Were 50,000 Soldiers Buried By a Sandstorm?

Not likely, according to Egyptologist Olaf Kaper

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 name of Petubastis is inscribed on this stone from Petubastis.

The name of Petubastis is inscribed on this stone from Petubastis.

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.”

Read more from Leiden University.

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11 Responses

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  1. Schmidt says

    Kaper may know Egyptology, and he may even know a little about sand. But if he thinks a 50,000 man army can be “ambushed,” and destroyed to the last person with no survivors to tell about it, he doesn’t know a lot about war.

  2. David says

    50,000 may be a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?

  3. marion says

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  4. beverly says

    good mystery not 5000.00 i would not think Beverly

  5. Mervyn says

    An army of even nearly 50,000 must have left some trace. Cannot heat or other modern equipment locate the bodies of so many man in a relatively small space – even in a desert?

    There was also the mass deaths of an army near the Jewish capital of Jerusalem who died of a plague while besieging the city. Can their bodies be found?

  6. David says

    Finding this lost army seems to have become an annual event.

  7. Patricia says

    One would think that had an ambush occurred the victor would have some record of such an event. As such, there is only a record of the loss of an army by the victims side (as re-told by Herodotus). Until the bodies are found or additional narratives are discovered to support an “ambush” hypothesis, what happened to the 50,000 soldiers will continue to remain a mystery.

  8. Sacrpagus says

    I thought that the remains of the army were found buried in the desert a few years ago. So why write a scholarly article negating these findings and not even mention them? Some scholars make a living by supposedly disproofing the validity of ancient sources, that actually represented the common knowledge of the time.

  9. Gary says

    If you were slaughtered and then left there, and a storm came up and buried the corpses, would this not be much the same as Moses breaking the Ten Commandments, and the earth swallowing up Dathan, Abiram, Korah, and their supporters?

    In the storytelling of the time, the subsequent swallowing up of the corpses by the sand, with no evidence left behind, would be of far more importance than the slaughter itself, as the slaughter would have been directed by the supporting god(s), but the burial itself would have been done by his / their hand directly. It would be divine sanction.

    50,000 is nothing. Many such armies have been decimated piecemeal, or in their entirety, in the past. Battles have also been fought during storms; it is a great time for the underdog to attack. The enemy would have had to been eating in their shelters/tents at the time. Such tactics worked in the American West against tribal peoples, such as my ancestors.

    “A storm from out if the South” may be an euphemism for an army out of the South. Such a “storm” would have “buried their enemies…in the desert.” Such oral and literary metaphors were also common at the time. Similar things are, notably, stated in the Torah.

    Merely a suggestion, for those who reflect.

  10. Gary says

    Also, if the army were mercenaries, the survivors may have switched sides. Like those who ran to Moses, and those who chose Dathan. Mercenaries seek plunder, not martyrdom.

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