Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Using DNA to Unravel a 2,500-Year Persian Riddle

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Using DNA to Unravel a 2,500-Year Persian Riddle

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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