What Happened to the Great Labyrinth of Egypt?

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In antiquity, there are numerous mentions to a labyrinth of astounding complexity in Egypt. Several Greek scholars traveled there and saw it firsthand, including Herodotus. Why have we not found the Great Labyrinth?

In the 5th century BC, Greek Historian Herodotus, also called the Father of History, traveled to Egypt to tour its marvelous architecture and learn from its ancient priests. He also came across a labyrinth of unbelievable complexity.

They made a labyrinth a little way beyond the lake Moeris and near the place called the City of Crocodiles. I have myself seen it, and indeed no words can tell its wonders; were all that Greeks have built and wrought added together the whole would be seen to be a matter of less labor and cost than was this labyrinth.

Herodotus – Histories Book II

According to Herodotus, the labyrinth had two levels, one underneath the other. At the time of his visit, he was only permitted to tour the top level and what he found was astonishing.

Though the pyramids were greater than words can tell, and each one of them a match for many great monuments built by Greeks, this maze surpasses even the pyramids. It has twelve roofed courts, with doors over against each other: six face the north and six the south, in two continuous lines, all within one outer wall. There are also double sets of chambers, three thousand altogether, fifteen hundred above and the same number under ground. We ourselves viewed those that are above ground, and speak of what we have seen; of the underground chambers we were only told; the Egyptian wardens would by no means show them, these being, they said, the burial vaults of the kings who first built this labyrinth, and of the sacred crocodiles.

Herodotus – Histories Book II

The labyrinth consisted of a massive set of rooms, totally 3,000 exactly, with giant courtyards. At the time of Herodotus, it was still being used ceremonially and he was not permitted to enter further. Other Greek writers have also mentioned it.

Another Greek writer by the name of Diodorus Siculus had this to say:

When one had entered the sacred enclosure, one found a temple surrounded by columns, 40 to each side, and this building had a roof made of a single stone, carved with panels and richly adorned with excellent paintings. It contained memorials of the homeland of each of the kings as well as of the temples and sacrifices carried out in it, all skilfully worked in paintings of the greatest beauty.

Diodorus Siculus

The famous Jesuit polymath,  Athanasius Kircher, produced the first known drawing of the structure but based it mostly on sources we have mentioned above.

The Great Labyrinth as imagined by Athanasius Kircher. Image Credit Public Domain

With such a massive structure being seen by so many ancient writers, why we not found it?

The Expedition to Hawara

A report from the 19th century found that there was a massive stone plate beneath the sand near the Black Pyramid of Hawara built by Amenenhat III. Unlike the Great Pyramid at Giza, the pyramid was built mostly of mud brick and then encased with limestone tiles. These tiles may have had the same designs seen by Herodotus. However, the tiles were cannibalized for other projects in the Middle Kingdom.

In 2008, a Belgian artist by the name of Louis de Cordier, financed an expedition, known as the Mataha (Arabic for Labyringth) expedition, to see if there was anything to the findings of the 19th century. Using ground penetrating radar, they did indeed find the signatures of a massive complex of walls, well exceeding 1 million square feet. However, the famously conservative Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has suppressed further expeditions to explore the structure. The team does plan to use the data to render a 3D model of what they found, so we can look forward to that. Until then, it exists only in our minds.

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