Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The lost army of Cambyses

6 Comments

There’s a number of lost armies in the ancient world – lost legions, lost expeditions. According to Herodotus, Cambyses II’s expedition to subjugate the priests of Ammon in what is today the Siwa Oasis took a very bad turn, fast. The 50.000 men sent by the Persian king to give a hard lesson to the priests marched for ten days in the desert known as the Great Sea of Sand, got completely lost, and when last heard of were considering cannibalism as a way to survive.

When he came in his march to Thebes, he parted about fifty thousand men from his army, and charged them to enslave the Ammonians and burn the oracle of Zeus; and he himself went on towards Ethiopia with the rest of his host. But before his army had accomplished the fifth part of their journey they had come to an end of all there was in the way of provision, and after the food was gone they ate the beasts of burden till there was none of these left also. Now had Cambyses, when he perceived this, changed his mind and led his army back again, he had been a wise man at least after his first fault; but as it was, he went ever forward, nothing recking. While his soldiers could get anything from the earth, they kept themselves alive by eating grass; but when they came to the sandy desert, certain of them did a terrible deed, taking by lot one man out of ten and eating him.

Herodotus, Book III, chapter 25

I have stumbled on the fifty thousand men that Cambyses lost in the Sahara while working on a project I am not at liberty to describe in detail – suffice it to say that it does have a vague connection with Robert E. Howard, and now will feature – among other things – undead Persian soldiers emerging in full Harryhausen mode from the Great Sea of Sand.

Destruction of Cambyses’ Army by a Sandstorm Source Internet

And really, nobody knows what happened to Cambyses’ men – OK, we know they died in the desert, and various causes, from sand storms to dehydration, have been proposed through the years. Indeed, roughly once every twenty years some archaeological expedition claims to have found the remains of the Persians somewhere. So far, all claims have been debunked.

Reading on the subject these last two days has been a nice opportunity to find out about desert survival (or lack thereof), about the Persian military structure, and about sandstorm physics.
Isn’t this writing thing a blast…?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “The lost army of Cambyses

  1. It is!
    Ahh, the good old lost army of Cambyses!
    Even W.E. Johns made use of that in one of his “Biggles” novels. Biggles and his chums not only searched for the said army’s remains but found descendants of those Persian soldiers still living in an oasis in the Libyan desert. And Robert E. Howard wrote a poem on the subject, with the refrain “Ammon-Ra is a darksome king … Egypt’s curse is a deathly thing.”
    Best of luck with your yarn. It sounds great.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Are you aware of Richard L. Tierney’s Simon of Gitta story, “The Worm of Urakhu”, which also references the lost army? (And Dune, incidentally.)

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  3. Paul Sussman wrote a book on it. “The lost army of Cambyses” I read it years ago, and seem to remember it as entertaining. One can only hope that this will lead you to Ralph Bagnold, and the LRDG in the end. I would love to see what your imagination would create from that.

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