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Posts : 81
Join date : 2009-12-18
Age : 59
Location : Alexandria---Arsinoea Sarione Ptolemy

PostSubject: THE EGYPTIAN LABYRINTH   Tue Dec 22, 2009 7:14 pm


(i) Accounts of the Ancient Writers
THE earliest structure of any kind to which we find the word
labyrinth applied was a huge building situated in the North of Egypt, a
land always noted for its stupendous monuments, and was probably
constructed more than 2000 years before the commencement of the
Christian era.
We live in an age when the use of constructional steel enables the
dreams of the architect to materialise in many ways that would astonish
the builders of old; nevertheless, the modern citizen, whatever his
nationality, can rarely resist a feeling akin to awe when making his
first acquaintance with such works as the Pyramids of Egypt. One can
imagine, then, what a profound effect these massive edifices must have
exerted on the minds of travellers in earlier ages.
We find, as we might expect, many wild exaggerations in individual
descriptions and corresponding discrepancies between the various
accounts of any particular monument, and this is to some extent the
case with regard to the Egyptian Labyrinth.
A fairly detailed and circumstantial account has come down to us from the Greek writer Herodotus.
Herodotus, who is rightly spoken of as the Father of History, was born about 484 B.C. and lived about sixty
p. 7
years, of which he spent a considerable number in travelling about
over most of the then known world. Those who are fortunate enough to be
able to read his works in their original tongue are charmed by their
freshness, simplicity, and harmonious rhythm, but those who look to him
for accurate information on any but contemporary events or matters with
which he was personally acquainted are apt to find a rather too
credulous acceptance of the wonderful. No doubt the poetical instinct
in Herodotus was stronger than the critical spirit of the true
historian, but, so far as the records of his personal observations are
concerned, there seems to be no reason to accuse him of gross
The Labyrinth of Egypt he himself visited, as he tells us in his
second book, and seems to have been consider-ably impressed by it.
After describing how the Egyptians divided the land into twelve parts,
or nomes, and set a king over each, he says that they agreed to
combine together to leave a memorial of themselves. They then
constructed the Labyrinth, just above Lake Moeris, and nearly opposite
the city of crocodiles (Crocodilopolis). "I found it," he says,
"greater than words could tell, for, although the temple at Ephesus and
that at Samos are celebrated works, yet all of the works and buildings
of the Greeks put together would certainly be inferior to this
labyrinth as regards labour and expense." Even the pyramids, he tells
us, were surpassed by the Labyrinth. "It has twelve covered courts,
with opposite doors, six courts on the North side and six on the South,
all communicating with one another and with one wall surrounding them
all. There are two sorts of rooms, one sort above, the other sort below
ground, fifteen hundred of each sort, or three thousand in all." He
says that he was allowed to pass through the upper rooms only, the
lower range being strictly guarded from visitors, as they contained the
tombs of the kings who had built the Labyrinth, also the tombs of the
sacred crocodiles.
p. 8
The upper rooms he describes as being of super-human size, and the
system of passages through the courts, rooms, and colonnades very
intricate and bewildering. The roof of the whole affair, he says, is of
stone and the walls are covered with carvings. Each of the courts is
surrounded by columns of white stone, perfectly joined. Outside the
Labyrinth, and at one corner of it, is a pyramid about 240 feet in
height, with huge figures carved upon it and approached by an
underground passage.
Herodotus expresses even greater admiration, however, for the lake
beside the Labyrinth, which he describes as being of vast size and
artificially constructed, having two pyramids arising from its bed,
each supporting a colossal seated statue. The water for the lake, he
says, is brought from the Nile by a canal.
The Labyrinth and the lake are also described at some length by
another great traveller, Strabo, who lived about four centuries after
Herodotus. He wrote, amongst other works, a Geography of the World in
seventeen volumes, the last of which treats of Egypt and other parts of
Africa. Like Herodotus, he speaks of the Labyrinth from personal
observation. After referring to the lake and the manner in which it is
used as a storage reservoir for the water of the Nile, he proceeds to
describe the Labyrinth, "a work equal to the Pyramids." He says it is
"a large palace composed of as many palaces as there were formerly nomes.
There are an equal number of courts, surrounded by columns and
adjoining one another, all in a row and constituting one building, like
a long wall with the courts in front of it. The entrances to the courts
are opposite the wall; in front of these entrances are many long
covered alleys with winding intercommunicating passages, so that a
stranger could not find his way in or out unless with a guide. Each of
these structures is roofed with a single slab of stone, as are also the
covered alleys, no timber or any other material being used." If one
p. 9
ascends to the roof, he says, one looks over "a field of stone." The
courts were in a line, supported by a row of twenty-seven monolithic
columns, the walls also being constructed of stones of as great a size.
"At the end of the building is the royal tomb, consisting of a square pyramid and containing the body of Imandes."
Strabo says that it was the custom of the twelve nomes of Egypt to assemble, with their priests and priestesses, each nome in its own court, for the purpose of sacrificing to the gods and administering justice in important matters.
He mentions that the inhabitants of the particular nome in
the vicinity worshipped the crocodile which was kept in the lake and
answered to the name of Suchus (Sebek). This animal was apparently
quite tame and used to be presented by visitors with offerings of
bread, flesh, wine, honey, and milk.
In certain parts of his works Strabo speaks rather disrespectfully
of Herodotus as a writer, classing him as a marvel-monger, but it will
be seen that in several important respects these two accounts of the
Egyptian Labyrinth are in fair agreement.
Another writer of about the same period as Strabo, known as Diodorus
the Sicilian, wrote a long, rambling compilation which he called a
"Historical Library" and in which he describes the Egyptian Labyrinth
and Lake Moeris. He says the latter was constructed by King Moeris, who
left a place in the middle where he built himself a sepulchre and two
pyramids—one for himself and one for his queen—surmounted by colossal
seated statues. Diodorus says that the king gave the money resulting
from the sale of the fish caught in the lake, amounting to a silver
talent a day, to his wife "to buy her pins."
A generation or so later the Roman writer Pomponius Mela gives a
short account of this labyrinth, probably at second-hand, and early in
the first century of the
p. 10
[paragraph continues]
Christian era Pliny, in his "Natural History," has a good deal to say
on the subject. He refers to labyrinths generally as "the most
stupendous works on which mankind has expended its labours."
Regarding the Egyptian Labyrinth he says, "there exists still, in the nome
of Heracleopolites, a labyrinth first built, it is said, three thousand
six hundred years ago, by King Petesuchis or Tithoës," but he goes on
to quote Herodotus, to the effect that it was built by twelve kings,
the last of whom was Psammetichus, and two other writers who give the
king's name as Moiris and Moteris respectively, "whilst others, again,
assert that it was a building dedicated to the Sun-god, an opinion
which is generally accepted."
He also refers to the fact that the roof was of stone, and notes as
a surprising point that the parts around the entrance were constructed
of Parian marble, whilst the columns of the other parts were of
syenite. "This great mass is so solidly built that the lapse of time
has been quite unable to destroy it, but it has been badly ravaged by
the people of Heracleopolites, who have always detested it. To describe
the whole of it in detail would be quite impossible, as it is divided
up into regions and prefectures, called nomes, thirty in
number, with a great palace to each; in addition it must contain
temples of all the gods of Egypt and forty statues of Nemesis in the
same number of sacred shrines, as well as numerous pyramids." He
describes it further as having "banquet halls reached by steep ascents,
flights of ninety steps leading down from the porticoes, porphyritic
columns, figures of gods and hideous monsters, and statues of kings.
Some of the palaces are so made that the opening of a door makes a
terrifying sound as of thunder. Most of the buildings are in total
darkness. Outside the labyrinth there is another great heap of
buildings, called the 'Pteron,' under which are passages leading to
other subterranean palaces."
A STRUCTURE which evoked so much wonder and admiration in ancient
times can hardly fail to have aroused the curiosity of later
generations, but no serious attempts to locate it seem to have been
made by Europeans until several centuries later. It was then far too
late to observe any of its glories, for it was all but destroyed in
Roman times, and a village sprang up on its site, largely constructed
from its debris.
The Italian traveller Gemelli-Careri, who visited Egypt in 1693,
refers to a subterranean labyrinth which he saw in the neighbourhood of
the Pyramids. In the English version of his account we read: ". . . the
Arabs conducted us to see a Labyrinth, where the Ancients bury’d Birds.
We went down a narrow Passage into a Room out of which we crept on our
Bellies through a Hole to certain ways where a man may walk well enough
upright. On both sides of these there are Urns, in which the Birds were
bury’d; there is now nothing in them but a little dust. These Ways are
cut out of a nitrous Stone, and run several miles like a City
under ground, which they call a Labyrinth." There is nothing in this
description, however, to suggest that these works had any connection
with the Labyrinth of the ancients.
In 1700 Paul Lucas, the Antiquary to Louis XIV,
p. 12
went on a voyage to Egypt, and, in the book in which he subsequently
published the account of his travels, gives us some idea of the state
of the remains in his time, but his account is very rambling and
unreliable. Fig. 1 is a view which he gives of part of the ruins of the alleged labyrinth.
Lucas states that an old Arab who accompanied his party professed to
have explored the interior of the ruins many years before, and to have
penetrated into its subterranean passages to a large chamber surrounded
by several niches, "like little shops," whence endless alleys and other
rooms branched off. By the time of Lucas's visit, however, these
passages could not be traced, and he concluded that they had become
blocked up by debris.
The next explorer to visit the spot seems to have been Dr. Richard
Pococke, whose "Description of the East" appeared in 1743. "We observed
at a great distance," he says, "the temple of the Labyrinth, and being
about a league from it, I observed several heaps as of ruins, covered
with sand, and many stones all round as if there had been some great
building there: they call it the town of Caroon (Bellet Caroon). It
seemed to have been of a considerable breadth from east to west, and
the buildings extended on each side towards the north to the Lake
Moeris and the temple. This without doubt is the spot of the famous
Labyrinth which Herodotus says was built by the twelve kings of Egypt."
He describes what he takes to be the pyramid of the Labyrinth as a
building about 165 feet long by 80 broad, very much ruined, and says it
is called the "Castle of Caroon."
The neighbourhood was also explored by the archaeologists who
accompanied that remarkable expedition sent out by Napoleon at the end
of the eighteenth century, and one of them, Jomard, believed that he
had discovered the ruins of the Labyrinth.
In 1843 a Prussian expedition, under K. R. Lepsius, carried out considerable excavations in the locality and

Click to enlarge
Fig. 1. Egyptian Labyrinth. Portion of Ruins, circ. 1700. (Paul Lucas)

p. 13

Click to enlarge
Fig. 2. Egyptian Labyrinth. Shrine of Amenemhat III. (Flinders Petrie)

claimed to have established the actual site of the Labyrinth,
attaching great importance to a series of brick chambers which they
unearthed. The data furnished by this party, however, were not
altogether of a convincing character, and it was felt that further
evidence was required before their conclusions could be accepted.
G. M. Ebers, a pupil of Lepsius, and one who did much to popularise
the study of Egyptology by a series of novels, said that, if one
climbed the pyramid hard by, one could see that the ruins of the
Labyrinth had a horseshoe shape, but that was all.
The actual site of the Egyptian Labyrinth was finally identified by
Professor Flinders Petrie in 1888. He found that the brick chambers
which Lepsius took to be part of the Labyrinth were only remains of the
Roman town built by its destroyers, the Labyrinth itself being so
thoroughly demolished that only a great bed of fragments remained. Even
from this dreary waste of stone chips, however, a few items of interest
were discovered, including scattered bits of foundations, a great well,
two door-jambs—one to the north and one to the south—two granite
shrines and part of another, several fragments of statues and a large
granite seated figure of the king who is now generally recognised to
have been the builder of the Labyrinth, namely Amenemhat (or Amenemhe)
III of the XIIth Dynasty (also known as Lampares), who reigned about
twenty-three centuries B.C. Fig. 2, which, like the diagram shown in Fig. 4.,
is reproduced by the kind permission of Professor Petrie from his book
"The Labyrinth, Gerzeh and Mazghuneh" (1912), represents one of the
shrines dedicated to the founder. Sufficient of the original
foundations remained to enable the size and orientation of the building
to be roughly determined.
The Labyrinth must have covered an area of about moo feet from east
to west by Boo feet from north to south, and was situated to the east
of Lake Moeris, opposite the ancient town of Arsinoë (Crocodilopolis),
p. 14
and just to the south of the pyramid of Hawara, in the district known nowadays as the Fayûm.
The mummified remains of the builder of the Labyrinth, King
Amenemhat III, and of his daughter Sebekneferu, have been discovered in
this pyramid, which is symmetrical about the same N.—S. meridian as the
Professor Petrie reviewed all that the classic writers had reported
concerning the Labyrinth, and concluded that, in spite of their
differences, each had contributed some item of value. The discrepancies
between the descriptions of Herodotus and Strabo he attributes to the
probable decay or destruction of the upper storey in the intervening
Many attempts have been made to visualise the Labyrinth as it existed in the time of Herodotus. Fig. 3
shows, in plan, one such reconstruction, according to the Italian
archaeologist Canina. The actual plan of the Labyrinth would appear to
have differed from this in many respects, judging by the indications
found by Professor Petrie. The latter drew up a tentative restoration
based upon the descriptions of Herodotus and Strabo so far as these
tallied with the remains discovered by him.
He suggests that the shrines which he found formed part of a series of nine, ranged along the foot of the pyramid,
each attached to a columned court, the whole series of courts opening
opposite a series of twenty-seven columns arranged down the length of a
great hall running east and west; on the other side of this hall would
be another series of columned courts, six in number and larger than the
others, separated by another long hall from a further series of six (Fig. 4).
In spite of the scantiness of the present remains and the
discrepancies between the various reports that have reached us from
ancient times, we can at least be reasonably certain that this, the
earliest structure to which the term "labyrinth" (λαβύρινθος) is known
to have been applied, did actually exist; that it was of the nature of a
p. 15
stupendous architectural monument, that it is of great
antiquity—having been built over 4000 years ago at any rate—and that
its site is definitely known.
Its original object is still a matter of conjecture. It is quite possible that it was used as a meeting-place for the

Click to enlarge
FIG. 3.—Egyptian Labyrinth. Restored Plan. (Canina.)

nomes, which would have been about twenty-two in number at the time
of the XIIth Dynasty, but it is perhaps more probable that it was
intended as a sepulchral monument. In any case it is plain, from the
fragments of various gods and goddesses found on the site, that it was
a centre of worship of a great variety of deities.
From an almost illegible inscription on a great weather-beaten block of granite, deciphered, with great difficulty,
p. 16
as a dedication by a King Ptolemy to a Queen Cleopatra, Professor
Petrie concluded that as late as the beginning of the second century
B.C. the building was still in royal

Click to enlarge
FIG. 4.—Egyptian Labyrinth.
Restored Plan of Western Half. (Flinders Petrie.)

care, but not very long afterwards it was considerably despoiled.
Whatever may have been its original object, it afforded several
generations the advantages of a most convenient stone-quarry.
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