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Using DNA to unravel a 2,500-year Persian riddle

A shiver of excitement rippled through the team of Egyptian oil prospectors when they chanced upon human bones, daggers, and arrowheads scattered across the shifting sand dunes. But it was nothing compared with what Egyptologists felt when they learned of the discovery.

What set hearts thumping was not so much the relics of ancient warfare, which are common in Egypt. It was their location not far from the Siwa oasis near the Libyan border that raised hopes of unravelling an ancient mystery that has baffled scholars.

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It was in this area that a powerful Persian army of 50,000 men was said to have vanished without a trace in 523 BC. The desert strike force was dispatched by the "mad" Persian King Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus the Great, to sack a sacred oracle in Siwa that had prophesied his downfall. His men were engulfed by a cataclysmic sandstorm in the vast desert before reaching their destination, according to Herodotus, the celebrated 5th-century BC Greek historian who portrayed Cambyses as mad, bad, and dangerous.

Several attempts in the past century to find any evidence of the hapless warriors ended in failure, and some historians suspected Herodotus fabricated the tale.

Now, four years after the finds, a new quest into the inhospitable western desert could finally solve the ancient riddle.

An Egyptian expedition including archaeologists, geophysicists, and other scientists is to survey the area this month using satellite technology while the bones will be sampled for DNA testing.

The mission will be led by Dr. Mohamed el-Saghir of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, who believes the long-lost warriors may lie beneath the Saharan sands. "I think we will find Cambyses' army," he says.

After sacking the Temple of Amon in Siwa, later made famous by a visit of Alexander the Great in 332 BC and which still exists on a hilltop there today, Cambyses' men were to have attacked the Libyans and reduced them to slavery, according to Herodotus.

However, nature sealed the fate of the invaders when they were midway through their journey, wrote Herodotus, who heard accounts from the inhabitants of Siwa.

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It was one of three military campaigns planned by Cambyses to conquer the rest of Africa after he invaded Egypt in 525 BC, putting an end to the 26th Dynasty of the Pharaohs and beginning a period of Persian rule that covered much of the next two centuries.

Cambyses later personally led a force up the Nile to conquer Ethiopia, but after annexing the north of the country, he ran short of supplies and had to return, according to Herodotus, who portrayed it as another rash and ill-planned adventure.

"All this about Cambyses being mad comes from a Greek, and the Greeks and the Persians didn't exactly get on well together," says Dr Gaballah Ali Gaballah, the secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Herodotus, who was in Egypt at about 450 to 460 BC, also got much of his information from Egyptians during a time of major rebellion against Persian rule, when they were unlikely to cast Cambyses in a flattering light.

Whether Cambyses' lost desert army will now be unearthed to cast new light on warfare 2,500 years ago is the subject of divided opinion among senior Egyptologists. Dr. Saghir, who will lead the expedition, is confident of success. His colleague at Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Gaballah, is phlegmatic, however.

"Classical writers said his army had been drowned in a sandstorm, but there is no other source for this information. It could have happened. But where? The western desert is a huge area," Gaballah says. "Everyone has his dreams, but we deal in facts, and we don't want to raise hopes. The site will be surveyed, and even if they don't find anything, a negative result is still a result."

The mystery of the lost Persian army may yet linger on.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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