Disappearance of a 50,000 Egyptian Army: Olaf Kaper (Transcript)

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.

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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.

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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.

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