Leiden Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. Leiden Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved the riddle.

Herodotus

Professor Olaf Kaper discovered that the army of Cambyses did not disappear, but was defeated by rebels

Professor Olaf Kaper discovered that the army of Cambyses did not disappear, but was defeated by rebels

It must have been a sand storm, writes the Greek historian Herodotus. 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 that was long the subject of many debates.


Long quest

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it: ‘Since the 19th century, people have been looking for this army: amateurs, as well as professional archaeologists. Some expect to find somewhere under the ground an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sandstorm, let alone have an entire army disappear.’

Petoebastis III

Naam Petoebastis op blok uit Amheida

Naam Petoebastis op blok uit Amheida

Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated. ‘My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert; its final destination was the Dachla Oasis. 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 had himself crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.’


Spin doctor

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 sandstorm story.

Pieces of the puzzle

Reconstruction of arch by M. Hense

Reconstruction of arch by M. Hense

Kaper made this discovery accidentally; he was not looking for it actively. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he was involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in the Dachla Oasis. Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks. ‘That’s when the puzzle pieces fell into place’, says the Egyptologist. ‘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.’


Discussions

The discovery will be announced on Thursday at an international conference. Kaper: ‘I expect there to be a great deal of interest in the subject. I look forward to the discussions that will follow.’’

(19 June 2014)

International congress on 'Political Memory in and after the Persian Empire', Leiden University, 18-20 June.

See also

About the excavations in Amheida (in Dutch)

Studying in Leiden

Bachelor's
Ancient Cultures of the Meditarranean World

Master's
Classics and Ancient Civilisations (MA)
Classics and Ancient Civilisations (research)
Town and Country in the Mediterranean Region and the Near East (Research)
Archaeology of Europe and Historical Archaeology

Last Modified: 20-06-2014