There can be no doubt that Egypt is a land of deep, ancient mysteries that stretch back many millennia into the mists of time. Here is an enchanting land of magnificent ruins, soaring pyramids, and darkened tombs surrounded by whispers of curses and black magic. It is a place that has drawn the curiosity and study of archeologists and indeed the public for years, yet for all we have learned of this enigmatic place over the centuries there are still many secrets buried here in the desert sands, ensconced with mystery and as unknown as they always have been. One of these is an alleged network of subterranean tunnels and chambers whispered of in ancient and modern texts and forgotten for centuries, which are said to hold vast troves of lost knowledge and secrets and, if they exist, could change how we view history itself.
The almost mythological lost complex, known simply as “The Labyrinth” to the ancient Greeks after their own legends of the maze designed by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete to hold the mythic minotaur, is said to be composed of a vast web of meandering tunnels, rooms, temples, buildings, shrines, passageways, courtyards and chambers, sporting thousands of rooms and supposedly full of scores of ancient texts, hieroglyphs, artifacts, paintings, and untold treasure under the sands of Egypt. It was most famously first described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote of it in his 5th century BC work Histories, Book, II, 148 claiming to have seen it himself and expounding on the grandeur of this place. He wrote of the Egyptian labyrinth:
They (the 12 kings) resolved to join all together and leave a memorial of themselves; and having so resolved they caused to be made a Labyrinth, situated a little above the lake of Moiris and nearly opposite to that which is called the City of Crocodiles. This I saw myself, and I found it greater than words can say. For if one should put together and reckon up all the buildings and all the great works produced by the Hellenes, they would prove to be inferior in labour and expense to this Labyrinth, though it is true that both the temple at Ephesos and that at Samos are works worthy of note.
The pyramids also were greater than words can say, and each one of them is equal to many works of the Hellenes, great as they may be; but the Labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids. It has twelve courts covered in, with gates facing one another, six upon the North side and six upon the South, joining on one to another, and the same wall surrounds them all outside; and there are in it two kinds of chambers, the one kind below the ground and the other above upon these, three thousand in number, of each kind fifteen hundred.
The upper set of chambers we ourselves saw, going through them, and we tell of them having looked upon them with our own eyes; but the chambers underground we heard about only; for the Egyptians who had charge of them were not willing on any account to show them, saying that here were the sepulchers of the kings who had first built this Labyrinth and of the sacred crocodiles. Accordingly we speak of the chambers below by what we received from hearsay, while those above we saw ourselves and found them to be works of more than human greatness. For the passages through the chambers, and the goings this way and that way through the courts, which were admirably adorned, afforded endless matter for marvel, as we went through from a court to the chambers beyond it, and from the chambers to colonnades, and from the colonnades to other rooms, and then from the chambers again to other courts.
Over the whole of these is a ceiling made of stone like the walls; and the walls are covered with figures carved upon them, each court being surrounded with pillars of white stone fitted together most perfectly; and at the end of the Labyrinth, by the corner of it, there is a pyramid of forty fathoms, upon which large figures are carved, and to this there is a way made underground. But a cause for marvel even greater than this is afforded by the lake, which is called the lake of Moiris, along the side of which this Labyrinth is built.
While this amazing account of Herodotus is the most widely known and perhaps the most famous, there were many other mentions of this mysterious place by authors and historians throughout the ages, including Manetho Aegyptiaca (3rd century BC), Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), Strabo (64 BC – 19 AD), Pliny (23 – 79 AD), and Pomponius Mela (c 43 AD), among others, many of whom saw the mystical place themselves and gave consistent and detailed descriptions of the complex, somewhat dispelling the notion that it was a purely mythical construct. Many of these authors make persistent mention of a confusing profusion of paths, tunnels, ramps, and stairs, and there are more mysterious details as well, such as a mention of a “a fearful noise of thunder” that permeated the whole colossal complex. There is also frequent mention of numerous soaring columns, a solid stone slab for a roof, and of the infinite treasures and beauty held within the Labyrinth, such as a description by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote:
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 skillfully worked in paintings of the greatest beauty.
Despite these frequent historical accounts of the magnificence of the Labyrinth of Egypt, it has long been seen as being a possible myth or legend, but this has not stopped people from actually searching for it. Making things difficult is that there is little mention of where the Labyrinth actually is in these old accounts, merely hints and clues. Herodotus himself said only that a pyramid was situated at one corner of the structure and that it was “a little above the lake of Moiris and nearly opposite to that which is called the City of Crocodiles,” and this is all maddeningly vague. Nevertheless, throughout the years there have been several serious expeditions that have sought to unravel the clues and solve the mystery.
One of the first attempts to seriously find and study the Labyrinth was in 1842, with a team sent to Egypt by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. The team, led by the archeologist Richard Lepsius, believed that the pyramid Herodotus had spoken of was the pyramid of Amenemhat III in the Hawara region of Faium, and that the City of Crocodiles was the old capital of the Faiyum Oasis valley, and so they concentrated their efforts there. They claimed to have been successful in locating the vast structure when they located large columns, ruins, and the remains of what they believed to be the artificial Lake Moeris that Herodotus had spoken of. The discovery has subsequently been sort of forgotten, and it is unclear just what they found out there, or whether it was really the legendary Labyrinth.
In 1888, famed English Egyptologist and archeologist Flinders Petrie claimed to have found the lost Labyrinth as well, ironically when he was in the same region on a mission to debunk Lepsius’ discovery as merely the remains of an old Roman village. Petrie would claim to have done some excavating at the alleged site and come across a massive stone slab of epic proportions, chipped and eroded by time, which he estimated as stretching over an area of 1116 feet by 800 feet, and reaching down to at least 6 feet deep, which he believed to be a part of the actual Labyrinth. According to Petrie, the site would have once held a colossal building measuring 1,000 by 800 feet, and it truly seemed as if he were on to something, but the site was not properly secured, and would be destroyed by quarrying, leaving it uncertain as to just what exactly he found out there in that wasteland.
Interpretation of the labyrinth
More recently was an expedition launched in 2008 by a group of researchers from Belgium and Egypt led by a Louis de Cordier, which descended on the region with state of the art ground penetrating radar in an effort to solve the mystery once and for all, thinking that Petrie had in fact found the ceiling of the structure. There on the south side of the Harawa Pyramid the so-called Mataha Expedition claimed to have found evidence of some sort of vast structure lurking deep down in the earth. Using their advanced technology, they found signs of chambers, rooms, tunnels, and thick walls, including two enormous chambers measuring 150m by 100m and 80m by 100m. Although the presence of large amounts of groundwater and a canal nearby made it hard to get a completely accurate reading, with such a complex network picked up on the radar it was thought that the legendary lost Labyrinth of Egypt had finally been found, but the discovery would hit some hurdles, from then on which have served to make the facts murky and spark rumors of shadowy conspiracies.
Although the results of the Mataha Expedition were officially published in the scientific journal of the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (NRIAG) and divulged in various academic public lectures on the matter, the Egyptian Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities suddenly and without warning came in to silence everything. Due to this, the findings were buried and never made public, suppressed and hidden indefinitely. The frustrated researchers would end up setting up a website in 2010 in order to covertly release their findings, but the official details, records, and data of the expedition continue to be off-limits. Indeed, the Egyptian government has gone so far as to officially deny that anything was found at all, with one such release reading:
These things exist only in the minds of those who seek to attract the seekers for mystery, and the more we deny the existence of these things, the more the public is led to suspect that we are deliberately trying to hide that which constitutes one of the great secrets of Egypt. It is better for us to ignore all of these claims than merely deny them. All of our excavations in the territory of the Pyramid have failed to reveal any underground passageways or halls, temples, grottos, or anything of the kind.
It is unclear why this should all be covered-up, but what is certain is that with such intense denial and obfuscation by the government it is nearly impossible to tell just to what extent the expedition’s discovery reached, or whether they really did find the labyrinth that has been searched for centuries. The great Labyrinth of Egypt has in the meantime managed to remain just as mysterious as it always has been, a practically mythical place of grand underground structures that could very well hold knowledge that could change our very understanding of history. What might lie within those long buried chambers and corridors? What profound discoveries await those who unearth this place of legend and mystery? Indeed, does it really even exist at all? It remains to be seen, and continues to be another one of the many strange mysteries of this ancient land.