The Ancient Egyptian Labyrinth

The Egyptian labyrinth was so named by the Greeks after the legendary complex of meandering halls designed by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete (wherein the Minotaur dwelt). Herodotus wrote of the Labyrinth in the fifth century B.C. (History, 2.148-49):

Furthermore, they resolved to leave a memorial of themselves in common, and in pursuance of this resolve they made a labyrinth, a little above Lake Moeris, and situated near what is called the City of the Crocodiles. I saw it myself and it is indeed a wonder past words; for if one were to collect together all of the buildings of the Greeks and their most striking works of architecture, they would all clearly be shown to have cost less labor and money than this labyrinth. Yet the temple at Ephesus and that in Samos are surely remarkable. The pyramids, too, were greater than words can tell, and each of them is the equivalent of many of the great works of the Greeks; but the labyrinth surpasses the pyramids also. It has 12 roofed courts, with doors facing one another, 6 to the north and 6 to the south and in a continuous line. There are double sets of chambers in it, some underground and some above, and their number is 3,000; there are 1,500 of each. We ourselves saw the aboveground chambers, for we went through them so we can talk of them, but the underground chambers we can speak of only from hearsay. For the officials of the Egyptians entirely refused to show us these, saying that there were, in them, the coffins of the kings who had built the labyrinth at the beginning and also those of the holy crocodiles. So we speak from hearsay of these underground places; but what we saw aboveground was certainly greater than all human works. The passages through the rooms and the winding goings-in and out through the courts, in their extreme complication, caused us countless marvelings as we went through, from the court into the rooms, and from the rooms into the pillared corridors, and then from these corridors into other rooms again, and from the rooms into other courts afterwards. The roof of the whole is stone, as the walls are, and the walls are full of engraved figures, and each court is set round with pillars of white stone, very exactly fitted. At the corner where the labyrinth ends there is, nearby, a pyramid 240 feet high and engraved with great animals. The road to this is made underground.

Such was the labyrinth; but an even greater marvel is what is called Lake Moeris, beside which the labyrinth was built. The circuit of this lake is a distance of about 420 miles, which is equal to the whole seaboard of Egypt. The length of the lake is north and south, and its depth at the deepest is 50 fathoms [300 feet]. That it is handmade and dug, it itself is the best evidence. For in about the middle of the lake stand 2 pyramids that top the water, each one by 50 fathoms [300 feet], and each built as much again underwater; and on top of each there is a huge stone figure of a man sitting on a throne. So these pyramids are 100 fathoms [600 feet] high, and these 100 fathoms are the equivalent of a 600-foot furlong, the fathom measuring 6 feet, or four cubits (the cubit being six spans). The water in the lake is not fed with natural springs, for the country here is terribly waterless, but it enters the lake from the Nile by a channel; and for 6 months it flows into the lake, and then, another 6, it flows again into the Nile. During the 6 months that it flows out, it brings into the royal treasury each day a silver talent for the fish from it; and when the water flows in, it brings 20 minas a day.

Strabo, who visited Egypt in the first century B.C., long after Herodotus, described the labyrinth in a similar fashion though he did not mention the underground chambers (Geography, 17.1.37-38):

Be this as it may, the Lake of Moeris, on account of its size and its depth, is sufficient to bear the flood-tides at the risings of the Nile and not overflow into the inhabited and planted parts, and then, in the retirement of the river, to return the excess water to the river by the same canal at each of its two mouths [a large island dividing the canal; see 17.1.35] and, both itself and the canal, to keep back an amount remaining that will be useful for irrigation. While these conditions are the work of nature, yet locks have been placed at both mouths of the canal, by which the engineers regulate both the inflow and the outflow of the water. In addition to the things mentioned, this Nome has the Labyrinth, which is a work comparable to the pyramids, and, near it, the tomb of the king who built the Labyrinth. Near the first entrance to the canal, and on proceeding thence about 30 or 40 stadia [3.5-4.5 miles], one comes to a flat, trapezium-shaped place, which has a village, and also a great palace composed of many palaces -- as many in number as there were Nomes in earlier times; for this is the number of courts, surrounded by colonnades, continuous with one another, all in a single row and along one wall, the structure being as it were a long wall with the courts in front of it; and the roads leading into them are exactly opposite the wall. In front of the entrances are crypts, as it were, which are long and numerous and have winding passages communicating with one another, so that no stranger can find his way either into any court or out of it without a guide. But the marvelous thing is that the roof of each of the chambers consists of a single stone, and that the breadths of the crypts are likewise roofed with single slabs of surpassing size, with no intermixture anywhere of timber or of any other material. And, on ascending to the roof, which is at no great height, inasmuch as the Labyrinth has only one story, one can see a plain of stone, consisting of stones of that great size; and thence, descending out into the courts again, one can see that they lie in a row and are each supported by 27 monolithic pillars; and their walls, also, are composed of stones that are no smaller in size. At the end of this building, which occupies more than a stadium, is the tomb, a quadrangular pyramid, which has sides about 4 plethra [404 feet] in width and a height equal thereto. Imandes is the name of the man buried there [i.e. Mandes, or Amenemhet III]. It is said that this number of courts was built because it was the custom for all the Nomes to assemble there in accordance with their rank, together with their own priests and priestesses, for the sake of sacrifice and of offering gifts to the gods and of administering justice in matters of the greatest importance. And each of the Nomes was conducted to the court appointed to it.

Sailing along shore for a distance of one hundred stadia [11.5 miles], one comes to the city Arsinoê, which in earlier times was called Crocodeilonpolis; for the people in this Nome hold in very great honor the crocodile, and there is a sacred one there which is kept and fed by itself in a lake, and is tame to the priests...

Diodorus, also in the first century B.C., wrote (Library of History, 1.66):

There being no head of the government in Egypt for two years, and the masses betaking themselves to tumults and the killing of one another, the twelve most important leaders formed a solemn league among themselves, and after they had met together for counsel in Memphis and had drawn up agreements setting forth their mutual goodwill and loyalty they proclaimed themselves kings. After they had reigned in accordance with their oaths and promises and had maintained their mutual concord for a period of fifteen years, they set about to construct a common tomb for themselves, their thought being that, just as in their lifetime they had cherished a cordial regard for one another and enjoyed equal honours, so also after their death their bodies would all rest in one place and the memorial which they had erected would hold in one embrace the glory of those buried within. Being full of zeal for this undertaking they eagerly strove to surpass all preceding rulers in the magnitude of their structure. For selecting a site at the entrance to Lake Moeris in Libya they constructed their tomb of the finest stone, and they made it in form a square but in magnitude a stade in length [607 feet] on each side; and in the carvings and, indeed, in all the workmanship they left nothing wherein succeeding rulers could excel them. For as a man passed through the enclosing wall he found himself in a court surrounded by columns, forty on each side, and the roof of the court consisted of a single stone, which was worked into coffers and adorned with excellent paintings. This court also contained memorials of the native district of each king and of the temples and sacrificial rites therein, artistically portrayed in most beautiful paintings. And in general, the kings are said to have made the plan of their tomb on such an expensive and enormous scale that, had they not died before the execution of their purpose, they would have left no possibility for others to surpass them, so far as the construction of monuments is concerned.

Pliny described the Labyrinth in the first century A.D. (Natural History, 36.19):

We must mention also the labyrinths, quite the most abnormal achievement on which man has spent his resources, but by no means a fictitious one, as might well be supposed. One still exists in Egypt, in the nome of Heracleopolis. This, the first ever to be constructed, was built, according to tradition, 3,600 years ago by King Petesuchis or King Tithoes, although Herodotus attributes the whole work to the ' twelve kings,' the last of whom was Psammetichus. Various reasons are suggested for its construction. Demoteles supposes it to have been the palace of Moteris, and Lyceas the tomb of Moeris, while many writers state that it was erected as a temple to the Sun-god, and this is the general belief. Whatever the truth may be, there is no doubt that Daedalus adopted it as the model for the labyrinth built by him in Crete, but that he reproduced only a hundredth part of it containing passages that wind, advance and retreat in a bewilderingly intricate manner. It is not just a narrow strip of ground comprising many miles of 'walks' or 'rides,' such as we see exemplified in our tessellated floors or in the ceremonial game played by our boys in the Campus Martius, but doors are let into the walls at frequent intervals to suggest deceptively the way ahead and to force the visitor to go back upon the very same tracks that he has already followed in his wanderings. This Cretan labyrinth was the next in succession after the Egyptian, and there was a third in Lemnos and a fourth in Italy, all alike being roofed with vaults of carefully worked stone. There is a feature of the Egyptian labyrinth which I for my part find surprising, namely an entrance and columns made of Parian marble [white limestone]. The rest of the structure is of Aswan granite, the great blocks of which have been laid in such a way that even the lapse of centuries cannot destroy them. Their preservation has been aided by the people of Heracleopolis, who have shown remarkable respect for an achievement that they detest.

The ground-plan and the individual parts of this building cannot be fully described because it is divided among the regions or administrative districts known as nomes, of which there are 21, each having a vast hall allotted to it by name. Besides these halls, it contains temples of all the Egyptian gods; and, furthermore, Nemesis [possibly the Greek equivalent of Nymaatre, or Amenemhet III] placed within the 40 shrines several pyramids, each with a height of 40 cubits and an area at the base of 4 acres. It is when he is already exhausted with walking that the visitor reaches the bewildering maze of passages. Moreover, there are rooms in lofty upper storeys reached by inclines, and porches from which flights of 90 stairs lead down to the ground. Inside are columns of imperial porphyry, images of gods, statues of kings and figures of monsters. Some of the halls are laid out in such a way that when the doors open there is a terrifying rumble of thunder within: incidentally, most of the building has to be traversed in darkness. Again, there are other massive structures outside the wall of the labyrinth: the Greek term for these is 'pteron,' or a 'wing.' Then there are other halls that have been made by digging galleries underground. The few repairs that have been made there were carried out by one man alone, Chaeremon, the eunuch of King Necthebis [Nectanebo II], 500 years before the time of Alexander the Great. There is a further tradition that he used beams of acacia boiled in oil to serve as supports while square blocks of stone were being lifted into the vaults.

There are a few other ancient accounts of the Labyrinth, but of the several authors, it is likely that only Herodotus and Strabo personally visited the site.

Reputed site of the Labyrinth at Hawara.
Photo © copyright Inge Uytterhoeven, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Most Egyptologists are comfortable in equating the labyrinth with the mortuary temple of Amenemhet III at Hawara near Fayyum. There are several reasons for this. Medinet el-Fayyum was also known as Crocodilopolis. The nearby lake is called Lake Moeris (which was named, according to Edwards, not after the pre-nomen of Amenemhet III but after either a town on the lake called Miwer or the canal with the same name that fed the lake, which existed long before his reign). But there are some problems with this site being identified with the labyrinth. What of the two stone figures rising from the lake? Gardiner speculated that they are "the two colossal statues of Ammenemes III which Petrie found looking out over the lake at Biyahmu" some seven miles south of the lake shore and eight miles north of the funerary temple! Of course, there is no pyramid beneath them.

And what of the structure of the Labyrinth itself at Hawara? There is nothing left. W.M. Flinders Petrie wrote (Ten Years Digging in Egypt, pp. 91-92):

Though the pyramid was the main object at Hawara, it was but a lesser part of my work there. On the south of the pyramid lay a wide mass of chips and fragments of building, which had long generally been identified with the celebrated labyrinth. Doubts, however, existed, mainly owing to Lepsius having considered the brick buildings on the site to have been part of the labyrinth. When I began to excavate the result was soon plain, that the brick chambers were built on the top of the ruins of a great stone structure; and hence they were only the houses of a village, as they had at first appeared to me to be. But beneath them, and far away over a vast area, the layers of stone chips were found; and so great was the mass that it was difficult to persuade visitors that the stratum was artificial, and not a natural formation. Beneath all these fragments was a uniform smooth bed of beton or plaster, on which the pavement of the building had been laid: while on the south side, where the canal had cut across the site, it could be seen how the chip stratum, about six feet thick, suddenly ceased, at what had been the limits of the building. No trace of architectural arrangement could be found, to help in identifying this great structure with the labyrinth: but the mere extent of it proved that it was far larger than any temple known in Egypt. All the temples of Karnak, of Luxor, and a few on the western side of Thebes, might be placed together within the vast space of these buildings at Hawara. We know from Pliny and others, how for centuries the labyrinth had been a great quarry for the whole district; and its destruction occupied such a body of masons, that a small town existed there. All this information, and the recorded position of it, agrees so closely with what we can trace, that no doubt can now remain regarding the position of one of the wonders of Egypt.

"Restored plan of western
half of Labyrinth" by Petrie.

The Labyrinth, Gerzeh, and Mazhuneh, 1912, p. 29

Ahmed Fakhry commented on the vast size of the labyrinth: "This immense building must have been about 300 meters [984 feet] long and 244 meters [800 feet] wide, large enough to hold the great temples of Karnak and Luxor." Fakhry speculated that only a part of the labyrinth consisted of Amenemhet III's mortuary temple. "It has been used extensively as a quarry since Roman times," he wrote, "and today not a single wall remains standing... When seen by Herodotus the Labyrinth was still in all its glory, though no doubt it had been restored and enlarged by the Saite kings." (The Pyramids, page 222) Fakhry's latter comment was in contradiction to Petrie, who wrote, "There is very little trace of any restoration or addition to the Labyrinth after the time of Amenemhat III." (The Labyrinth, Gerzeh, and Mazhuneh, 1912, p. 30)

That the whole of the structure of the Labyrinth had been carried away is certainly possible, but it would have been a Herculean feat considering its size and the mass of the stones used to build it. If this was indeed the labyrinth described in antiquity, no act of pillaging could match the total annihilation that occurred there. A few traces of walls were found, one bisecting its width and another at the south end. Only the foundations of these walls remained. Other bits of walls and door jambs were found, along with parts of columns, two granite shrines, and fragments of statues (of Hathor and Sobek, and the local god Roheshotep). Petrie's plan of the site was uncharacteristically unscientific. His drawing (see above; 3D reconstruction below) is based on his imagination and on the works of Diodorus, Pliny, and Strabo, and not on any extant archaeological evidence. "From such very scanty remains," Petrie wrote, "it is hard to settle anything." (The Labyrinth, Gerzeh, and Mazhuneh, p. 29) Of his reconstruction, he wrote that it "seems in its general form the most consistent with the area, with the character of Egyptian plans, and with the descriptions left to us." (p. 30)

Reconstruction of the Hawara Labyrinth based on Petrie's drawing.
© Copyright 2000 University College London

In his article, "The Labyrinth Enigma: Archaeological suggestions" (Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 54:1968, pp. 219-222), Kazimierz Michalowski questioned the conventional conclusions. Of Petrie's Harawa find, he rejected that it may have been the mortuary temple of Amenemhet III (based on its dimensions and layout), nor did he consider it a royal palace (based on its location and stone construction). Michalowski suggested the possibility that the structure might have been "a monumental administrative centre, a complex of offices erected by Ammenemes III, the construction of which was, perhaps, begun by his predecessors, who had established their Residence and centre of administration in the Faiyûm, the economic base of the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty." (p. 220) But, he notes, again "there is no archaeological evidence to support the argument, and it is such evidence alone which could supply the final solution." Michalowski adds:

However, the purpose of the edifice called the Labyrinth is not the only problem connected with it which remains hypothetical. It is also difficult to imagine that a building erected during the Twelfth Dynasty could have survived to Strabo's times in an undamaged condition without receiving maintenance work effected by the Pharaohs on so large a scale on old buildings. We have, however, no detailed data on this subject. [p. 221]

In conclusion, Michalowski wrote:

Therefore, in order to finally solve the problem of the Labyrinth, which according to Montet has yet to be discovered [Dict. géogr. II, 210-11], and the remains of which may still be hidden in kôms scattered along the Faiyûm corridor, additional methodical excavations, based on all known archaeological and historical data, should be carried out in the Hawâra area. [p. 222]

Alan B. Lloyd rejected the idea that the Labyrinth could have been an administrative center ("The Egyptian Labyrinth," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 56:1970, pp. 81-100). He noted that stone was used to construct only two types of buildings in ancient Egypt: mortuary installations and temples. Palaces and administrative buildings were built of mud brick. Lloyd added that "the Labyrinth was certainly not intended by its builder as a tomb; for the monarchs of the Twelfth Dynasty as well as some of the rulers of the Thirteenth Dynasty built pyramid tombs. Ammenemes III was no exception, as Strabo knew full well." (p. 94) The Labyrinth, then, could only have been a temple. There were two types of temple, the mortuary temple (for use in the context of the funerary cult) and the divine temple (built in honor of gods to serve as their mansion). Lloyd concluded that the Labyrinth was a combination of the two types. "From this discussion it emerges that the Labyrinth was a composite structure designed to serve the cults of gods as well as that of the dead king." (p. 96)

The notorious Erich von Däniken believes that the Labyrinth is yet to be discovered and is "waiting for a modern-day Heinrich Schliemann." On this, for once, he may be right. He further posits that it is "located seven days' journey up the Nile, on the Libyan side, a little above the city of Memphis, at the entrance of the canal into Lake Moeris. The lake extended in a north-south direction and was situated in the Arsinoe region. Also, the canal feeding the lake was connected to the Nile and was regulated by locks and dams." (The Eyes of the Sphinx, 1996, page 111) The lake and canal have long been dry, von Däniken is certain, though traces of these should be evident from the air.

The case of Amenemhet III's funerary temple being the labyrinth is circumstantial at best. There is no trace of the funerary temple's plan, only its perimeter. It is not located at the corner of a pyramid, nor does it have underground chambers. The only evidence in its favor seems to be its questionable proximity, about 15 miles, to a lake called Moeris (the neighboring Crocodilopolis is not compelling as several other towns bore the same name). For the lake shore to reach the temple, Medinet el Fayyum would necessarily be submerged. It may well be that the labyrinth described by Herodotus and other ancient writers has not been discovered, and lies yet hidden somewhere beneath the desert sands.

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