The earliest structure of any kind to which we find the word labyrinth applied was a huge building situated in the North of Egypt, a land always noted for its stupendous monuments, and was probably constructed more than 2000 years before the commencement of the Christian era.
We live in an age when the use of constructional steel enables the dreams of the architect to materialise in many ways that would astonish the builders of old; nevertheless, the modern citizen, whatever his nationality, can rarely resist a feeling akin to awe when making his first acquaintance with such works as the Pyramids of Egypt. One can imagine, then, what a profound effect these massive edifices must have exerted on the minds of travellers in earlier ages.
We find, as we might expect, many wild exaggerations in individual descriptions and corresponding discrepancies between the various accounts of any particular monument, and this is to some extent the case with regard to the Egyptian Labyrinth.
A fairly detailed and circumstantial account has come down to us from the Greek writer Herodotus.
Herodotus, who is rightly spoken of as the Father of History, was born about 484 B.C. and lived about sixty years, of which he spent a considerable number in travelling about over most of the then known world. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to read his works in their original tongue are charmed by their freshness, simplicity, and harmonious rhythm, but those who look to him for accurate information on any but contemporary events or matters with which he was personally acquainted are apt to find a rather too credulous acceptance of the wonderful. No doubt the poetical instinct in Herodotus was stronger than the critical spirit of the true historian, but, so far as the records of his personal observations are concerned, there seems to be no reason to accuse him of gross exaggeration.
The Labyrinth of Egypt he himself visited, as he tells us in his second book, and seems to have been considerably impressed by it. After describing how the Egyptians divided the land into twelve parts, or nomes, and set a king over each, he says that they agreed to combine together to leave a memorial of themselves. They then constructed the Labyrinth, just above Lake Moeris, and nearly opposite the city of crocodiles (Crocodilopolis). "I found it," he says, "greater than words could tell, for, although the temple at Ephesus and that at Samos are celebrated works, yet all of the works and buildings of the Greeks put together would certainly be inferior to this labyrinth as regards labour and expense." Even the pyramids, he tells us, were surpassed by the Labyrinth. "It has twelve covered courts, with opposite doors, six courts on the North side and six on the South, all communicating with one another and with one wall surrounding them all. There are two sorts of rooms, one sort above, the other sort below ground, fifteen hundred of each sort, or three thousand in all." He says that he was allowed to pass through the upper rooms only, the lower range being strictly guarded from visitors, as they contained the tombs of the kings who had built the Labyrinth, also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles.
The upper rooms he describes as being of super-human size, and the system of passages through the courts, rooms, and colonnades very intricate and bewildering. The roof of the whole affair, he says, is of stone and the walls are covered with carvings. Each of the courts is surrounded by columns of white stone, perfectly joined. Outside the Labyrinth, and at one corner of it, is a pyramid about 240 feet in height, with huge figures carved upon it and approached by an underground passage.
Herodotus expresses even greater admiration, however, for the lake beside the Labyrinth, which he describes as being of vast size and artificially constructed, having two pyramids arising from its bed, each supporting a colossal seated statue. The water for the lake, he says, is brought from the Nile by a canal.
The Labyrinth and the lake are also described at some length by another great traveller, Strabo, who lived about four centuries after Herodotus. He wrote, amongst other works, a Geography of the World in seventeen volumes, the last of which treats of Egypt and other parts of Africa. Like Herodotus, he speaks of the Labyrinth from personal observation. After referring to the lake and the manner in which it is used as a storage reservoir for the water of the Nile, he proceeds to describe the Labyrinth, "a work equal to the Pyramids." He says it is "a large palace composed of as many palaces as there were formerly nomes. There are an equal number of courts, surrounded by columns and adjoining one another, all in a row and constituting one building, like a long wall with the courts in front of it. The entrances to the courts are opposite the wall; in front of these entrances are many long covered alleys with winding intercommunicating passages, so that a stranger could not find his way in or out unless with a guide. Each of these structures is roofed with a single slab of stone, as are also the covered alleys, no timber or any other material being used." If one ascends to the roof, he says, one looks over "a field of stone." The courts were in a line, supported by a row of twenty-seven monolithic columns, the walls also being constructed of stones of as great a size.
"At the end of the building is the royal tomb, consisting of a square pyramid and containing the body of Imandes."
Strabo says that it was the custom of the twelve nomes of Egypt to assemble, with their priests and priestesses, each nome in its own court, for the purpose of sacrificing to the gods and administering justice in important matters.
He mentions that the inhabitants of the particular nome in the vicinity worshipped the crocodile which was kept in the lake and answered to the name of Suchus (Sebek). This animal was apparently quite tame and used to be presented by visitors with offerings of bread, flesh, wine, honey, and milk.
In certain parts of his works Strabo speaks rather disrespectfully of Herodotus as a writer, classing him as a marvel-monger, but it will be seen that in several important respects these two accounts of the Egyptian Labyrinth are in fair agreement.
Another writer of about the same period as Strabo, known as Diodorus the Sicilian, wrote a long, rambling compilation which he called a "Historical Library" and in which he describes the Egyptian Labyrinth and Lake Moeris. He says the latter was constructed by King Moeris, who left a place in the middle where he built himself a sepulchre and two pyramids—one for himself and one for his queen—surmounted by colossal seated statues. Diodorus says that the king gave the money resulting from the sale of the fish caught in the lake, amounting to a silver talent a day, to his wife "to buy her pins."
A generation or so later the Roman writer Pomponius Mela gives a short account of this labyrinth, probably at second-hand, and early in the first century of the Christian era Pliny, in his "Natural History," has a good deal to say on the subject. He refers to labyrinths generally as "the most stupendous works on which mankind has expended its labours."
Regarding the Egyptian Labyrinth he says, "there exists still, in the nome of Heracleopolites, a labyrinth first built, it is said, three thousand six hundred years ago, by King Petesuchis or Tithoës," but he goes on to quote Herodotus, to the effect that it was built by twelve kings, the last of whom was Psammetichus, and two other writers who give the king's name as Moiris and Moteris respectively, "whilst others, again, assert that it was a building dedicated to the Sun-god, an opinion which is generally accepted."
He also refers to the fact that the roof was of stone, and notes as a surprising point that the parts around the entrance were constructed of Parian marble, whilst the columns of the other parts were of syenite. "This great mass is so solidly built that the lapse of time has been quite unable to destroy it, but it has been badly ravaged by the people of Heracleopolites, who have always detested it. To describe the whole of it in detail would be quite impossible, as it is divided up into regions and prefectures, called nomes, thirty in number, with a great palace to each; in addition it must contain temples of all the gods of Egypt and forty statues of Nemesis in the same number of sacred shrines, as well as numerous pyramids." He describes it further as having "banquet halls reached by steep ascents, flights of ninety steps leading down from the porticoes, porphyritic columns, figures of gods and hideous monsters, and statues of kings. Some of the palaces are so made that the opening of a door makes a terrifying sound as of thunder. Most of the buildings are in total darkness. Outside the labyrinth there is another great heap of buildings, called the 'Pteron,' under which are passages leading to other subterranean palaces."
Extracted from Mazes and Labyrinths: A general account of their history and developments by W.H. Matthews (1922).