A pair of Italian brothers believe they have at last discovered the lost army of Persian King Cambyses II in the Egyptian desert, some 2,500 years after they are said to have been swallowed up by a vicious sandstorm. The 50,000-strong army was engulfed as it crossed the Great Sand Sea towards Siwa Oasis, to destroy the oracle at the Temple of Amun. Archaeologists have searched for the legendary lost men for centuries – yet Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni claim that hundreds of human bones and bronze weapons just outside the oasis are the remains of Cambyses’ fateful crew.
Greek historian Herodotus first told the tale of the lost army, sent by Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, from Thebes to Siwa to threaten the oracle, after its priests denied his claim to the Egyptian throne in 525 BC. The army trapsed the desert for seven days until it reached an oasis, which many believe to have been El-Kharga, 120 miles west of the Nile.
Yet on pressing forward to Siwa the men were hit by a cataclysmic sandstorm and never seen again. Just as the Nazis perished in the foul winters of Russia during World War II, Cambyses soldiers would be fatally thwarted by the tempestuous weather of the arid Egyptian wilderness. “A wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand,” writes Herodotus, “which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear.”
Due to a lack of archaeological evidence, Herodotus’ tale has been written off by many as a myth. Yet the Castiglioni brothers’ recent discovery may prove it happen after all. The duo made their first breakthrough in 1996 just outside Siwa, where they spotted a huge rock 35m long, 1.8m high and 3m deep. “Its size and shape made it the perfect refuge in a sandstorm,” says Alfredo Castiglioni.
His Eastern Desert Research Center team excavated a bronze dagger and many arrow heads – proof of Cambyses doomed campaign? “We are talking of small items, but they are extremely important as they are the first Achaemenid objects, thus dating to Cambyses’ time,” adds Castiglioni, “which have emerged from the desert sands in a location quite close to Siwa.”
Moving a quarter of a mile south, the team found an earring, necklace links and a silver bracelet dating to Cambyses’ Achaemenid Dynasty. The Castiglioni brothers spent the next few years mapping possible routes through the desert and painstakingly researching each one. Now the pair feels Cambyses’ army didn’t in fact pass through El Kharga at all – instead chosing a longer route heading east from Thebes to Gilf Kebir, then due north towards Siwa. Their theory was coming together when they found artificial water sources and hundreds of pots dating back 2,500 years along the route.
The show-stopping moment for the Castiglionis would come in 2002, however, when at the end of their last expedition, they explored Bedouin tales of hundreds of bones rising from the desert in certain wind conditions. It would turn out to be much more than an old wives’ tale – a mass grave contained the bones, alongside Persian arrow heads and a horse bit. Sadly they had not been the first there: “We learned that the remains had been exposed by tomb robbers and that a beautiful sword which was found among the bones was sold to American tourists,” says Castiglioni.
The brothers handed in their findings to the Egyptian authorities, from whom they haven’t heard since. Yet they are convinced Cambyses’ men dispersed during the storm and that their bodies are still somewhere in the area. “In the desolate wilderness of the desert, we have found the most precise location where the tragedy occurred,” says Dario Del Bufalo, a Lecce University official who helped the brothers. Their findings will be presented in a Discovery documentary, out soon. The brothers had their first taste of archaeological fame two decades ago when they uncovered the ancient Egyptian ‘Golden City’ of Berenice Panchrysos.
Since this post was published, doubts have been raised as to whether the Castiglioni brothers actually did locate the city of Berenice Panchrysos. For a full SCA statement via Egyptology News, read the .