The Lost Labyrinth of Ancient Egypt – Part 1
This I have actually seen, a work beyond words. For if anyone put together the buildings of the Greeks and display of their labours, they would seem lesser in both effort and expense to this labyrinth… Even the pyramids are beyond words, and each was equal to many and mighty works of the Greeks. Yet the labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids.
These are the words of ancient Greek historian Herodotus written in the 5th century BC (‘Histories’, Book, II, 148), describing a colossal temple said to contain 3,000 rooms full of hieroglyphs and paintings. It was named ‘Labyrinth’ by the Greeks after the complex maze of corridors designed by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete, where the legendary Minotaur dwelt. Yet today, nothing remains of this supposedly grand temple complex – at least not on the surface. The mighty labyrinth became lost to the pages of history.
Herodotus was not the only historian to describe the labyrinth of ancient Egypt. The massive temple complex was described by many classic authors, including Manetho Aegyptiaca (3rd century BC), Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), Strabo (64 BC – 19 AD), Pliny (23 – 79 AD), and Pomponius Mela (c 43 AD), and at least two of whom claimed to have seen the labyrinth first-hand.
Herodotus was the first to describe the labyrinth of Egypt. In the second book of his ‘History’, the Greek writer gave the following account:
It has twelve courts covered in, with gates facing one another, six upon the North side and six upon the South, joining on one to another, and the same wall surrounds them all outside; and there are in it two kinds of chambers, the one kind below the ground and the other above upon these, three thousand in number, of each kind fifteen hundred. The upper set of chambers we ourselves saw;… but the chambers underground we heard about only… For the passages through the chambers, and the goings this way and that way through the courts, which were admirably adorned, afforded endless matter for marvel, as we went through from a court to the chambers beyond it, and from the chambers to colonnades, and from the colonnades to other rooms, and then from the chambers again to other courts. Over the whole of these is a roof made of stone like the walls; and the walls are covered with figures carved upon them, each court being surrounded with pillars of white stone fitted together most perfectly; and at the end of the labyrinth, by the corner of it, there is a pyramid of forty fathoms, upon which large figures are carved, and to this there is a way made under ground. Such is this labyrinth.
Based on the detailed descriptions provided by Herodotus, and other ancient historians, Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century German Jesuit scholar and polymath, produced the first pictorial reconstructions. At the centre of the drawing is a maze, which is surrounded by twelve courts described by Herodotus.
The diagram of the Egyptian labyrinth produced by 17th-century German scholar, Athanasius Kircher
It is not clear whether the Egyptian temple was described as a labyrinth simply because it was so huge and so complex that one could easily become lost, or whether it was intentionally designed as a maze where one had to find their own way through it. Ancient Greek historian, Strabo, who also claimed to have visited the temple, wrote in his geography book 17, I, 3, 37 and 42:
... Before the entrances there lie what might be called hidden chambers which are long and many in number and have paths running through one another which twist and turn, so that no one can enter or leave any court without a guide.
Roman geographer Pomponius Mela (1st century AD), in his ‘Chorographia’ Book I, 9, 56, describes the temples as having “innumerable paths” which “cause great perplexity both because of their continual winding and because of their porticoes which often reverse their direction.” The Roman army commander and philosopher, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) in his Natural History book 36, 84-89, also describes the labyrinth as a “bewildering maze of paths”, adding that, not only did individuals who entered the temple have to navigate through a confusing array of ramps, porticoes, rooms, and stairs, but they were also confronted with “a fearful noise of thunder” and had to pass through the chambers in darkness.
There is a high level of consistency between the different descriptions of the labyrinth written over six centuries between the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD. All of them, for example, describe a roof made out of a single stone slab, and all of the accounts are in agreement about its immense beauty. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) gives one of the most colourful descriptions:
When one had entered the sacred enclosure, one found a temple surrounded by columns, 40 to each side, and this building had a roof made of a single stone, carved with panels and richly adorned with excellent paintings. It contained memorials of the homeland of each of the kings as well as of the temples and sacrifices carried out in it, all skilfully worked in paintings of the greatest beauty.
The detailed and consistent descriptions of the labyrinth indicate that it is a place that did indeed exist in the ancient past. In fact, as we will soon discuss, it appears to have already been found…
Featured image: A 3D model of the Labyrinth based on a drawing by Petrie (1890). Image source.
Mataha Expedition Hawara 2008 – Labyrinth of Egypt
Geophysical Studies at Hawara - Download the pdf
A Virtual Exploration of the Lost Labyrinth - The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (University College London)