It was one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times. How did a Persian army of 50,000 men disappear in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. Professor Olaf Kaper of Leiden University in the Netherlands has unearthed a cover-up and solved the riddle.
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it must have been a sand storm. 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 which has long been the subject of countless debates.
A relief of Persian soliders
Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it. ‘”Since the 19th century, both amateur and professional archaeologists have been looking for this army. Some expected to find an entire army, fully equipped, somewhere under the ground. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sand storm, let alone have an entire army disappear,” he asserts.
Professor Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated.
A relief of Persian warriors
“My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert, its final destination was Dakhla Oasis in the western desert. 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 professor explains.
The fact that the fate of the army 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. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he has been involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in Dakhla Oasis in the western desert.
Professor Kaper deciphered ancient temple blocks to solve the mystery
Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks.’That’s when the pieces of the puzzle fell into place’, says Professor Kaper.
“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,” he explained.
The discovery was presented at the International Conference of the ERC project BABYLON held in Leiden, the Netherlands on June 18-20, 2014.
Source: Leiden University, Netherlands