The lost army of Cambyses

Somewhere in the Western desert supposedly lies the remains of a 50,000 strong Persian army. Here is the story behind it:

 In 525 BC Cambyses II invaded Egypt in a bad mood. Earlier, he had demanded that a daughter of the Pharaoh Amasis be his wife. He was sent the far less valuable daughter of the Pharaoh’s enemy and predecessor Apries. This angered him enough to invade, which he had probably intended all along anyway.


What little we know about Cambyses from Herodotus and Babylonian fragments indicates a cruel and chaotic character, frequently drunk. He killed his brother Smerdis before invading Egypt simply as a precaution against usurption while away on his campaign. It was a wise but not sufficient precaution- while he was away the Magian Gautmata impersonated Smerdis and was accepted throughout Asia as ruler of Iran.

Cambyses also killed his sister after a disagreement over a lettuce. To compound his crimes with incest, she also happened to be his other wife. His wife/ sister were eating dinner with him. She asked if he preferred his lettuce with or without its leaves. Cambyses said he preferred it stripped, whereupon his wife/sister said he had treated the house of his father Cyrus as he had the lettuce. Enraged, Cambyses kicked her in the stomach and being pregnant she had a miscarriage and died.


It is not certain if Cambyses came by chariot to Egypt or camel. If camel, it could be his invasion that marked their introduction to Egypt. As he had co-opted Arab soldiers to water and provision his invasion it is likely he brought with him at least some of the first camels.

There were no camels before this time. Tutankamun’s scarab pectoral was probably recovered by a donkey Caravan heading towards Siwa. Remains of donkey roads in the Western desert have been found by Carlo Bergmann, south west of Dakhla Oasis leading as far as the Gilf Kebir so it is not inconceivable that Cambyses, if unsure of the camels his Arabs were riding, was mounted on an ass.


Cambyses defeated the Egyptian army of Amasis’ son, Psammetichus III, and though he adopted the costume and actions of the Pharaohs he is recorded as being ‘in great contempt of them’. Eager for more conquests Cambyses proceeded up the Nile with his eye on Kush, Napata and the Land of Punt, Ethiopia. He came unstuck before he reached Punt when he tried to invade Nubia and was defeated by Nastesen the Nubian king. An inscription in Napata (now in the Berlin Museum) reads how he defeated ‘Kambasuden’ and took all his ships.

It was largely the terrain that defeated them. At first reduced to eating pack animals and then grass, an order was finally given that one soldier in ten should be killed and eaten. This was too much even for Cambyses and he ordered the failed expedition return to Thebes.


Cambyses was mad with anger at the Nubians but took out his frustration on the Priests of the Oracle of Amun Ra at Siwa. They refused to agree to his sudden and despotic claim to rule Egypt. Siwa was a long way from the Nile and the Priests were used to their freedom.

Cambyses had a strategic mind but was wildly optimistic and ill prepared. His disagreement with the high Priests of the Oracle led to the dispatch of his famous Lost Army. Instead of sending them by River and Sea he sent them the long, and to his mind, cunning, way round through the desert.


The force sent to conquer the Siwans started from the Nile at Thebes and proceeded to Kharga, a journey then of seven days. Their mission was to seize the people of Siwa, enslave them, and burn the Oracle.

 Herodotus records that they left ‘The Oasis’, which was Kharga, 50,000 strong but were lost somewhere in the great sand sea. He reports a tradition of the Siwans that the army were buried in a sand storm just south-east of Siwa, probably in the uppermost part of the Sand sea in the proximity of the oases of Sitra and Bahrein - which were occupied at the time and even today contain the remains of tombs - but not of 50,000 men.

 Cambyses, if he did send 50,000 men into the desert, sent them to their death through lack of water if anything. Such an army would need 8,000 gallons of water a day even in winter. There could be no question of a prolonged desert journey unless the army was very strung out indeed. It is more likely he sent a smaller force which conceivably could well have perished trying to go from Farafra to Siwa via the old route from Ain Della to Sitra oasis. 


When he heard of their failure Cambyses was supposed to have been so enraged that he executed an Apis Bull at Memphis, which was a mighty insult to the cow worshipping Egyptians. Later accounts, based on recently found inscriptions suggest this was mere propaganda designed to rally support against Persian rule. In any case it seems that around this time, 530 BC, Cambyses went mad and soon after died of gangrene of the thigh. Another oracle, in Buto in the Nile Delta predicted this death. He had no sons or daughters.


Guessing the fate of Cambyses Lost Army remains a popular pastime for desert travellers. Some have doubted Herodotus and put the destination of the Lost Army as far apart as Dakhla or even Asyut. Almasy spent a good deal of time looking in the Great Sand Sea but died before he found anything. Every few decades a new expedition is mounted. Recent research has tended to confirm the original story told to Herodotus.

In 2000 Helwan university geology department found arrow and spear remains in the Great Sand Sea. Excited by this various archeologists and geologists including Gail McKinnon and Tom Brown have searched for Cambyses army and found little apart from what are almost certainly Roman army remains. Brown has plotted a possible route but has downgraded the army to a more likely 10,000. The hunt continues.