Lake Moeris, King Moiris

Strabo xvii 42*.html

Above this city lies Abydus, where is the Memnonium, a royal building, which is a remarkable structure built of solid stone, and of the same workmanship as that which I ascribed to the Labyrinth, though not multiplex; and also a fountain207 which lies at a great depth, so that one descends to it down vaulted galleries made of monoliths of surpassing size and p113workmanship. There is a canal leading to the place from the great river; and in the neighbourhood of the canal is a grove of Aegyptian acantha, sacred to Apollo. Abydus appears once to have been a great city, second only to Thebes, but it is now only a small settlement. But if, as they say, Memnon is called Ismandes208 by the Aegyptians, the Labyrinth might also be a Memnonium and a work of the same man who built both the Memnonia in Abydus and those in Thebes; for it is said that there are also some Memnonia in Thebes.

Herodotus on Moeris
As for the other kings, they could tell me of no great works which had been produced by them, and they said that they had no renown except only the last of them, Moiris: he (they said) produced as a memorial of himself the gateway of the temple of Hephaistos (VULCAN,  which is turned towards the North Wind,

(one pyramid for him and one for his wife)

and dug a lake, about which I shall set forth afterwards how many furlongs of circuit it has, and in it built pyramids of the size which I shall mention at the same time when I speak of the lake itself. He, they said, produced these works, but of the rest none produced any.

Herodotus. Histories II .101
Project Gutenberg
Diodorus Siculus mentions the lake Moeris had excavated

Moeris … dug a lake of remarkable usefulness , though at the cost of incredible toil. Its circumference, they say is 3600 stades, its depth at most points fifty fathoms. Who, then, on estimating the greatness of construction, would not reasonably ask how many tens of thousands of men must have been employed, and how many years they took to finish their work? No one can adequately commend the king’s design, which brings such usefulness and advantage and usefulness to all the dwellers in Egypt.
Since the Nile kept to no definite bounds in its rising, and the fruitfulness of the country depended upon the river’s regularity, the king dug the lake to accommodate the superfluous water, so that the river should neither, with its strong current, flood the land unseasonably and form swamps and fens, nor, by rising less than was advantageous, damage the crops by lack of water. Between the river and the lake he constructed a canal 80 stades in length and 300 feet in breadth. Through this canal, at times he admitted the water of the river, at other times he excluded it, thus providing the farmers with water at fitting times by opening the inlet and again closing it scientifically and at great expense. No less than 50 talents had of necessity to be expended by anyone who wished to open or shut this sluice. The lake has continued to serve the needs of the Egyptians down to our own days, and it has its name from its constructor, being still called the Lake of Moeris.

Herodotusrecords that Moiris constructed a gateway to the temple of Hephaistos (Ptah) and dug a large lake. In the lake he built more than one pyramid. Diodorus Siculus mentions a king named Moeris who dug out a lake “of remarkable usefulness” to provide a reservoir of water and guard against a poor inundation. He confirms that the place was named lake Moeris (in the Faiyum) after its creator. He is generally considered to have been Amenemhat III, who built a series of great water wheels in the Faiyum diverting the Nile into lake Moeris, and established a pyramid at Hawara (nearby


Diodorus Siculus, The Historical Library, Books I, LI and LII
Translation by W.G.Waddell
Stade (stadium, pl. stadia) about 185 metres
Talent : 6000 silver drachmas

Herodotus Pyramids remain this day. I found them at Biyahmu.






Aegyptus Antiqua
51.5 cm x 36 cm copperplate engraving, 55 cm x 44 cm sheet size, modern hand colour, Antwerp, engraved 1595, printed 1603

We are pleased to offer this scarce original map (Van der Krogt# 8650H:31B) of Ancient Egypt from the 1603 Latin edition Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), the first true atlas in the modern sense. This example of “historical cartography” was presented in the Parergon section of the Theatrum, and Ortelius based the content of the map mainly on the writings of Pliny, Strabo, Herodotus and `other classical authors. On the title page of the Parergon section of the atlas, Ortelius notes that these historical maps “are published separately from the Theatrum, where places are shown as they are in the present day” and that he “includes them as a supplement at the instigation of friends.” No matter the self-effacing introduction, it is evident that Ortelius put far more personal effort into the maps of the Parergon than the “present day” maps of the Theatrum which in most cases were entirely composed by other cartographers. This “sideways” eastern oriented plate is bisected by the Nile and replaces a northern oriented two sheet map of Ancient Egypt that Ortelius first published in 1584. A map of deep scholarship, it is also a wonderfully decorative masterpiece of the engraver’s art with this well-preserved example exhibiting hand colour work of the very highest order that will make a superlative presentation if matted and framed.

Many of the ornate cartouches used by Ortelius’ engravers were in fact taken from a series of ornament prints designed by the brilliant painter, architect and graphic artist Hans Vredeman de Vries. This handsome title cartouche presents a quotation from Book Eight of Lucan’s Civil War (Pharsalia) “A land content in its wealth, needing no aid from Jove but relying upon the Nile”:

Inset map for Alexandria and environs with a notation explaining that here additional placenames are presented that the scale of the main map precluded:

To get a sense of map detail consider that the distance from the top of the mainmast to the waterline on the tiny ship shown in the Gulf of Suez measures just 2 cm actual size. Note pictorial depiction of the Troicus Mountains with notation that the stone for the Pyramids was quarried at this site. The elegant calligraphy for “Arabiae Petreae Pars” is indicative of the great care that went into the engraving of this plate:

Note regional lettering meticulously hand coloured in gilt for a most impressive presentation. Map makes reference to “Tabennam” – better known as Tabennisi this was the site of the first Cenobitic monastery founded by Pachomius in the 4th century and generally considered the birthplace of Christian monasticism. Also noted are the “Catadupi” of the Nile, i.e. the cataracts. Here Ortelius would have turned to Pliny the Elder’s description of the Nile:

“Its waters then hastening onwards, it is borne along to the spot in the country of the Aethiopians which is known by the name of “Catadupi;” where, at the last Cataract, the complaint is, not that it flows, but that it rushes, with an immense noise between the rocks that lie in its way: after which it becomes more smooth, the violence of its waters is broken and subdued, and, wearied out as it were by the length of the distance it has travelled, it discharges itself, though by many mouths, into the Egyptian sea. During certain days of the year, however, the volume of its waters is greatly increased, and as it traverses the whole of Egypt, it inundates the earth, and, by so doing, greatly promotes its fertility.

Nile delta – note pictorial representation of island tombs in the manmade Lake Moeris, the Egyptian Labyrinth near the City of Crocodiles and of course, the tiny “Pyramides” near Memphis:

Nearby his 1595 publishing privilege Ortelius dutifully provides a list a regions, towns, peoples, mountains, rivers and islands mentioned by ancient writers but of uncertain location. Indeed, Ortelius certainly intended his map to be consulted in conjunction with reading accounts of Egypt by ancient historians – the fact that his scholarship yielded such an extensive list shows the depth of his research in compiling the map:

Ortelius’ Latin text on verso is a fascinating document in and of itself – representative excerpts presented below are derived from the 1606 English edition published in London:

…The Mappe doth shew the situation of this country, and therefore I shall not need to speake ought of that. What the great fertility and richnesse of soile of this province was, that worthy commendation vulgarly spoken of it, wherein it is said to be “The Common Barne of All the World” doth sufficiently show…

…Eusebius writes that in this one country of Egypt there were more cities than in all the rest of the world and that besides their boast of great antiquity, the Egyptians still had 20,000 cities in the time of their King Amasis. Diodorus Siculus in his time wrote that there were 3000. Although we have most diligently sought all such names out of writings and monuments of antiquity we could not find mention of many more than 300, as the map will give you to understand…

…some say the Egyptians were the first men to worship the sun, moon and stars as immortal gods. But Holy Scripture and secular writers alike demonstrate that in their gods such as Isis, Osiris etc. they foolishly venerated and consecrated all kinds of beasts and living creatures. They put into their inventory of gods the crocodile, the ox, the lion, the bear, the goat, the monkey, the ape, the bull, the ram, the hog, the dog, the Indian rat, the wolf, the sheep, the weasel and the shrew mouse…

…They had besides these the Dragon (or serpent), the Hawk, the Eagle, the Ibis and the Beetle – the counterfeits of these for the most part they adored and worshiped as gods; yet some delighted to honour the very beast themselves alive so that it was a felony for a man to kill any of them, although it were by chance…



Title: AEGYPTVS | ANTIQVA | “Ex | Conatibus geo:|graphicis Ab. | Ortelij”. [Ancient Egypt, from the geographical efforts of Abraham Ortelius]. (North half; Inset: Alexandria and surroundings, 93 x 116 mm).
Plate size: 393 x 481 mm.
Scale: 1 : 1,000,000
Identification number: Ort 219 (Koeman/Meurer: 4P, Karrow: 1/163, van der Krogt AN: 8650H:1:31A).
Occurrence in Theatrum editions and page number:
1584L3Addblank (100 copies printed) (identical to 1584L, but here without page number; last line, left aligned: Plinius,Marcellinus,alijque,eas satis luculenta oratione describunt.),
1584L109 (750 copies printed) (identical to 1584L3Add, but here with page number 109; last line, left aligned: Plinius,Marcellinus,alijque,eas satis luculenta oratione describunt.),
1584G3Add2 in upper right corner (75 copies printed) (last line, left aligned, in Gothic script like most of the text: Strabo/Plinius/Marcellinus und andere deutlich genug.),
1585F3Add23 (75 copies printed) (last line, left aligned: Strabon, Pline, Marcellin, & plusieurs autres , qui les descriuent assez au vif.),
1587F107 (250 copies printed) (last line, left aligned: sieurs autres , qui les descriuent assez au vif.),
1592L20 (525 copies printed) (last line, left aligned: cellinos, alijque, eas satis luculenta oratione describunt.).
Approximate number of copies printed: 1775.
States: 219.1 as described;
219.2: in 1592, in the textblock in lower left, last line third word “trisu” (which is meaningless) changed to “tribu” [tribe].
Cartographic sources: Ortelius own two-sheet map of Ancient Egypt, dedicated to the humanist and medical doctor Scipio Fabio from Bologna, which appeared in 1565, and for which Ortelius mentions as sources Diodorus, Herodotos, Strabo and Plinius (Meurer p. 21-22).
References: G. Schilder (1987) “Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica” II, Canaletto, p. 8-9. P.H. Meurer “Ortelius as the Father of Historical Cartography”, p. 133-159 in: M. van den Broecke, P. van der Krogt and P.H. Meurer (eds.) “Abraham Ortelius and the First Atlas”, HES Publishers, 1998.
Remarks: This map, together with Ort 220, was replaced by a one sheet map, plate Ort 221, in 1595L.

Bibliographical sources

Topographical names

For questions/comments concerning this page, please e-mail



Lienhart Holle
First Edition of an Important 15th Century Map of North Africa with Sardinia and Sicily. Printed in July 1482 in Ulm by Lienhard Holle.

1886 Print Map Fayuom Birket-et-Keroun Lake Moeris Egypt Landscape Tamieh Zaweh – Relief Line-block Print
by period paper

Share|2.1K |

home > ancient wonders > egyptian labyrinth

The Egyptian Labyrinth, Marvel that Surpassed the Pyramids

Colossus of Memnon maze puzzleEgyptian Colossus of Memnon maze puzzle

more maze posters

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.


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 HawaraThe 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…

Share 2.1K  | 

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


He who entered the Labyrinth could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way.”

—Apollodorus, Greek scholar, 2nd century BC

You can win a free book. It’s true.

Feature Articles 
  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?




Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.