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Short history of labyrinths

The oldest known graphic representation of a labyrinth is carved on a piece of mammoth ivory. This was found in a Paleolithic tomb in Siberia and is older than 5000 BC!

Other early recordings of classical labyrinths are ancient rock carvings in Spain (2000 BC), Italy (750 BC) and Morocco (500 BC). Examples of classical labyrinths were also found on ancient Greek coins from Crete (300 BC).

During the Roman Empire square mosaic labyrinths were built with more intricate patterns. Today some examples can still be seen at several museums throughout Europe, among others the Vienna and Pamplona museums.

From the early ninth century Christian manuscripts began depicting classical labyrinths labeled Jericho.

Solvitur ambulando.
It is solved by walking. Kulungiswa ngokuhamba.
- Augustine

During the Middle Ages, the classical labyrinth symbol was transformed to incorporate Christian symbology (i.e. the cross) and built in cathedrals. Also known as pavement labyrinths, they were walked as a substitute for the long and arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Several pavement labyrinths in cathedrals in northern France were known as "Chemin de Jérusalem" or the Road to Jerusalem. Of the 80 cathedrals in France and Italy during the Middle Ages, 22 of them had labyrinths.

The first known Christian labyrinth was built in Algeria in the Basilica of Reparatus in Orleansville, dating from the year 328. It is small, about 2,5 metres in diameter, square and in the centre is a word puzzle that make up the words "Sancta Ecclesia".

The first known European church labyrinth is in the Church of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. This small black and white paved labyrinth has seven circuits in a unique design, dates from the sixth century and is part of a much larger octagonal pattern on the floor.

The best known authentic example of an 11 circuit Medieval Labyrinth is the one in Chartres Cathedral, France, built in 1201. (As Dr Lauren Artress, labyrinth master, so aptly says: "A labyrinth is not New Age. It is Middle Age!") This labyrinth is the oldest walking-size Christian path in the world and is 12,85 metres in diameter.

The modern labyrinth revival, which started in the 1970s, has birthed labyrinths all around the world in public parks, private gardens, universities, schools, hospitals, churches, retreat centres and prisons. Jeff Saward, author of several labyrinth books, says: "Throughout the history of the labyrinth, whenever and wherever society is undergoing rapid change and development, the labyrinth has blossomed."

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