Almost 2,500 years ago, there was a huge “labyrinth” in ancient Egypt that, in the words of a famous ancient Greek historian who saw it, “surpassed even the pyramids.”
For thousands of years, the Great Labyrinth of Ancient Egypt remains a fable for this world, but now, archaeologists are unearthing the lost history, the intriguing signs of its actual existence.
The great labyrinth of ancient Egypt
The Great Labyrinth of Ancient Egypt was a huge building, two stories high. Inside, there were 3,000 different rooms, all incredibly connected through a winding maze of passages so complex that no one could find their way out without a guide.
At the bottom, there was an underground level that served as a tomb for the kings, and at the top was a massive celling made from gigantic stone slab.
Countless ancient writers described seeing it firsthand, but 2,500 years later, we’re still not so sure where it is. The closest thing we’ve found is a massive 300-meter-wide stone plateau that some believe was once the base of the Lost Labyrinth. However, the upper floors of the structure have been completely lost over the centuries.
To this day, no one has excavated or entered it. Until someone reaches the Labyrinth, we won’t know for sure if we’ve really found one of Egypt’s greatest archaeological wonders.
The secret revealed by Herodotus
For Herodotus, as for many Greeks, Egypt was a land that never ceased to amaze and inspire admiration. It was a land of prodigious architectural achievements.
Herodotus witnessed many ancient Egyptian wonders, including the Lost Labyrinth, firsthand and described them accurately. In the second book of his “The Histories”, Herodotus wrote about the Labyrinth in the 5th century BC:
“It has twelve covered patios, six in a row facing north, six facing south, the doors of one are exactly opposite the doors of the other.
Inside, the building is two stories tall and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground and the other half are located directly above them.
They took me through the rooms on the upper floor, so what I will say about them is from my own observation, but about the underground rooms I can only speak of what they told me, 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 other hand, I did see, and it is hard to believe that they were built by men; The puzzling and intricate passages from room to room and patio to patio were an endless wonder to me as we went from patio to rooms, from rooms to galleries, from galleries to more rooms, and from there to more patios.
The ceiling of each chamber, patio and gallery is, like the walls, made of stone. The walls are covered with carved figures, and each courtyard is exquisitely constructed of white marble and surrounded by a colonnade.”
Herodotus, The Histories
For a long time, the true location of the Great Labyrinth remained unknown. Since Herodotus visited the “legendary” Labyrinth of ancient Egypt almost 2,500 years ago, the building has disappeared in the mist of time.
The discovery of Professor Flinders Petrie
In 1888, Professor Flinders Petrie perhaps located the actual site of the ancient Egyptian labyrinth at Hawara. Enough original foundations remained to be able to roughly determine the size and orientation of the building.
The Labyrinth was about 304 meters long and 244 meters wide. In other words, it was large enough to house the great temples of Karnak and Luxor!
Hawara: the pyramid of Pharaoh Amenemhat III
Amenemhat III was the last powerful ruler of the 12th Dynasty, He built his first pyramid at Dahshur (the so-called “Black Pyramid”), but there were construction problems and it was abandoned.
Around Year 15 of his reign the king decided to build a new pyramid at Hawara, near the Faiyum. The pyramid at Dahshur was used as burial ground for several royal women.
Pyramid at Hawara is believed to have been Amenemhet’s final resting place. At Hawara there was also the intact (pyramidal) tomb of Neferu-Ptah, daughter of Amenemhet III. This tomb was found about 12 km south of the king’s pyramid.
It is believed that the huge mortuary temple that originally stood next to this pyramid formed the base of the complex of buildings with galleries and courtyards called “labyrinth” by Herodotus, and mentioned by Strabo and Diodorus Siculus.
Dahshur: The Black Pyramid and the Pyramidion
The Black Pyramid was built by King Amenemhat III (1860-1814 BC) during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2055-1650 BC). It is one of the remaining five pyramids of the original eleven pyramids of Dahshur in Egypt.
Originally named “Amenemhet is Mighty”, the pyramid earned the name “Black Pyramid” for its dark and decaying appearance like a mound of rubble.
While the oldest known pyramid in Egypt was built around 2630 BC. In Saqqara, for King Djoser of the third dynasty, the Black Pyramid was the first in Egypt to house both the deceased pharaoh and his queens.
However, Pharaoh Amenemhat III was not buried here. He was buried in the Hawara pyramid, the legendary Labyrinth originally being adjacent to it.
The pyramidion, which is the cornerstone of a pyramid or obelisk, was covered in religious inscriptions and symbols. Some of these were crossed out, leading researchers to conclude that the pyramidion was never used or defaced during Akhenaten’s rule.
Pyramidion, which is the top stone of a pyramid or obelisk, is also called a Benben stone. In the myth of the creation of the Heliopolitans form of the religion of ancient Egypt, Benben was the mound that arose from the primordial waters Nu on which the creator deity Atum settled.
The original Benben stone, named after the mound, was a sacred stone in the temple of Ra at Heliopolis. It was the place where the first rays of the sun fell.
It is believed to have been the prototype for later obelisks and the upper stones of the great pyramids were based on its design.
The bird deity Bennu, who was likely the inspiration for the immortal bird Phoenix, was worshiped in Heliopolis, where he was said to live on the Benben stone or the sacred willow.
Many Benben stones, often carved with images and inscriptions, are found in museums around the world, and the pyramidion of the “Black Pyramid” is one of them.
Lost Egyptian Labyrinth – New Finds
With no visible remains, the story of the Great Egyptian Labyrinth was thought to be simply a legend passed down from generation to generation until Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered its “foundations” in the late 1880s, leading experts to theories of that the labyrinth was demolished under the reign of Ptolemy II, and used to build the nearby town of Shedyt in honor of his wife Arsinoe.
But, in 2008, archaeologists working on the “Mataha Expedition” made a surprising find under the sands. When they scanned parts of the base area in Hawara, they found a strong suggestion of complex chambers and walls several meters thick below the surface at considerable depth.
The research team’s findings confirmed that there were archaeological features south of the Hawara pyramid of Amenemhat III.
The scans showed vertical walls averaging several meters thick, which came together to form a good number of closed rooms.
The Great Labyrinth of Ancient Egypt was visited and witnessed first-hand by the great historians of millennia past, yet ultimately it was lost in the desert sands and its physical presence remained unknown for over 2,500 years.
In this 21st century, we have discovered ruins that, underneath, look like an underground Labyrinth like the one described by ancient writers. But is the Great Labyrinth of Ancient Egypt real or not, is it still shrouded in an enigmatic historical mystery?