Cambyses II was the son of Cyrus the Great (r. 559–530 B.C.E.), and an emperor of the first Persian Empire hailing from the Achaemenid dynasty. Cambyses’s grandfather was Cambyses I, king of Anshan. Following Cyrus the Great’s conquest of the Near East and Central Asia, Cambyses II further expanded the empire into Egypt during the Late Period by defeating the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik III during the battle of Pelusium in 525 B.C.E. After the Egyptian campaign and the truce with Libya, Cambyses invaded the Kingdom of Kush (located in what is now the Republic of Sudan) without any breakthrough successes.
Rise to power
When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., Cambyses was employed in leading religious ceremonies. In the cylinder which contains Cyrus’ proclamation to the Babylonians, Cambyses’ name is joined to his father’s in the prayers to Marduk. On a tablet dated from the first year of Cyrus, Cambyses is called king of Babylon, although his authority seems to have been ephemeral. Only in 530 B.C.E., when Cyrus set out on his last expedition into the East, did Cyrus associate Cambyses with the throne. Numerous Babylonian tablets of the time date from the accession and the first year of Cambyses, when Cyrus was “king of the countries” (i.e., of the world).
After the death of his father in August 530, Cambyses became sole king. The tablets dating from his reign in Babylonia run to the end of his eighth year, in March 522 B.C.E. Herodotus (3.66), who dates his reign from the death of Cyrus, gives him seven years five months, from 530 B.C.E. to the summer of 523.
The traditions of Cambyses
The traditions about Cambyses, preserved by the Greek authors, come from two different sources. The first, which forms the main part of the account of Herodotus (3. 2–4; 10–37), is of Egyptian origin. Here Cambyses is made the legitimate son of Cyrus and a daughter of Apries named Nitetis (Herod. 3.2, Dinon fr. II, Polyaen. viii. 29), whose death he avenges on the successor of the usurper Amasis. Nevertheless, (Herod. 3.1 and Ctesias a/i. Athen. Xiii. 560), the Persians corrected this tradition:
Cambyses wants to marry a daughter of Amasis, who sends him a daughter of Apries instead of his own daughter, and by her Cambyses is induced to begin the war. His great crime is the killing of the Apis bull, for which he is punished by madness, in which he commits many other crimes, kills his brother and his sister, and at last loses his empire and dies from a wound in the thigh, at the same place where he had wounded the sacred animal. Intermingled are some stories derived from the Greek mercenaries, especially about their leader Phanes of Halicarnassus, who betrayed Egypt to the Persians. In the Persian tradition the crime of Cambyses is the murder of his brother; he is further accused of drunkenness, in which he commits many crimes, and thus accelerates his ruin.
These traditions are found in different passages of Herodotus, and in a later form, but with some trustworthy detail about his household, in the fragments of Ctesias. With the exception of Babylonian dated tablets and some Egyptian inscriptions, we possess no contemporary evidence about the reign of Cambyses but the short account of Darius in the Behistun Inscription. It is difficult to form a correct picture of Cambyses’ character from these inscriptions.
Conquest of Egypt
It was quite natural that, after Cyrus had conquered the Middle East, Cambyses should undertake the conquest of Egypt, the only remaining independent state in that part of the world. The war took place in 525 B.C.E., when Amasis II had just been succeeded by his son Psamtik III. Cambyses had prepared for the march through the desert by an alliance with Arabian chieftains, who brought a large supply of water to the stations. King Amasis had hoped that Egypt would be able to withstand the threatened Persian attack by an alliance with the Greeks.
But this hope failed, as the Cypriot towns and the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, who possessed a large fleet, now preferred to join the Persians, and the commander of the Greek troops, Phanes of Halicarnassus, went over to them. In the decisive battle at Pelusium the Egyptian army was defeated, and shortly afterwards Memphis was taken. The captive king Psammetichus was executed, having attempted a rebellion. The Egyptian inscriptions show that Cambyses officially adopted the titles and the costume of the Pharaohs.
Attempts to conquer south and west of Egypt
From Egypt, Cambyses attempted the conquest of Kush, located in the modern Sudan. But his army was not able to cross the deserts and after heavy losses he was forced to return. In an inscription from Napata (in the Berlin museum) the Nubian king Nastasen relates that he had defeated the troops of “Kambasuten” and taken all his ships. This was once thought to refer to Cambyses II (H. Schafer, Die Aethiopische Königsinschrift des Berliner Museums, 1901); however, Nastasen lived far later and was likely referring to Khabash. Another expedition against the Siwa Oasis failed likewise, and the plan of attacking Carthage was frustrated by the refusal of the Phoenicians to operate against their kindred.
The death of Cambyses
According to most ancient historians, in Persia the throne was seized by a man posing as his brother Bardiya, most likely a magus, or a Zoroastrian priest named, Gaumata. Some modern historians consider that this person really was Bardiya, the story that he was an impostor was created by Darius I after he became monarch.
Whoever this new monarch may have been, Cambyses attempted to march against him, but died shortly after under disputed circumstances. According to Darius, who was Cambyses’ lance-bearer at the time, he decided that success was impossible, and died by his own hand in March 522 B.C.E. Herodotus and Ctesias ascribe his death to an accident. Ctesias writes that Cambyses, despondent from the loss of family members, stabbed himself in the thigh while working with a piece of wood. He died eleven days later from the wound. Herodotus’ story is that while mounting his horse, the tip of Cambyses’ scabbard broke and his sword pierced his thigh – Herodotus mentions it is the same place where he stabbed a sacred cow in Egypt. He then died of gangrene of the bone and mortification of the wound. Some modern historians suspect that Cambyses may have been assassinated, either by Darius as the first step to usurping the empire for himself, or by supporters of Bardiya. According to Herodotus (3.64) he died in Ecbatana, i.e. Hamath; Josephus (Antiquites xi. 2. 2) names Damascus; Ctesias, Babylon, which is absolutely impossible.
The location of Cambyses tomb is uncertain and has been debated for a long time. Some think that he was buried in Pasargadae, and identify the tower known as “Zendan-e Sulaiman” as his tomb. Moreover, the unfinished stone platform known as Takht-e Rustam near Naqsh-e Rustam has long been seen by archaeologists as a possible location for Cambyses’ tomb, based on the similarity of its design and dimensions with those of the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae. However, among the Persepolis Fortification Tablets there is one in Elamite that refers to the “šumar of Cambyses and Lady Upanduš in Narezzaš”. (NN 2174) Henkelman has argued that šumar should be translated as a tomb . Since Narezzaš is typically identified with the modern area of Neyriz in Fars province, Henkelman argues that Cambyses’ tomb must have been located in that area. The Lady Upanduš of the text is not known from any other source, but may have been Cambyses’ queen.
The lost army of Cambyses
According to Herodotus 3.26, Cambyses sent an army to threaten the Oracle of Amun at the Siwa Oasis. The army of 50,000 men was halfway across the desert when a massive sandstorm sprang up, burying them all. Although many Egyptologists regard the story as a myth, people have searched for the remains of the soldiers for many years. These have included Count László Almásy (on whom the novel The English Patient was based) and modern geologist Tom Brown. Some believe that in recent petroleum excavations, the remains may have been uncovered.
In January 1933, Orde Wingate searched unsuccessfully for the Lost Army of Cambyses in the Egypt’s Western Desert, then known as the Libyan Desert.
In February 1977 there were reports that archaeologists had found remains of Cambyses’ army, but this story proved to be a hoax.
From September 1983 to February 1984, Gary S. Chafetz, an American journalist and author, led an expedition—sponsored by Harvard University, The National Geographic Society, the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority, and the Ligabue Research Institute—that searched for the Lost Army of Cambyses. The six-month search was conducted along the Egyptian-Libyan border in a remote 100-square-kilometer area of complex dunes south west of the uninhabited Bahrein Oasis, approximately 100 miles south east of Siwa (Amon) Oasis. The $250,000 expedition had at its disposal 20 Egyptian geologists and laborers, a National Geographic photographer, two Harvard Film Studies documentary filmmakers, three camels, an ultra-light aircraft, and ground-penetrating radar. The expedition discovered approximately 500 tumuli (Zoroastrian-style graves) but no artifacts. Several tumuli contained bone fragments. Thermoluminence later dated these fragments to 1,500 B.C.E., approximately 1000 years earlier than the Lost Army. A recumbent winged sphinx carved in oolitic limestone was also discovered in a cave in the uninhabited Sitra Oasis (between Bahrein and Siwa Oases), whose provenance appeared to be Persian. Chafetz was arrested when he returned to Cairo in February 1984 for “smuggling an airplane into Egypt,” even though he had the written permission of the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority to bring the aircraft into the country. He was interrogated for 24 hours. The charges were dropped after he promised to donate the ultra-light to the Egyptian Government. The aircraft now sits in the Egyptian War Museum in Cairo.
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, but released no further information.
In November 2009, two Italian archaeologists, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, announced the discovery of human remains, tools and weapons which date to the era of the Persian army. These artifacts were located near Siwa Oasis. According to these two archaeologists this is the first archaeological evidence of the story reported by Herodotus. While working in the area, the researchers noticed a half-buried pot and some human remains. Then the brothers spotted something really intriguing—what could have been a natural shelter. It was a rock about 35 meters (114.8 feet) long, 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in height and 3 meters (9.8 feet) deep. Such natural formations occur in the desert, but this large rock was the only one in a large area.
However, these “two Italian archaelogists” presented their discoveries in a film rather than a scientific journal. Doubts have been raised because the Castiglioni brothers also happen to be the two filmmakers who produced five controversial African shockumentaries in the 1970s—including Addio ultimo uomo, Africa ama, and Africa dolce e selvaggia—films in 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.
The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, has said in a press release that media reports of this “are unfounded and misleading” and that “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.”
Cambyses II has appeared as a character in several works of fiction. Thomas Preston’s play King Cambyses, a lamentable Tragedy, mixed full of pleasant mirth was probably produced in the 1560s. A tragedy by Elkanah Settle, Cambyses, King of Persia, was produced in 1667. Cambyses and his downfall are also central to Egyptologist Georg Ebers’s 1864 novel, Eine ägyptische Königstochter (An Egyptian Princess). Qambeez is 1931 play about him by Ahmed Shawqi is about him. In 1929, Robert E. Howard (under the pseudonym “Patrick Howard”) published a poem, “Skulls and Dust”, about Cambyses’ death.
Cambyses’ lost army also appears in Biggles Flies South (1938), and a 2002 novel by Paul Sussman, The Lost Army of Cambyses recounts the story of rival archaeological expeditions searching for the remains of his army.