History

The quest for Cambyses' lost army

Bronze weapons, a silver bracelet, an earring and hundreds of human bones found in the vast desolate wilderness of the Sahara desert have raised hopes of finally finding the lost army -- 50,000 strong -- of Persian King Cambyses II, buried by a cataclysmic sandstorm in 525 B.C. (click here for the full story, complete [...]

Bronze weapons, a silver bracelet, an earring and hundreds of human bones found in the vast desolate wilderness of the Sahara desert have raised hopes of finally finding the lost army - 50,000 strong - of Persian King Cambyses II, buried by a cataclysmic sandstorm in 525 B.C. (click here for the full story, complete with a video and a slideshow ).

The relics could be the first archaeological evidence of a story reported by the Greek historian Herodotus.

According to Herodotus, Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, sent 50,000 soldiers from Thebes to attack the Oasis of Siwa and destroy the oracle at the Temple of Amun. Alexander the Great had famously sought legitimization of his rule from the oracle of Amun in 332 B.C., but according to legend, the oracle would have predicted the death of Cambyses.

After walking for seven days in the desert, the army got to an "oasis," which historians believe was El-Kharga. After they left, they were never seen again.

As no trace of the hapless warriors has ever be found, scholars began to dismiss the story as a fanciful tale.

Indeed, many archaeologists and adventures have been scouring the desert, dreaming of solving the 2,500- year-old mystery.

Already in the 1800s, archaeology pioneer Giovanni Battista Belzoni explored the desert in vain, searching for the lost army.

Perhaps the most famous desert explorer is the Austro-Hungarian Count László Almásy (1895-1951), whose life provided inspiration for Anthony Minghella's film The English Patient.

In 1936, Almásy ventured into the desert in search for clues of the vanished soldiers, but the Great Sand Sea's giant dunes and the khamsin - the hot, strong, unpredictable southeasterly wind that blows from the Sahara desert over Egypt - stopped him.

He re-emerged from the Saharan sands four days later - miraculously alive.

In the last decade there have been several contrasting reports about intriguing findings in the Western Egyptian desert.

It all started with reports about the 1996 Castiglioni brother expedition, and continued with geologist Aly Barakat's announcement of important discoveries in the area around Bahrain.

The revived interest over the lost army continued in 2000: reports circulated that a Helwan University geological team, prospecting for petroleum in the Western Desert, had stumbled across scattered human bones and ancient warfare relics such as daggers and arrowheads.

Announcements of future serious investigation by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) followed, but any information about that research has yet to be published.

In 2003, geologist Tom Bown, accompanied by archaeologist Gail MacKinnon and a film crew, returned to the desert. Their search proved inconclusive.

In 2005, another follow-up expedition by a team from the University of Toledo, Ohio, reached the area around Bahrain, but failed to find any significant remains, apart from a large number of fossilized sand dollars, which they believed could have been mistaken for human bone fragments.

Now twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni (famous for their discovery 20 years ago of the ancient Egyptian "city of gold" Berenike Panchrysos) have finally shown their findings.

Presented recently at the archaeological film festival of Rovereto, the documentary is the result of 13 years of research and five expeditions to the desert.

Have they really located the remains of the mighty Persian army?

"We can't tell yet. But they have shown us the first ever Achaemenid objects, thus dating to Cambyses' time, as they emerged from the sands near Siwa. This is amazing and certainly demands further research," Piero Pruneti, editor of Archeologia Viva, Italy's most important archaeology magazine, told Discovery News.

To get the feeling of the discovery, here is an excerpt taken from the Castiglioni brothers' documentary "The lost army of Cambyses."

Images: courtesy of Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni