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Riddle of the Sands

I couldn’t help it. I whooped uncontrollably into my Jordans Country Crisp with strawberries when I heard the news last week, startling my wife and spilling milk and crispy clusters onto a bemused but grateful dog. An Italian team of archaeologists had made what looked like a hugely important discovery in Egypt’s Western Desert, apparently unearthing remains of the lost army of Cambyses which, according to Herodotus, was swallowed up by a ferocious sandstorm 2,500 years ago. Had they laid to rest one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries?

Alfredo Castiglioni, director of the Eastern Desert Research Centre in Varese, who led the expedition with his twin brother Angelo, certainly thinks so. The team discovered a bronze dagger, a clutch of arrowheads, a silver bracelet and earring, and fragments of a necklace. ‘These objects certainly date to the Achaemenid period and so far these are the only Persian objects found in the western Egyptian desert on the border with Libya where Cambyses is said to have sent 50,000 men to conquer Siwa,’ Alfredo told Discovery News. Nearby they also found hundreds of sun-bleached bones, together with a horse bit and more blades and arrowheads — tantalising evidence of the lost army sent by the Persian Great King to sack the Oracle of Ammon in what is now the Egyptian oasis of Siwa in 525 bc.

The reason for my cereal-spluttering glee was simple. If true — and the internet is abuzz with conflicting claims, some of which cast doubt on the findings and the professional standing of the Castiglioni brothers — the discovery was another feather in the cap for Herodotus, the fifth-century bc historian rightly acknowledged by Cicero as the Father of History. In the first century ad a mean-spirited Plutarch derided him as the ‘Father of Lies’, since when history has been rather unkind to the man who invented it. Since I have spent much of the past five years travelling in his footsteps and slipstream, the Castiglioni brothers’ findings were welcome news.

All we know about the lost army of Cambyses comes from Herodotus’ Histories. The Persian force began its fateful march across the burning desert from Thebes (Luxor) on the Nile, he tells us, and got as far as the oasis of Kharga. After that, nothing more was ever heard of it. Herodotus goes on:

So much for the most catastrophic lunch in the annals of desert picnicking. The lines have prompted generations of archaeologists and Egyptologists, not to mention the television producers who prod me from time to time to have a look in the sands, to hunt for the lost army. One of the most enigmatic among them was the Hungarian aristocrat Count László de Almásy, aviator, explorer, soldier and sometime spy, inspiration for the Herodotus-loving protagonist of Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, played by a brooding Ralph Fiennes in the eponymous film.

The controversial discoveries in the Western Desert are only the latest suggestion that Herodotus is more reliable as an historian than has generally been recognised. In 2007, a series of studies by geneticists, which looked at mitochondrial DNA from Tuscan residents and cattle, lent weight to Herodotus’ controversial claim that the ancient Etruscans originally hailed from Lydia (in today’s Turkish region of Anatolia) and later migrated to Italy, a suggestion that has often caused offence to Italians and a good deal of scoffing in Chiantishire.

Tall stories abound in the Histories, though on further examination some of the most notorious are a good deal less fanciful. Take the ‘snakes with wings’ Herodotus writes about. Today these are thought to refer either to locusts or, simpler still, the pictures of snakes with wings our itinerant historian would have encountered on Egyptian monuments. As for the fabulous ‘gold-digging ants’ in the easternmost provinces of the Persian empire, the French anthropologist Michel Peissel believes these are Himalayan marmots, a species that inhabits the Deosai plateau of Pakistani Kashmir and from whose burrows local tribes gather excavated gold dust.

What today’s historians often forget when they assess Herodotus is that he was operating in a largely oral culture in which he had to solicit information from people rather than books. Mistakes were inevitable. He couldn’t have been an armchair historian because there were no earlier works to consult. He was the first. Also, he knew a lot of the information he gleaned was hearsay, rumour and legend, some of it complete nonsense. He was quite clear about this. ‘I am obliged to record the things I am told, but I am certainly not required to believe them,’ he writes, playing a memorable get-out-of-jail-free card. ‘This remark may be taken to apply to the whole of my account.’ When you’re giving live performances of your oeuvre to austere audiences you need to give them something to keep them on the edge of their marble seats, whether it is life-saving dolphins, multiple testicle-slicers, otherworldly animals, women having sex with goats or beard-growing priestesses.

Ultimately, however, the strongest defence for Herodotus as the Father of History is made by today’s historians, whether they realise it or not. Survey the field of history across the 2,500 years since Herodotus lived and at almost any point during that time, the answer to the age-old question, and title of E.H. Carr’s classic monograph, What Is History?, was straightforward. History was the exclusive pageant of kings, battles, empires, statesmen and laws, what we call political and constitutional history. The rest of the human race, the seething mass of men and women who weren’t monarchs, statesmen or generals, simply weren’t invited. In a word, it was Thucydidean.

It was this uniquely political model, emphatically not that of Herodotus, which historians followed right into the 20th century. Only with the birth of social history did the freewheeling spirit of Herodotean inquiry return. History, ever since, has rolled back the barriers. The historian’s proper field of inquiry has expanded dizzyingly across miles and miles of uncharted terrain. It is perhaps the greatest posthumous tribute to Herodotus.

There is economic history, women’s history, demographic history, intellectual history, feminist history, gender history (herstory?), sexual history, black history, oral history, cultural history, psychohistory, history of history, and so it goes on. A good deal of this may be pseudo-academic rubbish, of course, and some of it is unquestionably boring, but the point is that the very best historians today write across a wide range of subjects with verve and to popular acclaim, prizing the art of storytelling which was one of Herodotus’ greatest gifts.

The final word should be left to Professor Paul Cartledge, Herodotus guru and A.G. Leventis, Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University. ‘Herodotus the Father of Lies?’ he says. ‘Surely not. Dead men like those 6th-century Persians mouldering in the Egyptian desert tell no false tales.’ Like it or not, and even allowing for some Castiglioni legerdemain, we are all Herodoteans now.