Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lost Army of King Cambyses

It was in 525 BC that the Persian Emperor Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, made the decision to invade Egypt and his armies successfully overthrew the native Egyptian pharaoh, Psamtek III, who was to become the last ruler of Egypt's 26th Dynasty.

The Persian conqueror became the first ruler of Egypt's 27th Persian Dynasty. Cambyses’ father had earlier attempted an invasion of Egypt against Psamtek III's predecessor, Amasis, but Cyrus' death in 529 BC put a halt to that expedition.

After capturing Egypt, Cambyses took the Throne name Mesut-i-re (Mesuti-Ra), which means ‘Offspring of Re’ and the Persians would go on to rule Egypt for the next 193 years until the day when Alexander the Great would defeat Darius III and himself conquer Egypt in 332 BC.

Little is known about Cambyses II through fashionable texts, but his reputation as a mad tyrannical despot has been recorded in the writings of the great Greek historian Herodotus around 440 BC. There is also a Jewish document from 407 BC known as 'The Demotic Chronicle' which speaks of the Persian king destroying all the temples of the Egyptian gods.

Now what is truth and what is fiction regarding his ‘nature’ is also an interesting case to be heard, and when you remember that the Greek’s held no love for the Persians the stories may well have been embellished. Herodotus informs us that Cambyses II was a monster of cruelty and impiety.

Herodotus tells us that the Persians easily entered Egypt across the desert and this invasion was aided by the defecting mercenary general, Phanes of Halicarnassus, who employed the Bedouins as guides. However, Phanes had left his two sons in Egypt.

Myth has it that by way of teaching Phanes a lesson for his treachery, as the two great armies lined up for battle his sons were bought out in front of the Egyptian army where they could be seen by their father, and their throats were slit over a large bowl. Herodotus also tells us that water and wine were added to the contents of the bowl and drunk by every Egyptian man.

The ensuing Battle at Pelusium began, Greek Pelos, which was the gateway to Egypt. Its location on Egypt's eastern boundary made it an important trading post and therefore made it of immense strategic importance. It was the starting point for Egyptian expeditions to Asia and an entry point for invaders.

At this battle the Egyptian forces were crushed in the battle and they fled back to Memphis. Psamtek III managed to escape the ensuing besiege of the Egyptian capital, only to be captured shortly afterwards and was carried off to Susa in chains.

In the next three years of his rule over Egypt it has to be wondered how Cambyses II managed to pull of the victory at Pelusium. He personally went on to lead a disastrous campaign up the River Nile into Ethiopia. Here we learn that so ill-prepared was his mercenary army that when the meagerly supplied food ran out they were forced to eat the flesh of their own colleagues under the blazing sun of the Nubian Desert. The Persian army returned northwards in abject humiliation having failed to even encounter their enemy in battle.

But perhaps more incredible is the saga of the missing army of 50,000 men. Here we have a pretty huge force heading into the Western Desert on their way to the Siwa Oasis, hell bent on destroying it. It left from ancient Thebes (modern Luxor) to attack the Oracle at Siwa Oasis but it never got there.

Herodotus said a sandstorm overwhelmed this army leaving historians to look for it ever since and even modern technology has failed to find it. The army just vanished along with all of its weapons and other equipment, never to be heard of again.

Cambyses II had also planned a military campaign against Carthage, but this was to be aborted because his Phoenician sea captains refused to attack their kinfolk who had founded the Carthaginian colony towards the end of the 8th century BC.


The Archaeological Proof?
Farafra Oasis White Desert and other sites Ain Dalla and the Lost Army of Cambyses Ain Dalla and the Lost Army of Cambyses

Though off-limits without permission from Cairo, Ain Dalla (Spring of the Shade) deserves a mention for its epic part in the history of the Westen Desert. As the last waterhole before the Great Sand Sea, used by raiders and smugglers since antiquity, motorized explorers during the 1920s and 1930s, and the Long Range Desert Group in World War II, it now has a small Egyptian army garrison that chases smugglers. Both sides use 4WD instead of camels, as in the days of the Frontier Camel Corps, which once pursued a caravan of hashish all the way across the desert to Giza. The 120-kilometre paved road to Ain Dalla begins 75km from Farafra, at a checkpoint between two stretches of White Desert; there are great rock formations for most of the way. Some believe that Ain Dalla was the last-known location of the Lost Army of Cambyses. 

Despatched by Egypt’s Persian conqueror to destroy the famous Oracle of Amun at Siwa Oasis, the entire 50,000-strong army disappeared en route in 524 BC. Herodotus relates how the troops were resting when a sandstorm blew up and completely buried them; that they separated, panicked and got lost, eventually dying of thirst. Archeologists still dream of finding Cambyses’ army beneath the outlying dunes of the Great Sand Sea, but admit that the likelihood of doing so is nil.

A 5,000-10,000 [Note: probably its true strength] man Persian Army, a lost army swallowed in a sandstorm in 524 B.C., according to the account of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

Particular attention will be given to an area not far from the Siwa oasis near the Libyan boarder, where four years ago a team of Egyptian geologists stumbled on bits of metal resembling weapons, as well as fragments of human bones.

First thrilled by the news, scholars then reacted with skepticism.

"As nothing was published and no pictures released it is hard to tell whether those were the remains of the lost army. Skeletons can belong to anyone, and without a thorough anthropological study, or any accompanying artifacts, it is hard to judge these allegations," Egyptologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo told Discovery News.

Herodotus reported that after the Persian occupation of Egypt in 525 B.C., Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, sent 50,000 soldiers west from Thebes to attack the Oasis of Siwa and destroy the oracle at the Temple of Amun, who, according to legend, would have predicted his death.

After walking for seven days in the desert, the army got to El-Khargeh, presumably intending to follow the caravan route via the Dakhla Oasis and Farafra Oasis to Siwa.

But after they left El-Khargeh, they were never seen again.

"As they were at their midday meal, 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," Herodotus wrote.

The sandstorm was probably caused by the khamsin — the hot, strong, unpredictable southeasterly wind that blows from the Sahara desert over Egypt.

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