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The Labyrinthine Search

Destroyed for some, intact and waiting to be discovered for others, the labyrinth of Hawara was one of ancient Egypt’s greatest achievements, on par, if not surpassing, the fame of the pyramids.

Philip Coppens


Is this the site of a destroyed or lost labyrinth?

For centuries, stories have been told about the height of the pyramids and the gaze of the Sphinx. As time progressed, hieroglyphs were deciphered, tombs and temples discovered, and often surprising discoveries, like the intact tomb of Tutankhamun, were added to the list of what was deemed to be Egypt’s unique appeal. But one “Holy Grail” of Egyptology has always evaded detection: the labyrinth.
The labyrinth was said to be more impressive than any of these other monuments, and it is alas a fact that the labyrinth is now totally destroyed – or still hidden by the desert’s sands, waiting to be discovered. Erich von Däniken believes that the labyrinth is “waiting for a modern-day Heinrich Schliemann.” The question is therefore whether the Holy Grail of Egyptology will ever be attained, or is forever lost.

It was the Greek traveller and historian Herodotus who, in Book II of his “Histories”, described a building complex in Egypt, “near the place called the City of Crocodiles”, which he considered to surpass the pyramids in its astonishing ambition, and which he labelled “a labyrinth”. To quote him: “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.” Many believe that the structure has long been destroyed, but there is no historical record that suggests or proves this.

Herodotus gave a detailed description of the labyrinth: “It has twelve covered courts – six in a row facing north, six south – the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground, and the other half directly above them. I was taken through the rooms in the upper storey, so what I shall say of them is from my own observation, but the underground ones I can speak of only from report, because the Egyptians in charge refused to let me see them, as they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles. The upper rooms, on the contrary, I did actually see, and it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were an endless wonder to me, as we passed from a courtyard into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into more rooms and thence into yet more courtyards. The roof of every chamber, courtyard, and gallery is, like the walls, of stone. The walls are covered with carved figures, and each court is exquisitely built of white marble and surrounded by a colonnade.”
It is a very detailed description of the internal structure, and because of this, it is easy for archaeologists to find out if a structure they’ve unearthed can or cannot be the labyrinth. And so far, nothing has been uncovered that can be said to correspond to the labyrinth.

The pyramid at Hawara

The first problem is one of location. It is known to have been near the City of Crocodiles, as well as a “little above Lake Moeris”, “beside which the labyrinth was built”. He added that this lake was a wonder in itself: “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 two 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 six months it flows into the lake, and then, another six, it flows again into the Nile. During the six 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.”
Herodotus is providing a very detailed description, to which he adds that “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.” With so much information, it seems that it should be easy to locate this labyrinth.

Strabo, who visited Egypt in the first century BC, gave further information about the labyrinth in his “Geography”, though he did not mention the underground chambers. He too was impressed with Lake Moeris, whose “tides” – the inflow and outflow of water – still functioned, providing further details that would aide a successful localisation of 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.”
He continued: “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 marvellous 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.”

Strabo then stated a small detail, which might be very important: “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.”
Herodotus and Strabo thus provided a number of measurable details that would aid anyone in locating and discovering the labyrinth. Noting that the lower floor of the labyrinth was underground, it is clear that over the past two millennia, the upper level too could easily have disappeared under the sands; and anyone digging, would thus likely be confronted with a gigantic, flat roof of the labyrinth – with the possibility that the upper levels, and even more likely, lower levels, remain intact underneath.

Amenemhet III

Strabo also named the builder of the labyrinth: Imandes, which Egyptologists have identified with Amenemhet III. Strabo added that the “City of Crocodiles”, Crocodeilonpolis, was then already known as Arsinoê, and was reached by “sailing along shore for a distance of one hundred stadia [11.5 miles]”. The town was built in honour of the crocodile, and a sacred crocodile was kept, feeding itself in the lake. Strabo reported the animal was tame to the priests.
A contemporary of Strabo was Diodorus, who wrote about Lake Moeris and the labyrinth in “Library of History” and provided a different version as to how the labyrinth came to be built. He noted that at one point in time, there had not been a head of 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”, which was to become the labyrinth.
He added: “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.”

A century later, in the first century AD, the Roman author Pliny described the labyrinth in his “Natural History”, noting they were “quite the most abnormal achievement on which man has spent his resources, but by no means a fictitious one, as might well be supposed.” He nevertheless disagreed with Herodotus on its builder, stating “the first [labyrinth] 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.”
He thus gave yet another reason behind its construction, but noted there was no uniform suggestion: “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.”
He also noted how well the local population had preserved the structure and that “the few repairs that had been made were carried out by one man alone, Chaeremon, the eunuch of King Necthebis [Nectanebo II, 360 - 343 BC].”
Those are the voices of antiquity, with Herodotus and Strabo known to have visited the site, whereas doubts remain whether the other writers were eyewitness to Egypt’s greatest achievement. Still, from Pliny’s account, it appears that the structure was still intact in the first century AD.

The labyrinth, as depicted by Flinders Petrie, based on ancient accounts

It was the Prussian expedition of Richard Lepsius who claimed – around 1840 – to have discovered the labyrinth, at Hawara, which is indeed south of the site of Crocodilopolis and at the entrance to the depression of the Fayyum oasis. Lepsius thought that the structures he excavated were parts of the temple of King Amenemhet III (i.e. the labyrinth), but later research showed that they had been built in Roman times. However, despite this setback, from Lepsius’ time onwards, Hawara has remained the site where the labyrinth is supposed to be – have been.
Hence, in 1888, W.M. Flinders Petrie started to excavate at Hawara, with his main focus on the pyramid itself. It was of course this pyramid which was believed to be the one adjacent to the labyrinth.
In 1911, Petrie returned to Hawara to excavate the labyrinth itself. Petrie’s published account even shows a partial reconstruction of the complex, but this was mainly based on the classical authors he consulted, not on any serious archaeological discoveries.
He noted how “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.”
In short, Petrie confirmed that Lepsius had not found the labyrinth and he found a “vast area”, to continue: “Beneath all these fragments was a uniform smooth bed of cement 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.” He concluded: “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.”
Petrie, in short, argued that he had found the site of the labyrinth, but that it had been totally destroyed, used as a quarry in ancient times. And as such, the dream of ever finding the labyrinth of which so many Greek writers had spoken, crashed. It was no more. Or was it?

Since Petrie’s excavations in 1911, no official excavation has been carried out at the site of the labyrinth, though some shorter expeditions from the Antiquity Service have dug in the necropolis of Hawara and recently, a number of ground scans have been carried out by universities.
Some of those involved with the scans do so because they believe the labyrinth is still hidden and many refer to Petrie’s accounts themselves to find hope for their mission. It is clear that Petrie queried at some point whether he had found the roof of the labyrinth, but some – not too substantial – testing suggested there was nothing underneath, and hence he felt that he had found the floor of the construction. So rather than concluding it was the ceiling of the structure, he posited it was the floor, the actual building (i.e. the labyrinth) disappeared and used as a “great quarry”.
Hence why the Egyptological consensus is that the building has been used as a quarry since Roman times and that “today not a single wall remains standing”. It is true that a few traces of the foundations of walls were discovered. Other bits of walls and door jambs were found, along with parts of columns, two granite shrines, and fragments of statues. The question is: is it enough to identify this site with the labyrinth, or could it just be any old temple? Knowing the size of the stones used in the labyrinth, it would be relatively easy to at least identify some in some of the buildings they were used in since Roman times. No-one, however, has done so.

Hence, the dream of the labyrinth lives on in some explorers’ mind, and some believe that it remains to be discovered – some hoping they will uncover it. Almost all such seekers nevertheless accept – as dogma – that it is at Hawara where one needs to look. Some, however, are not so sure. They argue that the area does not have the two stone figures that were known to rise from the lake. Perhaps they are indeed somewhere hidden in the sand at Hawara, but it is a fact that two colossal statues of Amenemhet III, found by Petrie, are known to have looked out over the lake at Biyahmu, 7 miles south of the lake shore and 8 miles north of Hawara. However, there is no pyramid beneath them. So despite all the details in the various ancient accounts, we have some evidence that suggests it is at Hawara – because of the pyramid – while other details suggest it could be eight miles north of Hawara. And hence the vast area which was deemed to be the floor of the labyrinth… is not necessarily so.

The labyrinth, according to Arnold, in comparison with Djoser's Complex

Irrelevant of where it is, and its present condition, the question is also what it was. Though Petrie’s model, based on classical sources, is still the most cherished, Dieter Arnold has put forward an alternative suggestion, based upon Djoser’s complex of Saqqara. Specifically, he placed a large open courtyard in the front section. Others have seen correspondences between the Hawara complex and the complex of Netjerikhet at Saqqara. Both complexes are long rectangular structures oriented north-south. Both have their pyramid located in the north of the complex. Indeed, though the labyrinth may have been unique, it is likely that in design, it had to adhere to certain religious rules and guidelines; its uniqueness lay in its size.
So, what was the labyrinth? As it was built in stone, we can be clear that it was either a mortuary complex and/or a temple – with the two suggestions not mutually exclusive. However, if drawing parallels with the structures at Saqqara, and especially the Djoser complex, one has to bear in mind the writings of Jeremy Naydler, who has convincingly shown a connection between the pyramids and the Heb Sed festivals. Hence, we should conclude that the labyrinth was indeed a unique complex – because of its size – but that in function, purpose and design, it was not unique at all. Hence, its discovery – if there ever will be one – will be majestic, but will unlikely lead to major new understandings of ancient Egypt. It will “merely” once again confirm to what heights the ancient Egyptians were able to excel. But then some will argue that continuous iteration of a truth is just as important as being shown a new path. A labyrinthine path?