Full text of Egyptologist Olaf Kaper’s talk: Disappearance of a 50,000 Egyptian Army at TEDxEde conference.
Olaf Kaper – Egyptologist
Ever since I was a little boy, I had this passion for anything to do with ancient Egypt, and I couldn’t explain it. My parents were surprised. They didn’t know what this would lead to, but I assured them it would be all right, and so I went on to study Egyptology.
And now I’m doing research that has led me to find out something about one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world. That’s the story I want to tell you.
So, I went to study Egyptology. That means you study ancient hieroglyphs, you study archaeological remains, and you try to find out as much as you can about this ancient culture. You may think that Egyptology is a very tiny little edge of human knowledge.
Well, it’s pretty large; Egypt has a history of more than 5,000 years, and to cover everything from that enormous history is too much. So my colleagues, Egyptologists, also specialize even further. They do one or two periods of that history, or they work on particular types of material, on religion, etc.
When the time came for me to choose my specialization in Egyptology, I decided to work on material that had been more or less neglected, that was the least studied of all – in the time when Egypt started to change from the ancient pharaonic culture to a more modern Hellenistic type of society, the Greco-Roman period.
And I got involved in an archaeological project in Egypt, where I worked on Roman period remains in the desert, in the oases of the Western Desert.
Now, you could say that I painted myself into a pretty corner there; being an Egyptologist and also working in a period that was considered the least interesting and irrelevant of all. Still, it has led me to some new ideas.
And I first want to take you back to the ancient world and to the Greek historian Herodotus.
Herodotus came to Egypt, ancient Egypt. He traveled around in the time of the pharaohs around 450 BC, and it’s something I would love to do myself – to be able to travel around in the days of the pharaohs. He wrote down exactly what he heard and saw – very valuable material.
One of the stories he relates is that of a Persian army sent out into the Western Desert and it never came back. What happened?
Cambyses II, the Persian king, came with a large army, he conquered Egypt, and he went down further south. And when he was in Thebes, in the south, in modern-day Luxor, he split off 50,000 men of his army, and he sent them into the Western Desert to attack the worshippers of Amun, the Amonians, and they would set fire to the oracle of Amun – that was their purpose.
Well, somehow, they traveled with a guide, they set off from Thebes, and they traveled for seven days through the desert until they reached a city called Oasis. Then they went on further, Herodotus says, they travel towards the Amonians and hold somewhere, and then when they were having breakfast there, a sand storm comes up, a huge wind of extraordinary force, and the sand makes them disappear.
Herodotus says they never reach the Amonians and they never come back to the Nile Valley. This is one of the great mysteries of the ancient world, and of course, many people have been wondering what happened to them, and many people in modern times have tried to find the remains of this army because the idea of having a complete army from the Persian period covered in a sand dune that would just all be there to excavate – it’s just too good to be true.
Of course, they would travel with their animals, they would have their weapons with them, coins – whatever was in their possession would still be there. So many people have sought for this army.
To me, it has always been a bit too good to be true. I had trouble with this story of Herodotus; there are several things, actually, which don’t add up.
First of all, the Persians traveled with 50,000 men. That’s a huge amount for desert journeys, especially for longer desert journeys. There they go, seven days through the desert before they reach the first stop. It’s completely impractical. Why?
Well, they all have to take their own water and food, and then all the animals that travel with them to carry this water and food also need water and food, and so on. The caravan would be huge – far too impractical.
Then, there is also the point of Thebes: They were sent out from Thebes; Cambyses sent them into the Western Desert from Thebes and to go to the Amonians.
Well, there was an oracle of Amun, a very famous oracle, that also Alexander the Great visited. And that’s in Siwa, that’s up in the north of the Western Desert. You don’t go there from Thebes. When you want to go to Siwa, you travel the northern coast, and that would be far more sensible. So, again, I don’t understand.
Then the matter of death: This army disappears in a sand dune, in a storm. Well, I traveled a lot in the Western Desert myself, and I spoke to many travelers who are very experienced in the Sahara. And sandstorms are pretty nasty – they can be a huge nuisance, they can last for days, you can run out of water, you can lose your way – but it doesn’t kill you.
The sandstorm – certainly with a large army – it’s inconceivable that it would actually kill this amount of people. So, to me, the legend recorded by Herodotus was just that, a legend, a myth, something that couldn’t have happened in reality. But still, it’s attractive; it’s a story. People like to believe the unbelievable.
Just the idea is attractive because it is about hidden treasure as well – hidden treasure somewhere out in the Egyptian desert. To me, as a scientist, I was interested in the story because I wanted to find out: Where does it come from? What is the basis in reality? Why did this story come up?
And in my work in the archaeology of the Western Desert, I actually came across material that helped me to solve this puzzle. Since about 10 years, I excavate with a team of Americans and Italians from New York University. We excavate in a city in the oasis of Dakhla, and the city has a temple that functioned for about 1,500 years.
And one of the first pieces we found was written in hieroglyphs, and it contained a name, a royal name, “Petubastis” – well, very interesting, but there are several kings with this name, Petubastis; I couldn’t place him and it was just one piece.
Then 2014, in January, we found further pieces, and that helped them to solve this. And it turned out that this was Petubastis IV, a king that was almost unknown. It was a huge surprise because this king was a guerilla leader, he was a rebel, he was in the early Persian period, he was challenging the authorities and claiming royal titles, but up in the north of the country.
We had a few references to his name, and that was all we knew of him. We had four blocks with the tutelary of this king. We had some further inscriptions; they could be pieced together. And it turned out that this was a gateway, a decorated doorway, that was inscribed with full titles of this Petubastis IV, and an inscription saying that he built this temple for the local god of the city.