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The Egyptian Labyrinth, Marvel that Surpassed the Pyramids

Colossus of Memnon maze puzzle

Egyptian Colossus of Memnon maze puzzle

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According to the 5th-century BC Greek historian Herodotus, who stated that he himself had seen the building, the Egyptian Labyrinth was a vast structure on the shores of a large lake located seven days' journey up the Nile from the Pyramids at Giza. The temple was divided into twelve great courts and its walls were covered with sculpture, and a large pyramid decorated with colossal figures was connected to it by a subterranean passage. Herodotus emphatically presents the building as a marvel or wonder (thaumata) that eclipsed the Pyramids at Giza.

The 1st century BC Greek geographer Strabo is the only other eyewitness to the Egyptian Labyrinth whose account has survived. Strabo called it "a great palace composed of many palaces" and marveled at enormity of the stone slabs that made up its roof and walls. He wrote that it had many great courts, each with its own entrance, but that "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."

Although it is uncertain when these court entrances were actually constructed, the Egyptian Labyrinth complex itself dates from the 19th century BC. So these crypt-like entrances with many winding passages "communicating with one another" are probably the oldest examples of mazes that we know of.

Herodotus relates that the lower levels of the Labyrinth, which he was not allowed to visit, contained the "sepulchers of the kings who built the Labyrinth, and those of the sacred crocodiles." This a plausible story, for the Egyptians are known to have buried sacred bulls in winding underground passages beneath other temples.

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I visited this building and found it to surpass description; for if all the great works of the Greeks could be put together in one, they would not equal this Labyrinth. The Pyramids likewise surpass description, but the Labyrinth surpasses the Pyramids."

—Herodotus, 5th century BC

Purpose of the Egyptian Labyrinth

The few clues that we have indicate that the Labyrinth originally served many different purposes to the Egyptians. We know that it served as the mortuary temple of pharaoh Amenemhet III (19th century BC), the place on earth where Egyptians would make daily offerings to Amenemhet's spirit—for all eternity—to guarantee his prosperity in the afterlife.

The Labyrinth probably also functioned as a cult center and meetingplace for the rulers of the nomes, or Egyptian political divisions, and it may have served as a palace and administrative center too. Intriguingly, the pyramid that formed a part of this complex contained its own fantastic maze hewn from stone, designed to guard Amenemhet's mummy from tomb robbers.

The Egyptian Labyrinth was more than 1,300 years old at the time of Herodotus's visit and was likely in a state of partial disrepair. It was probably a vast, sprawling collection of interconnected buildings, shrines, passageways, and courtyards, some decaying, some still maintained. Here is the historian's own description of the impression of the interior:

"The upper chambers I saw with my own eyes, and found them to excel all other human productions; for the passages through the houses, and the varied windings of the paths across the courts excited in me infinite admiration as I passed from the courts into chambers, and from the chambers into colonnades, and from the colonnades into fresh houses, and again from these into courts unseen before."

This confusing layout and impressive size would later earn it fame in Roman times as one of the four famous architectural labyrinths of antiquity.

Ruins of the Pyramid at Hawara

The remains of Pharaoh Amenemhet III's pyramid

Fate of the Egyptian Labyrinth

Time has not spared the Egyptian Labyrinth. The complex fell into ruin at an unknown date, and in Roman times it became the site of quarrying for its fine stone, which occupied such a number of masons that a small town sprung up on the site. When the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie excavated the site in 1888, he found nothing but a vast field of chipped stone, six feet deep. "All over an immense area of dozens of acres, I found evidence of a grand building," he wrote. Petrie could only guess that part of this structure once measured an enormous 1,000 by 800 feet, and he summed up his findings quite succinctly: "From such very scanty remains it is hard to settle anything."

Not long after Petrie wrote this, much of the field of limestone chips was quarried away and used as bedding under railway lines, and with almost nothing now remaining on the site, archaeologists can no longer confirm Petrie's measurements. Thus we have only the word of three eyewitnesses—Herodotus, Strabo, and Petrie—to attest to the size and magnificence of a monument that once surpassed the Pyramids...

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum

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One of the most fantastic mazes in the ancient world was buried deep within an Egyptian pyramid. It protected the mummy of Pharaoh Amemenhet III from tomb robbers.

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