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Prof Olaf Kaper, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, believes he may have solved one of the greatest mysteries in ancient history – what happened to the 50,000-man army of Persian King Cambyses II in the Egyptian desert.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC), Cambyses II, the oldest son of Cyrus the Great, sent his army from Thebes to destroy the Oracle of Amun at Siwa Oasis 525BC after the priests there refused to legitimize his claim to Egypt. Oracles were places where divine advice or prophecy was sought and the ancient Egyptians held them to be manifestations of the gods that could see into the future. They were often consulted before big decisions.

50,000 warriors entered the Egypt’s western desert near Luxor. After walking for seven days in the desert, the army was said to have arrived at an 'oasis', which historians believe was El-Kharga, 120 miles west of the Nile in the Libyan Desert. After they left, a great sandstorm sprung up and they were never seen again. Herodotus (484-425BC) wrote: 'a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear'.

Although many scientists regard the story as a myth, amateur as well as professional archaeologists have searched for the remains of the Persian soldiers for many decades. Italian archaeologists Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, twin brothers, have discovered bronze weapons and hundreds of human bones which they reckon are the remains of the lost army of Persian King Cambyses II (November 2009). Hundreds of broken water pots were also found by them.

Prof Kaper never believed this story. “Some expect to find an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sandstorm,” he said.

Prof Kaper argues that the lost army of Cambyses II did not disappear, but was defeated:

“My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert, its final destination was the Dakhla Oasis. This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III. He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses II, and in this way managed from his base in the oasis to reconquer a large part of Egypt, after which he let himself be crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.”

The fact that the fate of the army of Cambyses II 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 II’s defeat.

“Darius I attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the event all Herodotus could do was take note of the sandstorm story.”

During the past ten years, Prof Kaper has been involved in excavations in Amheida, in the Dakhla 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,” Prof Kaper said.

“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.”

The discovery was presented at the International Conference of the ERC project BABYLON held in Leiden, the Netherlands, June 18-20, 2014.

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