The longstanding mystery surrounding the Lost Army of Cambyses -- 50,000 Persian soldiers swallowed up in a hurricane-force sandstorm in 525 BC -- had finally been solved.
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A stunning archaeological find surfaced two weeks ago amid world-wide media coverage: "Vanished Persian Army Said Found in Desert." The longstanding mystery surrounding the Lost Army of Cambyses--50,000 Persian soldiers swallowed up in a hurricane-force sandstorm in 525 BC--had finally been solved.

As one of the world's leading experts on this obscure subject, I read these news accounts with keen interest. I am the only person who has ever mounted a full-scale archaeological expedition in search of this ancient army. My six-month, $250,000 expedition--sponsored by Harvard University and the National Geographic Society--unfortunately failed to find any trace of the Lost Army.

I quickly devoured every news account I could find: "Two top Italian archaeologists" had discovered "bronze weapons, a silver bracelet, an earring and hundreds of human bones" in Egypt's Western Desert. The archaeologists-- twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni--had also discovered "hundreds of water pots buried in the sand," which would "have made a march in the desert possible." This pottery had been dated to "2,500 years ago, which is in line with Cambyses' time."[1]

I was particularly puzzled, however, by the photographs and video that the Castiglioni brothers had produced of hundreds of "sun bleached" skulls and human bones heaped in the desert.

Over the years, the Lost Army's "discovery" has almost become a regular event. For example, on February 17, 1977, the Associated Press reported:

CAIRO--The remains of an invading Persian army that vanished in a sandstorm 2,500 years ago have been uncovered in the Egyptian Western Desert. An Egyptian archaeological mission discovered thousands of bones, swords, and spears of Persian manufacture of the vanished army of King a region...known as the 'Great Sea of Sand.' Archaeologists are calling it one of the greatest finds of the century...

This story proved to be a hoax.[2]

Nine years ago, there was another news account that the Lost Army had been "found:"

In the summer of 2000, a Helwan University geological team, prospecting for petroleum in Egypt's Western Desert, came across well-preserved fragments of textiles, bits of metal resembling weapons, and human remains that they believed to be traces of the Lost Army of Cambyses. The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities announced that it would organize an expedition to investigate the site.[3]

This turned out to be another false report.

Were the claims of the Castiglioni brothers just another, more-elaborate hoax?

The Persian king Cambyses had conquered Egypt in 525 BC. According to Herodotus, when Cambyses reached Thebes, he sent 50,000 soldiers across Egypt's Western Desert to destroy Amon Oasis (now called Siwa), which was one of the seven great oracles of ancient times.[4] His vast army only reached Kharga Oasis, and somewhere after that, his soldiers were annihilated by a cataclysmic sandstorm and never heard from again.

I am intimately familiar with Egypt's Western Desert. In preparation for my own expedition, I made three visits to the remote survey area I had selected. It was located 350 miles from Cairo, 70 miles south of Siwa Oasis, and only a few miles from the Libyan-Egyptian border. There, in the Complex Dunes of the Great Sand Sea, I hoped to find the remains of the Lost Army.[5]

My first reconnaissance took place in the searing heat of late June 1982, during which my driver and I became lost in a sandstorm and almost perished. The second occurred in December 1982, during which I brought along a financial sponsor, Italian billionaire Giancarlo Ligabue, and Piero Angela, the host of "Quark," Italy's most popular TV science show. The third was in April 1983, in which I made two intriguing discoveries: a) hundreds of cairns, built to mark a path across the otherwise monotonous desert; and b) a rusty jerry can left behind by a surveying expedition in 1939 led by HansJoachim von der Esch and Count Ladislas E. Almasy, during which they believed they had found traces of the Lost Army.[6] (Almasy would later be immortalized in Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.)

Several months later, in September 1983, my full-scale archeological search began. My expedition included 20 Egyptian geologists and field workers, five jeeps, two trucks, two Harvard filmmakers, a National Geographic photographer, three camels, an ultra-light airplane, and ground-penetrating radar. For six months, I crisscrossed on foot and in my tiny airplane a 100-square-mile area of the Complex Dunes, impenetrable by a four-wheel-drive jeep. During sandstorms, we sought refuge in our canvas tents.

(When I returned to Cairo in February 1984, I was promptly arrested by Egyptian military intelligence and interrogated for 24 hours. I was charged with "smuggling an airplane into Egypt," even though I'd had written permission from the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority to bring the ultra-light into the country. I soon learned that the real problem was that I had inadvertently violated Libyan airspace and landed in Libya many times. My team and I had also taken thousands of photographs and about 20 hours of film--some of it from the air. I was released after promising to "donate" the ultra-light to the Egyptian Government. The plane now sits in the Cairo War Museum with a placard that erroneously reads: "Captured from an Israeli Spy.")[7]

(I'm currently completing work on a novel, The Lost Army, based on this expedition.)

I well know what wind-swept sand can do in Egypt's Western Desert. I saw it strip the lettering off the sides of my jeeps in less than an hour. Yet somehow, after 2,500 years of desert sandblasting, the pile of human bones photographed by the Castiglioni brothers were in lovely and pristine if plaster casts had been carefully arranged in a haphazard heap.

I soon learned some additional--and troubling--information about the Castiglioni brothers. In the 1970s, they had produced five "shockumentaries:" which audiences saw unedited footage of the severing of a penis, the skinning of a human corpse, the deflowering of a girl with a stone phallus, and a group of hunters tearing apart an elephant's carcass.[8]

Finally, last week, my suspicions were confirmed when Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), issued the following statement:

I need to inform the public that recent reports published in newspapers, news agencies and TV news announcing that "twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni have unearthed remains of the Persian army of Cambyses," are unfounded and misleading...The Castiglioni brothers have not been granted permission by the SCA to excavate in Egypt, so anything they claim to find is not to be believed.[9]

Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that for the moment, the Lost Army of Cambyses is still waiting to be "rediscovered."

Gary S. Chafetz is the author of The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, published last fall; and Obsession: The Bizarre Relationship Between a Prominent Harvard Psychiatrist and her Suicidal Patient.

[2] I later learned that the perpetrator of this hoax was a high official in the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority, who was instrumental in assisting my expedition. I asked him how this could have happened. He told me he had merely been "joking" when speaking to the AP reporter.

[4] Amon was considered so important that Alexander the Great visited it 200 years later--at great personal risk--to inquire about his father's murder.

[5] The longitude and latitude was approximately 20 degrees 26 minutes North, 26 degrees 18 minutes East.

[6] The account of the von der Esch and Almasy expedition can be found in Weenak--die Karawane Ruft, published in Leipzig, Germany in 1941. To the best of my knowledge, Harvard's Widener Library (which houses this book in the New England Depository Library) is in possession of the only copy in the United States. The copy listed in the Library of Congress is missing.

[7] In 1995, film director Martin Scorsese optioned the dramatic rights to the documentary of my expedition, along with my life-story rights. In 1999, that option expired, unexercised.

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