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Where is the lost army of Cambyses? How the Sahara ‘swallowed’ 50,000 soldiers

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Crossing the Sahara was never a good idea, but doing so with one of the greatest armies of the time could help … but overnight, they disappeared without a trace

The year was 524 BC when the Persian king Cambyses II wanted to carry out one of the largest companies that had never been done before: crossing the Sahara desert to grow his empire. The goal was none other than to reach Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt) with the intention of submitting the oracle of Ammon, which was in the Siwa Oasis. To do this, he decided to move an incredible army of 50,000 men … but the desert swallowed them forever.

The disappearance of the army of Cambyses II is one of the great secrets hidden by the Sahara. It was never known what happened to them, nor have they found decisive evidence to solve the enigma of what happened to one of the greatest armies in history. Several clues found recently could help to understand what actually happened, but none is conclusive enough to close the mystery.

The one in charge of telling this story was the Greek historian Herodotus, who explained that the Achaemenids – dynasty that ruled the Persian Empire – sought to surprise the Ammonites in their territory, taking advantage of their great power. But the great army with which they wanted to raze the city made them predictable: 50,000 soldiers, plus hundreds of servants and animals – transport and war – were easy to see. Therefore, they decided to cross the dangerous desert.

Cambyses II – son of Cyrus II the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire – decided to take the route of the oases to the north, which meant crossing the entire Sahara desert, a much more dangerous route that gave them the necessary privacy to get to reach Siwa in secret: But that never happened: at an undetermined point in the desert, one of the greatest armies never before displaced by the Sahara disappeared completely.

Some Egyptologists say that this mission was never carried out and that it is simply an invention that, repeated over the centuries, has become a legend with reality. However, many others claim that this army existed, that the mission to conquer Siwa was carried out and that, in the middle of the Sahara, something happened that made them disappear forever. What could have ‘buried’ 50,000 soldiers?

Heródoro himself was the one in charge of giving an explanation to what happened: a brutal sandstorm would have ended them. According to studies carried out by experts, the Ghibli – one of the most severe and abrasive winds in the world – could have a lot to do, even stating that during the night gusts of up to 200 kilometres per hour could take place. This would justify the explanation of the Greek historian, who claims they were swallowed by a dune.

Two possible explanations

In fact, that explanation is what has led hundreds of experts to try to investigate where the remains of Cambyses II and their lost army are. But it was not until 2009 when Italian archaeologists Ángelo and Alfredo Castiglioni claimed to have found a series of bone remains buried in the south of Siwa, in addition to masters, helmets, earrings or bracelets. All were Achaemenids, but the evidence provided was insufficient for an army of such magnitude.

It would be in 2014 when a new theory emerged on the horizon: Olaf Kapper, an Egyptologist at the University of Leiden, discovered in the Dakhla Oasis in Almeida, the block of an ancient temple buried under the sand. What would be his surprise when in the cartridges of that block it was said that the rebel army of Petubastis III is the one that ended Cambyses II and his militias, defeating them in the desert in an epic battle.

This explanation could be more plausible because the Persians – not accustomed to not winning – would have invented the legend to cover up this shameful defeat. And, as if that were not enough, just a few months later, the Persian king Darius I arrived in the area to end Petubastis III. His defeat would have caused absolute silence and, that block found by Kapper could have been buried by the Persians themselves to silence a truth that, to this day, remains unknown.

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