Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
& CULTURAL NEWS©
safari operator is selling tourists the chance to help
discover Emperor Cambyses' 2,500-year-old lost army, but
the pros are unimpressed
BENEATH THE shifting sands of the Sahara is one of the
great mysteries of archaeology. In 523 BC, according to
legend, Persian King of Kings Cambyses II, son of Cyrus
the Great the founder of second Iranian dynasty
Achaemenids and the first Persian Empire, dispatched an
army of 50,000 men to destroy the sacred oracle in Siwa
that had been bad-mouthing him since his conquest of
Egypt two years earlier. The soldiers of Imperial Army
marched into the desert never to be seen again.
According to an account related by the 5th century BC
Greek historian Herodotus, the army left Thebes (Luxor)
and after seven days reached an inhabited oasis,
probably Kharga. The 50,000 soldiers continued with
their guides into the Great Sand Sea towards Siwa, but
met their demise in a massive sandstorm.
"A great and violent south wind arose, which buried
them in the masses of sand which it bore, and so they
disappeared from sight," he recounts.
The fate of Emperor Cambyses' army is one of the great
mysteries of archaeology. Attempts to find traces of it
have ended in failure, and some historians suspect the
tale was a fabrication, or at the very least a gross
Tourism companies, however, see it as a potential cash
"It is a great opportunity," says Hisham
Nessim, manager of Aqua Sun Resort. "We will give
tourists a chance to participate in solving this ancient
mystery and we will sell it as a touristic
Nessim, a former desert rally driver, leads the Egyptian
Exploration Desert Team (EEDT), an exploratory
"archaeological" mission funded entirely by
private tourism firms. The plan, approved by the
Ministry of Tourism, is to comb the Western Desert in
4WD vehicles packed with paying tourists hot on the
trail of Cambyses' army.
Archaeologists have reacted with suspicion and horror.
"It's a very, very bad idea," contends Salima
Ikram, associate professor of Egyptology at the American
University in Cairo.
"The more people go trampling through the desert,
the more they muck up the archaeological evidence."
A foreign archaeologist, preferring not to be named,
railed: "Do you think that if they find anything
they will leave it intact? Of course not. They'll pick
it up, manhandle it and take home a few souvenirs. This
is just the sort of thing we don't need."
Nessim brushes off his critics, who he says are blowing
things out of proportion.
Hundreds of desert safari expeditions take tourists to
the Western Desert each year.
The only difference here is that the safari's route
winds through areas deemed likely to contain remains of
the lost army. Any evidence discovered will be referred
to experts for analysis.
"My license is not to dig, so if I find something I
must report it to the authorities," Nessim says,
indicating that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA)
has no objections to the project. So far, Aqua Sun and
co-sponsor Emeco Travel have organized two expeditions.
Neither trip, each of which went ahead despite
last-minute cancellations, made significant discoveries.
"We still have far to go. This secret has been
hidden for over 2,000 years and we can't expect to find
it in just two trips," says Nessim, who is
reportedly cooperating with US space agency NASA to
prepare a route for a third mission. "There are
some places on the ground that I suspect and they [NASA]
will check with satellites. "Remote sensors will
also scan an area 50 km southwest of Siwa Oasis, where a
Helwan University geological team prospecting for oil in
2000 discovered human bones, arrow-heads, frayed
textiles and daggers in the dunes. The find sent shivers
of excitement through the archaeological community, but
an SCA team dispatched to excavate found nothing at the
GPS coordinates they were given. The sand may have
simply swallowed the evidence.
"The dunes in the Great Sand Sea move about 30-50
cm a year to the south and southeast because of the
prevailing wind," explains geologist and EEDT guide
Bahei El-Asawi. "It's hard to find anything,
because the sand can cover one area and expose
The nature of the desert adds a challenge, says desert
safari specialist Hani Zaki of Emeco Tours, who compares
the search for Cambyses' army to finding a needle in a
"When you're in the Great Sand Sea you can look 360
and all you see is sand. There are no landmarks,
mountains or anything," he says. "You don't
see anybody and there is almost no sign of life, but
there is plenty of natural beauty."
EEDT expeditions run between 10 and 22 days, traversing
parts of the most beautiful and inhospitable desert in
the world. The team's 4WD vehicles are specially
equipped for deep desert exploration, carrying extra
fuel, water, rations, parts and GPS equipment.
"There's always a risk, but it's greater if you're
not following the rules, are not well-equipped or don't
have experience," says Zaki. "Without risk
it's not an adventure. Our role is to avoid major risks
and minimize minor ones."
While Zaki is apologetic that the EEDT team does not
include a professional archaeologist, he strongly
rejects arguments that tourists are being deceived.
Clients do not sign up for an archaeological dig, he
says, they come to explore the desert with veteran
guides "who know the desert like the back of their
hand" and can provide valuable insights into desert
history, geology, flora and fauna. The search for
Cambyses' lost army is "just a theme," he
says, insisting clients are aware that the chance of
actually finding 50,000 desiccated soldiers and the
bleached-white bones of their pack animals is remote.
Instead, they hope to find traces like clay water
vessels, trail markers, discarded weapons and - if lucky
- the remains of a stray soldier.
Rival outfit Zarzora Expeditions is promoting similar
themed trips, with itineraries that trace the steps of
19th Century German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs as well as
Hungarian spy Count Laszlo Almasy (upon whom the 1996
film The English Patient was loosely based). The firm is
also hoping to put together its own quest for Cambyses'
lost Imperial army. "It is an irresistible
marketing tool," says Wael Abed, the company's
: Egypt Today
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies