Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
(ii) Accounts of Later Explorers
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,
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
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Fig. 1. Egyptian Labyrinth. Portion of Ruins, circ. 1700. (Paul Lucas)
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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),
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 Labyrinth.
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 centuries.
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
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
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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,
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
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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.