who compares the search for Cambyses’ army to finding a needle in a haystack. “When you’re in the Great Sand Sea you can look 360 and all you see is sand. There are no landmarks, mountains or anything,” he says. “You don’t see anybody and there is almost no sign of life, but there is plenty of natural beauty.”

EEDT expeditions run between 10 and 22 days, traversing parts of the most beautiful and inhospitable desert in the world. The team’s 4WD vehicles are specially equipped for deep desert exploration, carrying extra fuel, water, rations, parts and GPS equipment. “There’s always a risk, but it’s greater if you’re not following the rules, are not well-equipped or don’t have experience,” says Zaki. “Without risk it’s not an adventure. Our role is to avoid major risks and minimize minor ones.” While Zaki is apologetic that the EEDT team does not include a professional archaeologist, he strongly rejects arguments that tourists are being deceived. Clients do not sign up for an archaeological dig, he says, they come to explore the desert with veteran guides “who know the desert like the back of their hand” and can provide valuable insights into desert history, geology, flora and fauna.The search for Cambyses’ lost army is “just a theme,” he says, insisting clients are aware that the chance of actually finding 50,000 desiccated soldiers and the bleached-white bones of their pack animals is remote. Instead, they hope to find traces like clay water vessels, trail markers, discarded weapons and – if lucky – the remains of a stray soldier.

Rival outfit Zarzora Expeditions is promoting similar themed trips, with itineraries that trace the steps of 19th Century German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs as well as Hungarian spy Count Laszlo Almasy (upon whom the 1996 film The English Patient was loosely based). The firm is also hoping to put together its own quest for Cambyses’ lost army.”It is an irresistible marketing tool,” says Wael Abed, the company’s general manager.

Worst-Case Scenarios: How To Survive A Sandstorm

You’re traveling through the Iraqi desert to Baghdad to work on a reconstruction project. Up ahead is a huge cloud moving low over the ground. Uh-oh–a sandstorm. There’s no place to seek shelter. What should you do?

– Wet a bandanna or other cloth and place it over your nose and mouth. Use a small amount of petroleum jelly to coat the inside of your nostrils. The lubricant will help minimize the drying of mucous membranes.
– All members of a group should stay together : Link arms or use a rope to avoid becoming separated during the storm and to keep track of group members who otherwise could become injured or incapacitated.
– If driving in a car, pull off the road and onto the shoulder as far as possible. Turn off your lights, set the emergency brake, and make sure your taillights are not illuminated. Due to poor visibility, vehicles approaching from the rear in a sandstorm have been known to inadvertently leave the road and, “guided” by the taillights, collide with a parked car.
– Try to move to higher ground : Sand grains travel across the surface of the Earth mostly by saltation, or bouncing from place to place. Because grains of sand will not bounce high on grass, dirt or sand, moving to solid high ground is advisable, even if it’s just a few feet higher. However, sandstorms can be accompanied by severe thunderstorms, in which case there may be a risk of lightning. If you hear thunder or see lightning, do not move to high ground.
– Be Aware : Whenever you are in an area with sandstorm potential (basically, any place where there is a lot of sand and wind), wear long pants, socks and shoes. Because of the way sand moves, your feet and legs are more likely than the upper part of your body to be “burned” by the abrasive grains of sand.