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Ancient Near East - Cambyses II

Updated: Sep 8, 2021


Cambyses II was born to Cyrus and his wife Cassandane, a sister of the Persian nobleman Otanes. Cambyses II had a younger brother, named Smerdis, whom we'll discuss further as we go on.

As early as 539 B.C., when Cyrus conquered Babylon, Cambyses II held the position as crown prince, and may have been appointed king of Babylon in preparation for his succession to the Persian throne. After the death of his father in 530 B.C., Cambyses II took control of the empire and set his eyes upon the last remaining independent state: Egypt.

The invasion began in 525 B.C., when Pharaoh Ahmose II had just been succeeded by his son, Psammetichus III. On his way to Egypt, Cambyses II marched his army along the Mediterranean coast. While passing through the Sinai Desert, local Arabian chieftains supplied his army with fresh water. Cambyses II also sent a Phoenician fleet with reinforcements along the Mediterranean coast.

Psammetichus III sent his fleet to intercept, but his admiral defected and switched sides before any sea battle could take place. They were, after all, up against the world's largest empire. In a similar way, Polycratos of Samos, who also possessed a large fleet, now preferred to join the Persians who were then followed by the commander of the Greek mercenaries originally hired by Egypt. Thus, Psammetichus III was left without allies.

In May 525 B.C., Cambyses II reached the city of Pelusium where they defeated the Egyptians in battle and marched on to Memphis. The city was taken and Psammetichus III was executed. From Memphis, Cambyses II traveled down the Nile with his army and attempted to take Kush, but his army was not able to cross the desert and after heavy losses, he was forced to return. The logistical difficulties in crossing desert terrain were compounded by the fierce response of the Kushite armies, particularly accurate volleys of archery that not only decimated Persian ranks, but targeted the eyes of individual Persian warriors. Historian Jim Hamm notes:

“So from the battlements as though on the walls of a citadel, the archers

kept up with a continual discharge of well aimed shafts, so dense that the

Persians had the sensation of a cloud descending upon them, especially

when the Ethiopians made their enemies' eyes the target... so unnerving was

their aim that those who they pierced with their shafts rushed about wildly in

the throngs with the arrows projecting from their eyes like double flutes.”

It was at some point during this time that Herodotus claims Cambyses II sent an army to threaten and possibly loot the Oracle of Amun at the Siwa Oasis. The army of 50,000 men was halfway across the desert when a massive sandstorm buried them all. Although many Egyptologists regard the story as fiction, expeditions have searched for the remains for years. As a result of his excavations at the Dakhla Oasis, in 2015 Archaeologist Olaf Kaper argued the lost army was not destroyed by a sandstorm, but rather ambushed and defeated by a rebel Egyptian pharaoh, Petubastis III, who challenged Cambyses II's rule. Petubastis III likely had his residence in the Dakhla Oasis, deep in the Libyan Desert. He was later defeated by Cambyses II's successor, Darius I, who most likely invented the sandstorm story in order to remove the rebellion from Egyptian memory.

While contemporary sources depict Cambyses II as a king who accommodated the cultural and religious practices of the lands he conquered, Herodotus portrays him as a mad king who burned the corpse of Pharaoh Ahmose II and killed a baby Apis calf. Egyptians, especially the priesthood, hated foreign rule and often created negative propaganda in order to villafy those in power. These stories were obviously passed down to Herodotus, who wrote them down.