Cambyses in Tour Egypt
CAMBYSES II, THE PERSIAN RULER OF EGYPT (27TH DYNASTY) AND HIS LOST ARMY
by Jimmy Dunn --
In 525 BC the Persian emperor Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, who had already named his son
as king of Babylon though Cambyses II resigned that position after only one year, invaded Egypt
and successfully overthrew the native Egyptian pharaoh, Psamtek III, last ruler of Egypt's 26th
Dynasty to become the first ruler of Egypt's 27th Persian Dynasty. His father had earlier
attempted an invasion of Egypt against Psamtek III's predecessor, Amasis, but Cyrus' death in 529
BC put a halt to that expedition. After capturing Egypt, Cambyses took the Throne name Mesut-i-re
(Mesuti-Ra), meaning "Offspring of Re". Though the Persians would rule Egypt for the next 193
years until Alexander the Great defeated Darius III and conquered Egypt in 332 BC, Cambyses II's
victory would bring to an end (for the most part) Egyptians truly ruling Egyptians until the mid
20th century, when Egypt finally shrugged off colonial rule.
We know very little about Cambyses II through contemporary texts, but his reputation as a mad
tyrannical despot has come down to us in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus (440 BC)
and a Jewish document from 407 BC known as 'The Demotic Chronicle' which speaks of the Persian
king destroying all the temples of the Egyptian gods. However, it must be repeatedly noted that
the Greeks shared no love for the Persians. Herodotus informs us that Cambyses II was a monster
of cruelty and impiety.
Herodotus gives us three tales as to why the Persians invaded Egypt. In one, Cambyses II had
requested an Egyptian princess for a wife, or actually a concubine, and was angered when he found
that he had been sent a lady of second rate standing. In another, it turns out that he was the
bastard son of Nitetis, daughter of the Saite (from Sais) king Apries, and therefore half
Egyptian anyway, whereas the third story provides that Cambyses II, at the age of ten, made a
promise to his mother (who is now Cassandane) that he would "turn Egypt upside down" to avenge a
slight paid to her. However, Ctesias of Cnidus states that his mother was Amytis, the daughter of
the last king of independent Media so we are really unsure of that side of his parentage. While
even Herodotus doubts all of these stories, and given the fact that his father had already
planned one invasion of Egypt, the stories do in fact reflect the later Greek bias towards his
Regardless of Cambyses II's reason for his invasion of Egypt, Herodotus notes how the Persians
easily entered Egypt across the desert. They were advised by the defecting mercenary general,
Phanes of Halicarnassus, to employ the Bedouins as guides. However, Phanes had left his two sons
in Egypt. We are told that for his treachery, as the armies of the Persians and the mercenary
army of the Egyptians met, his sons were bought out in front of the Egyptian army where they
could be seen by their father, and there throats were slit over a large bowl. Afterwards,
Herodotus tells us that water and wine were added to the contents of the bowl and drunk by every
man in the Egyptian force.
This did not stop the ensuing battle at Pelusium, Greek pelos, which was the gateway to Egypt.
Its location on Egypt's eastern boundary, meant that it was an important trading post was well
and also of immense strategic importance. It was the starting point for Egyptian expeditions to
Asia and an entry point for foreign invaders.
Here, the Egyptian forces were routed in the battle and fled back to Memphis. Apparently Psamtek
III managed to escape the ensuing besiege of the Egyptian capital, only to be captured a short
time afterwards and was carried off to Susa in chains. Herodotus goes on to tell us of all the
outrages that Cambyses II then inflicted on the Egyptians, not only including the stabbing of a
sacred Apis bull and his subsequent burial at the Serapeum in Saqqara, but also the desecration
and deliberate burning of the embalmed body of Amasis (a story that has been partly evidenced by
destruction of some of Amasis' inscriptions) and the banishment of other Egyptian opponents.
The story of Cambyses II's fit of jealousy towards the Apis bull, whether true or simply Greek
propaganda, was intended to reflect his personal failures as a monarch and military leader. In
the three short years of his rule over Egypt he personally led a disastrous campaign up the River
Nile into Ethiopia. There, we are told, his ill-prepared mercenary army was so meagerly supplied
with food that they were forced to eat the flesh of their own colleagues as their supplies ran
out in the Nubian desert. The Persian army returned northwards in abject humiliation having
failed even to encounter their enemy in battle.
Then, of course, there is also the mystery of his lost army, some fifty thousand strong, that
vanished in the Western Desert on their way to the Siwa Oasis along with all their weapons and
other equipment, never to be heard of again. Cambyses II had also planned a military campaign
against Carthage, but this too was aborted because, on this occasion, the king's Phoenician sea
captains refused to attack their kinfolk who had founded the Carthagian colony towards the end of
the 8th century BC. In fact, the conquest of Egypt was Cambyses' only spectacular military
success in his seven years of troubled rule over the Persian empire.
However, we are told that when the Persians at home received news of Cambyses' several military
disasters, some of the most influential nobles revolted, swearing allegiance to the king's
younger brother Bardiya. With their support, the pretender to the great throne of Cyrus seized
power in July 522 BC as Cambyses II was returning home.
The story is told that, on hearing of this revolt, and in haste to mount his horse to swiftly
finish the journey home, Cambyses II managed to stab himself in the thigh with his own dagger. At
that moment, he began to recall an Egyptian prophecy told to him by the priests of Buto in which
it was predicted that the king would die in Ecbatana. Cambyses II had thought that the Persian
summer capital of Ecbatana had been meant and that he would therefore die in old age. But now he
realized that the prophecy had been fulfilled in a very different way here in Syrian Ecbatana.
Still enveloped in his dark and disturbed mood, Cambyses II decided that his fate had been sealed
and simply lay down to await his end. The wound soon became gangrenous and the king died in early
August of 522 BC. However, it should be noted that other references tell us that Cambyses II had
his brother murdered even prior to his expedition to Egypt, but apparently if it was not Bardiya
(though there is speculation that Cambyses II's servants perhaps did not kill his brother as
ordered), there seems to have definitely been an usurper to the throne, perhaps claiming to be
his brother, who we are told was killed secretly.
The Real Cambyses II
Modern Egyptologists believe that many of these accounts are rather biased, and that Cambyses
II's rule was perhaps not nearly so traumatic as Herodotus, who wrote his history only about 75
years after Cambyses II's demise, would have us believe. In reality, the Saite dynasty had all
but completely collapsed, and it is likely that with Psamtek III's (Psammetichus III) capture by
the Persians, Cambyses II simply took charge of the country. The Egyptians were particularly
isolated at this time in their history, having seen there Greek allies defect, including not only
Phanes, but Polycrates of Samos. In addition, many of Egypt's minorities, such as the Jewish
community at Elephantine and even certain elements within the Egyptian aristocracy, seem to have
even welcomed Cambyses II's rule.
The Egyptian evidence that we do have depicts a ruler anxious to avoid offending Egyptian
susceptibilities who at least presented himself as an Egyptian king in all respects. It is even
possible that the pillaging of Egyptian towns told to us by Greek sources never occurred at all.
In an inscription on the statue of Udjadhorresnet, a Saite priest and doctor, as well as a former
naval officer, we learn that Cambyses II was prepared to work with and promote native Egyptians
to assist in government, and that he showed at least some respect for Egyptian religion. For
example, regardless of the death of the Apris Bull, it should be noted that the animal's burial
was held with proper pomp, ceremony and respect. Udjahorresnet also tells us that:
"I let His Majesty know the greatness of Sais, that it is the seat of Neith-the-Great, mother who
bore Re and inaugurated birth when birth had not yet been...I made a petition to the majesty of
the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Cambyses, about all the foreigners who dwelled in the temple
of Neith, in order to have them expelled from it., so as to let the temple of Neith be in all its
splendor, as it had been before. His Majesty commanded to expel all the foreigners who dwelled in
the temple of Neith, to demolish all their houses and all their unclean things that were in the
When they had carried all their personal belongings outside the wall of the temple, His Majesty
commanded to cleanse the temple of Neith and to return all its personnel to it...and the hour-
priests of the temple. His Majesty commanded to give divine offerings to Neith-the-Great, the
mother of god, and to the great gods of Sais, as it had been before. His Majesty knew the
greatness of Sais, that it is a city of all the gods, who dwell there on their seats forever.
" Indeed, Cambyses II continued Egyptian policy regarding sanctuaries and national cults,
confirmed by his building work in the Wadi Hammamat and at a few other Egyptian temples.
Udjadhorresnet goes on to say in his autobiography written on a naophorous statue now in the
Vatican collection at Rome, that he introduced Cambyses II to Egyptian culture so that he might
take on the appearance of a traditional Egyptian Pharaoh.
However, even though Cambyses II had his name written in a kingly Egyptian cartouche, he did
remained very Persian, and was buried at Takht-i-Rustam near Persepolis (Iran). It has been
suggested that Cambyses II may have originally followed a traditional Persian policy of
reconciliation in the footsteps of their conquests. In deed, it may be that Cambyses II's rule
began well enough, but with the his defeats and losses, his mood may very well have turned darker
along with his actions. We do know that there was a short lived revolt which broke out in Egypt
after Cambyses II died in 522 BC, but the independence was lost almost immediately to his
successor, a distant relative and an officer in Cambyses II's army, named Darius. The dynasty of
Persian rulers who then ruled Egypt did so as absentee landlords from afar.
Within recent years all manner of artifacts and monuments have been discovered in Egypt's Western
Desert. Here and there, new discoveries of temples and tombs turn up, even in relatively
inhabited areas where more modern structures are often difficult to distinguish from ancient
ruins. It is a place where the shifting sands can uncover whole new archaeological worlds, and so
vast that no more than very small regions are ever investigated systematically by Egyptologists.
In fact, most discoveries if not almost all are made by accident, so Egypt antiquity officials
must remain ever alert to those who bring them an inscribed stone unearthed beneath a house, or a
textile fragment found in the sand.
Lately, there has been considerable petroleum excavation in the Western Desert. Anyone traveling
the main route between the near oasis will see this activity, but the exploration for oil
stretched much deeper into the Western Desert. It is not surprising that they have come upon a
few archaeological finds, and it is not unlikely that they will come across others. Very
recently, when a geological team from the Helwan University geologists found themselves walking
through dunes littered with fragments of textiles, daggers, arrow-heads, and the bleached bones
of the men to whom all these trappings belonged, they reported the discovery to the antiquity
Mohammed al-Saghir of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) now believes that this accidental
find may very well be at least remnants of the mysterious Lost Army of Cambyses II, and he is now
organizing a mission to investigate the site more thoroughly. If he is successful and the
discovery is that of Cambyses II's 50,000 strong lost army, than it will not only answer some
ancient mysteries, but will probably also provide us with a rich source of information on the
Persian military of that time, and maybe even expand our knowledge of Cambyses II himself. The
Persian armed forces consisted of many elements, including companies of foreign mercenaries such
as Greeks, Phoenicians, Carians, Cilicians, Medes and Syrians. Hence, if this is not another
false lead, we may expect excellent preservation of helmets, leather corselets, cloth garments,
spears, bows, swords and daggers – a veritable treasure trove of military memorabilia. The
rations and support equipment will all be there, ready for detailed analysis.
However, it should be noted that some Egyptologists question the very existence of such an army,
rather believing that the whole affair was simply a fable told by a very prejudiced Greek.
Yet if true, Cambyses II probably sent his army to Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert to seek (or
seize) legitimization of his rule from the oracle of Amun, much as Alexander the Great would do
in the 4th century BC. However, the army was overtaken by a sandstorm and buried. For centuries
adventurers and archaeologists have tried to find the lost army, and at times, tantalizing,
though usually false glues have been discovered.
Legitimizing his rule does not fully explain the need for taking such a large army to the Siwa
Oasis. Accounts and other resources provide that the priests of the oracle were perhaps posing a
danger to Cambyses II's rule, probably encouraging revolt among the native Egyptians. Perhaps the
priests felt slighted that Cambyses II had not immediately sought their approval as Alexander the
Great would do almost upon his arrival in Egypt. Therefore, it is likely that Cambyses II
intended to forces their legitimization of his rule. In fact, some sources believe that his
intent was to simply destroy the Oasis completely for their treachery, while it is also know that
the army was to continue on after Siwa in order to attack the Libyans.
Yet the Siwa Oasis, the western most of Egypt's Oasis, is much deeper into the desert than
others, such as Bahariya, and apparently, like many of Cambyses II's military operations, this
one too was ill conceived. Why he so easily entered Egypt with the help of the Bedouins, and than
sent such a large force into the desert only to be lost is a mystery.
We know that the army was dispatched from the holy city of Thebes, supported by a great train of
pack animals. After a seven day march, it reached the Kharga Oasis and moved on to the last of
the near Oasis, the Bahariya, before turning towards the 325 kilometers of desert that separated
it from the Siwa Oasis. It would have been a 30 day march through burning heat with no additional
sources of water or shade.
According to Herodotus (as later reported to him by the inhabitants of Siwa), after many days of
struggle through the soft sand, the troops were resting one morning when calamity struck without
warning. "As they were at their breakfast, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly,
bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which buried the troops and caused them utterly
to disappear." Overwhelmed by the powerful sandstorm, men and animals alike were asphyxiated as
they huddled together, gradually being enveloped in a sea of drift-sand.
It was after learning of the loss of his army that, having witnessed the reverence with which the
Egyptians regarded the sacred Apis bull of Memphis in a ceremony and believing he was being
mocked, he fell into a rage, drew his dagger and plunged it into the bull-calf. However, it seems
that he must have latter regretted this action, for the Bull was buried with due reverence.