When he [Cambyses] came in his march to Thebes, he detached about fifty thousand men from his army, and directed them to enslave the Ammonians and burn the oracle of Zeus… they set out and journeyed from Thebes with guides; and it is known that they came to the city of Oasis … 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. But this is what the Ammonians themselves say: when the Persians were crossing the sand from Oasis 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.
—Herodotus, The Histories, 3.25–26.The disappearance of 50,000 soldiers fighting in the Persian army provides a tantalizing mystery for archaeologists to solve: What happened in the Egyptian desert? Were they really buried in a massive sandstorm? For well over a century, explorers and archaeologists have searched for these sand-struck soldiers. But Leiden University Egyptologist Olaf Kaper believes that they have been looking for the wrong aggressor. The desert didn’t swallow up this army; they may have been ambushed by an Egyptian rebel army.
Herodotus’s Cambyses is in fact Cambyses II, a sixth-century B.C.E. king of Persia and son of Cyrus the Great. Siwa’s Temple of Amun was the home of a famous oracle, supposedly founded by a princess from Thebes who was abducted by Phoenicians and sold to Libya. When the Persians occupied Egypt in the sixth century B.C.E., Cambyses sent an army to destroy the temple and its oracle, but his troops never arrived. What happened?
While working at the site of Amheida in the Dachla Oasis—which lies along the Persian army’s route—Kaper deciphered a list of titles of an Egyptian rebel leader named Petubastis III. Kaper suggests that Petubastis ambushed the Persian army near Amheida before reconquering parts of Egypt and eventually being crowned Pharaoh in Memphis. So where did all of this sand come from? A Leiden University news release suggests that it was all just PR put forth by another Persian monarch: “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 sandstorm story.”
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