The Messara Labyrinth in Crete

Speleological Exploration of the Messara Labyrinth in Crete

In 1982, members of the Speleological Exploring Hellenic Group (SPELEO) visited the Labyrinth of Messara twice, each visit lasting for several days, during which the cave was explored, photographed and cartographed in detail. The group published its photographical material and text in various newspapers and magazines.

Then, two years later, the unforgettable Anna Petrohilou, known as the Lady of Greek Speleology, led a team from the Hellenic Speleological Society on a visit to the cave. Its entrances were opened and the speleologists started accumulating vast amount of data. For 20 days the Labyrinth was systematically explored, with many Kasteli residents assisting the experts. The results, which were published in the Society’s periodical and discussed at many Greek and international congresses, rekindled interest in the Labyrinth by pointing out its historical value.

map of the labyrinth
The map of the Labyrinth by Anna Petrohilou

The Cretan Department of the Hellenic Speleological Society undertook its first autopsic study of the cave on April 8, 1999. It was immediately decided that a systematic study should continue, with emphasis on its morphology, damages caused by earlier explosions and, most importantly, the recording of all the names and signatures found on the walls of the cave. This ambitious exploration program is still evolving, with all expenses being paid for by personal contributions from the participating members of the Society.

Many new and important facts have already been brought to light as a result of this on-going exploration, and the Labyrinth has regained its rightful place as the subject of local and international speleology congresses. Although investigations are still a long way from completion, the volume of new data is impressive. Following is a summary of these findings.

The description of the existing areas in the Labyrinth, based on Anna Petrohilou’s cartography, is as follows:

The cave has two entrances – the central one and another located about 150 meters to the west. A section of the hillside directly over the eastern entrance was blown up by the German army right before its departure in the fall of 1944 in order to prevent access to all the fire power still stored inside the cave. Thousands of cubic meters of rock fell from the hill to block the opening. Today, in order for people to enter the cave they would have to crawl in between the boulders.

main entrance of the labyrinth
the main entrance destroyed by the explosion
west entrance of the labyrinth
the west entrance

The central entrance was converted by the Germans during the first year of occupation to a cement-built tunnel almost 20 meters long, 2-3 meters wide and 3.5 meters high. A tremendous amount of rubble caused by the German explosion was removed two years later by locals of neighbouring villages under the supervision of the Greek army’s 718 engineering Society. After the accidental explosion caused by playful youngsters in 1961, both entrances were closed with cement and iron fencing. Twenty-two years later, to accommodate Ms. Petrohilou and her team, they were re-opened.

The cave features molded corridors of a total length of 2.5 kilometers, which lead to or connect with various small and large carved chambers with a total expanse of 9,000 square meters.

Immediately following the long cement tunnel, there is a molded chamber 80 meters long, about 35 meters wide and roughly 2.5 meters high. The hall is compartmentalized, with sculptured columns of rectangular or irregular shapes supporting the ceiling. This area was used as a refuge during troubled times in the 18 th century, when locals from surrounding villages formed some private chambers to be used for extended stays.

During the German occupation the original hall was expanded to accommodate the storing of arms and ammunition, and was lighted by a generator – the base of which is still in the western part of the “First Chamber.” At that time, the ceiling was reinforced with parallelogram columns, and small rooms to be used as offices or additional warehouses were built.

Consequences of the big explosion are obvious throughout the entire area, with all the columns sustaining some damage. The molded columns have cracks of varying size, while the constructed supports are either leaning over or totally collapsed. Huge slabs of limestone, some many square meters in size, have broken loose from the ceiling and hang dangerously. Some have completely broken free and crashed to the floor. In one point north of the hall, there are hundreds of cubic meters of rubble blocking passageway. The stone debris was catapulted there by the tremendous force of the explosion at the cave’s entrance.

inside the labyrinth
the explosion has destroyed many parts of the labyrinth

Just east of the most northern section of this big hall, there is a corridor 1-2 meters wide and about 2 meters high. On both sides of the corridor, drywalls were constructed to contain the rubble, which extend to as much as 20 meters. Within a 40-meter distance, a small doorway was completely destroyed by the blast. After another 60 meters the cave widens again. To the west, there are two additional molded chambers – the “Secret Little Chamber” and the “Hall of Wrestling.” Then the cave continues due east and a plaque, more than a meter in diameter and filled with etched inscriptions from visitors, shows the way to the interior. A “Downhill Hall” immediately follows, the walls of which contain signatures of celebrity visitors, among many others, to the Labyrinth during the last centuries.

empty canon shells in the labyrinth of messara crete
empty cannon shells in the labyrinth

Continuing down this corridor, it once again narrows and, after 50 meters, there is another chamber, called the “Ceremony Hall,” which measures 20m X 17m X 2m. Just to the north is the cave’s first crossroads, named the “First Triway.” Here, the northern walls of the corridor have been re-shaped by the rubble, which filled in a huge hall about 100 meters by 50 meters. Off to the east, the corridor leads to a relatively roomy chamber, the “Repose Hall.” Then, moving southwesterly, the corridor comes to an end – the final destination for the thousands of visitors to the Labyrinth.

The “Altar Chamber,” as it has been known for centuries, is a molded room 15m X 12m X 3m (photo 10). For at least the last five and a half centuries most of the visitors to the Labyrinth have etched their names here.

From the “First Triway,” the cave continues due west and, after about 40 meters, the “Bat Chamber” (30m X 10m X 3m) opens off to the left. Then, north of the “Third Triway,” the corridor is wide enough, but hard to maneuver because of the fallen stones from the drywall. It ends up in two rooms with molded walls. In the room on the left – the “Thiseas Grotto” – the area has been shaped by drywalls and, from the hollows near the ceiling, there is evidence that one more large chamber was completely filled in with rubble. In the opposite direction there is the “Water Chamber” and a smaller hall, the “Secret Grotto.” The first room is the only place in the Labyrinth where water drips, and scattered about the area are pieces of vessels, obviously used to collect the water drop by drop.

To the south, the corridor continues with great difficulty, weaving between large stones, until the entrance to the “Altar Hall,” a small molded room, is reached. Directly in front of this area is the “Large Chamber,” which is mostly closed to visitors because of rocks slipping down. The cave continues due west and after 40 meters the “Uphill Hall” opens up. It is a relatively large room, also containing many old inscriptions and signatures, and cluttered with many fallen rocks in its northern sections (photo 11).

A 100-meter-long corridor, 1-2 meters wide and 2-4 meters high, leads due north to the “Deceptive or False Triway.” A left turn at this juncture leads to the central entrance, while the southeast route goes to the second entrance.

NOTE. This article is based on the book “The Labyrinth of Messara” by Kaloust Paragamian and Antonis Vasilakis.

Read more:

Read more:

© All Rights Reserved. Reproduction or copying without permission is prohibited.

Similar Posts