Herodotus relates that Cambyses II, son of the great Cyrus, a man inclined to excesses, murder and sacrilege, who finally surrendered to insanity (“for it is said moreover that Cambyses had from his birth a certain grievous malady, that which is called by some the «sacred» disease: and it was certainly nothing strange that when the body was suffering from a grievous malady, the mind should not be sound either”, Herodotus 3.33) committed one of his greatest follies toward the end of his days. He sent an army of 50,000 men against the temple of Amun in Siwa to the northwest of the impressive Lybian Sand Sea, without almost any supplies and ammunition. Herodotus transmits several versions of this tragic story which may be true, but never any convincing trace has been found of the people caught up in the desert:
It is known that they arrived at the city of Oasis, which is inhabited by Samians said to be of the Aischrionian tribe, and is distant seven days’ journey from Thebes over sandy desert: now this place is called in the speech of the Hellenes the “Isle of the Blessed.” It is said that the army reached this place, but from that point onwards, except the Ammonians themselves and those who have heard the account from them, no man is able to say anything about them; for they neither reached the Ammonians nor returned back. This however is added to the story by the Ammonians themselves: – they say that as the army was going from this Oasis through the sandy desert to attack them, and had got to a point about mid-way between them and the Oasis, while they were taking their morning meal a violent South Wind blew upon them, and bearing with it heaps of the desert sand it buried them under it, and so they disappeared and were seen no more. Thus the Ammonians say that it came to pass with regard to this army. (Herodotus, 3.26)
As recently as November last year, a team of Italian researchers announced – apparently with no absolute confirmation – to have found in a valley the bones of the unfortunate army. That there are bones indeed you can see in this video. Here, no doubt, lots of people had died. But it is not easy to point out that they were the lost army of Cambyses.
Herodotus, writing on another subject, gives us an interesting clue to whether the bones are of Persians or Egyptians, and modern investigators do not seem to have taken account of his wisdom:
I was witness moreover of a great marvel, being informed of it by the Egyptians; for of the bones scattered about of those who fell in this fight, each side separately, since the bones of the Persians were lying apart on one side according as they were divided at first, and those of the Egyptians on the other, the skulls of the Persians are so weak that if you shall hit them only with a pebble you will make a hole in them, while those of the Egyptians are so exceedingly strong that you would hardly break them if you struck them with a large stone. The cause of it, they say, was this, and I for my part readily believe them, namely that the Egyptians beginning from their early childhood shave their heads, and the bone is thickened by exposure to the sun: and this is also the cause of their not becoming bald-headed; for among the Egyptians you see fewer bald-headed men than among any other race. This then is the reason why these have their skulls strong; and the reason why the Persians have theirs weak is that they keep them delicately in the shade from the first by wearing tiaras, that is felt caps. (3.12)
We have celebrated the Holy Week by immersing ourselves in this vast Western Desert of Egypt, traveling from Cairo to Abu Simbel through the oases of Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Al-Kharga. We will tell more about this periplous in the following days.
From the small oasis of Abu Minqar to the west opens to the sight the relentless route – or rather its absence – along which the 50,000 soldiers of Cambyses disappeared. Right here emerges the miracle of a fountain of red water, a thick flow of hot water in which we could not avoid plunging with all due respect, sharing our lustral bath with the ablutions of the handful of inhabitants of the oasis.