The Lost Army of King Cambyses

Posted by jerry on July 7th, 2004 — Posted in History, Journal, Travel

Herodotus writes of the disappearance of some 10,000 members of the Persian Army in the Western Sahara around 2,500 years ago. According to Herodotus a fierce sandstorm engulfed the army and they disappeared without trace.

I was drawn to this story by a TV program on the ABC last night called “The Lost Army of King Cambyses” It would seem that three years ago an Egyptian archaeologist named Aly Barakat found ancient arrowheads and a dagger in an isolated spot near Siwa. The arrow heads and dagger were consistent with ancient Persian design – yielding the tantalising possibility that the remains of the lost army might be nearby.

The story remained tantalising, however, but there were plausible explanations as to why it is reasonably likely that the remains of straggler groups from the army might yet be uncovered. The arrowheads, and some human remains were found near the oasis town of Siwa, which appears to be the site to which hey were heading when they ran out of luck – and food – and water.

Other campaigns of King Cambyses suggest that logistics was not his strong point – as his aborted attack on Ethiopia proved. So it is reasonable that, in an effort to travel light and fast, the Persians carried insufficient supplies – sacrificing logistics for mobility, perhaps hoping to find provisions along the way. (source: http://nefertiti.iwebland.com/herodotus/cambyses.htm).

The Western Sahara is forbidding country, and with food running short it is likely that the troops first ate the pack animals and then perhaps started on each other – driven progressively mad by thirst and hunger. Fatigued and confused and with little sense of where they were heading, it is likely they began to split into smaller groups, and then were overwhelmed with a ferocious sand storm.

Groups may have huddled close to the base of the great butte formations in a last effort to find shelter, and there became buried. However they died, it was almost certainly not as a massed army – not with a bang but a whimper.

But the finding of a dagger and some arrow heads lends weight to the view that Herodotus was not so unreliable an historian as some would suppose. He almost certainly relied on dubious sources such as travelers which may or may not have been corroborated by independent multiple sources, but it now appears that – in the case of the disappearance of Cambyses’ army – the source had some credibility.

A fascinating, if tragic story.
Download Herodotus’ history of Egypt from project Gutenberg here

Cheers
Jerry

3 Comments »

Comment by James Horner

Hear about a lost army in the Sahara on the radio, sometime ago, but donot recall the except number of troops, seems like it was 50,000, could this have been the one they where talking about?

Posted on October 17, 2006 at 8:18 am

Comment by p.tottenham

I am intrigued by the story too and saw a “Timewatch”documentary on the UK BBC.However,it was customary, with time and humanity’s natural inclination to exaggerate that the figure of 5000 is nearer the mark, adding an extra zero was normal ie the Spartans against a millon men-100.000 was truer. Alternatively the Persians could have got caught in a timewarp and may be arriving at some future moment in time………….

Posted on January 2, 2008 at 2:46 am

Comment by jerry

Thanks for your comment – I agree that the exaggeration of storytelling over the intervening centuries has given us unrealistic numbers – and with the global population being much smaller in Spartan times it is clear that we are dealing with perceptions of large numbers in their terms rather than ours. Often – especially in oral legend – the numbers are symbolically represented by a generic large number – it also makes any victory seem more glorious or any defeat more forgivable if the numbers opposing are overwhelming.

Posted on January 2, 2008 at 5:39 am

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