Tomb robbing might just be the second oldest profession. Egyptians, ancient and modern, were and are some of the best at the trade. As soon as the earliest Egyptians buried their dead with goods, tomb robbers swooped in to take advantage. It was a law as fixed as gravity: if thieves knew where a tomb was, they would rob it. Trying to defy laws of nature has been a hallmark of our species, though, and Egyptian rulers tried their best to thwart the thieves. The most impressive attempt came with the pyramid of Amenemhat III at Hawara. Would this miniature labyrinth actually work, though?
Amenemhat III came to power near the peak of the Twelfth Dynasty and the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. By this time, pharaohs had long-ceased building the monumental pyramids of the type seen at Giza. The architectural movement Snefru began had passed. Their pyramids were of the same shape, but much smaller, and they were often built in mud brick around a core of limestone passages, rather than pure stone.
Snefru and his Fourth Dynasty successors believed that by building tombs at such a scale, they would thwart the thieves. The pyramids were simply too monumental and difficult to break into, they reasoned. It didn’t work that way, of course. Tomb robbers carved gashes and gouges through the stone. The barriers did not prevent them from taking all of the treasure. This would have been time-consuming and arduous, but a look at the wealth that survives to our own time shows how big the reward would have been, especially in comparison to the meager opportunities normal Egyptian economic activity would have provided.
All the kings up to Amenemhat III failed to stop tomb robbers. This king knew he needed to try a different option to protect his wealth for the afterlife. He first built the “Black Pyramid” at Dahshur, close to Snefru’s pyramids, but had to abandon that effort after the pyramid became unstable, much like Snefru’s Bent Pyramid had been.
And much like Snefru, Amenemhat III was resilient enough to try again, this time with a much more sophisticated plan in mind. So he set out constructing his pyramid at Hawara, located near to the much larger labyrinth building that Herodotus saw. “Labyrinth” is the key word in describing the pyramid, too.
The Pyramid of Amenemhat III
Amenemhat constructed his Hawara pyramid in mudbrick. This was not unusual. What was unusual was the labyrinthine structure he had his architects pack into such a small space. Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs explores the pyramid through the eyes of William Flinders Petrie, one of the towering giants of Egyptian archaeology. Like any legend in his field, Petrie had a knack for adventure. He was undoubtedly a genius. This was the man who figured out how to date Egypt long before the pharaohs, using nothing but pots, for example. But he did not pen himself up in an ivory tower. He explored everywhere and that included the insides of the pyramids.
So one day in 1880, William Flinders Petrie went to Hawara and came upon a curious mound. It looks like a natural feature to the untrained eye, but Petrie knew what it was. He journeyed inside the pyramid. It must have been unlike anything else he had encountered. If there were a labyrinth to inspire the later labyrinth on Crete, which in turn birthed the Minotaur legend, the Hawara pyramid of Amenemhat III is it.
The Hawara pyramid first presents the visitor with what appears a dead-end past the entrance. If it were you, where would you look to go next? The way forward came through the ceiling. You now think you’re making progress, but you’re presented with another wall. Carve through this obstacle and you get nothing. If you could somehow find the real passageway, you’d eventually come across another chamber which looked like a dead end.
If you managed to get this far, you would now need to look for a sliding door which…gave you what looked like another dead end! If you wanted to go further, you needed to look for a trapdoor. This led to a passage that veered away from the real burial chamber, but would present you, wary traveler, with two false ones. At the end of the passage was another stone obstacle, which only led to another dead end. The entrance to the real burial chamber lay hidden in the middle of this hallway.
This is the basic layout of Amenemhat III’s pyramid as told by Barbara Mertz on page 120 of Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs.
So…did the thieves figure it out?
The Pyramid in Later Times
You know the answer. Of course the thieves got in. Once they took their fill, they set fire to the chamber for good measure. Later kings naturally took the casing limestone and used it in their own buildings, leaving only a little hump at Hawara.
When Petrie visited the Hawara pyramid in 1880, he worked through the chambers backwards, wriggling around in darkness, mud, and miasmatic air. According to Mertz, he came out the entrance with slime up to his ears, stripped near naked. At least his find had yielded a few scraps. He found some duck-shaped bowls, a wooden coffin, and an alabaster table with one of Anememhat’s daughters named on it.
Through such work, you become a titan in your field.
Amenemhat III may have been unable to prevent tomb robbers from getting into the Hawara pyramid, and it may only be a stump today, but the structure lets us marvel at ancient man’s boldness and ingenuity. You can absorb much more of that boldness and ingenuity by reading Lives of the Luminaries here.
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