Imhotep (fl. c. 3000 B.C.) was one of world history's most versatile geniuses. Inventor of the pyramid, author of ancient wisdom, architect, high priest, physician, astronomer, and scribe, Imhotep's prodigious talents and vast acquired knowledge had such an effect on his Egyptian contemporaries that he became one of only a handful of individuals of nonroyal birth to be promoted to godhood.
Until the late-nineteenth century Egyptologists knew Imhotep, who lived around 3,000 B.C., as a demigod (a mortal with almost divine powers) and then a full deity (or god) of medicine, with numerous temples and a well-organized cult devoted to him between 525 B.C. and 550 A.D. His name was inscribed alongside such powerful deities as Isis and Thoth, but they were purely religious and legendary figures. Until the 1926 discovery at Sakkara of a statue base describing Imhotep as a sculptor and carpenter, a human contemporary of King Zoser of the Third Dynasty, scholars did not believe that a man could achieve such a powerful position among the Egyptian gods.
Second in a Long Line of Architects
Imhotep, or "he who cometh in peace," was born in Ankhtowe, a suburb of Memphis. The month and day of his birth are noted precisely as the sixteenth day of Epiphi, third month of the Egyptian harvest, (corresponding to May 31), but the year is not definitely recorded. It is known that Imhotep was a contemporary of the Pharaoh Zoser (a.k.a. Neterikhet) of the Third Dynasty, but estimates of the era of his reign vary by as much as 300 years, falling between 2980 and 2600 B.C. Imhotep's father, Kanofer, was a distinguished architect who later became known as the beginning of a long line of master builders who contributed to Egyptian works through the reign of King Darius the First in 490 B.C. His mother, Khreduonkh, who probably came from the province of Mendes, is known today for having been deified alongside her son in accordance with Egyptian custom.
Vizier under King Zoser
The office of the vizier in politics was literally described as "supervisor of everything in this entire land," and only the best educated and multifaceted citizen could handle the range of duties associated with serving the Pharaoh so closely. As vizier, Imhotep was chief counsel to Zoser in both religious and practical matters, and he controlled the departments of the Judiciary, Treasury, War, Interior, Agriculture, and the General Executive. The vizier was also believed to have powers beyond those of a mere political figure, and the office was also described as "supervisor of that which Heaven brings, the Earth creates and the Nile brings."
There are no historical records of Imhotep's acts as a political figure, but his wisdom as a religious counsel was widely hailed for ending a terrible famine that afflicted Egypt during seven years of Zoser's reign. It was told that the king was failing in his responsibility to appease the god Khnum, and that his negligence was causing the Nile to fall short of a flood level sufficient to irrigate Egyptian farms. Imhotep, having a vast knowledge of the proper traditions and methods of worship, was able to counsel Zoser on placating the god of the cataract, allowing the Nile to return to its usual flood level. The image of Imhotep as the "bringer of the Nile inundation," found at his temple at Philae, relates directly to those at Memphis, where as a God of Medicine, Imhotep was especially known for the miracle of bringing fertility to the barren.
Architect of the Famous Pyramid at Sakkara
The Step Pyramid at Sakkara is the only of Imhotep's achievements that can still be seen and appreciated today, and its reputation is largely based on his accomplishments as the pyramid's inventor and builder. By far the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World, this first pyramid— actually only part of a large complex of buildings—was the first structure ever built of cut stone. It took 20 years to complete, and given the newness of the idea and the state of structural science in the Bronze Age, the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architecture concludes that its construction must have required "all of the initiative and courage of a genius."
The design of the pyramid was inspired by the Egyptian belief that the tomb should "allow the deceased to mingle with the circumpolar stars, thus fulfilling his stellar destiny." Imhotep wanted the tomb to accommodate the Pharaoh's ascent into the heavens. To do this, he planned to improve upon the flat, rectangular mastabas, or built-in benches, which were the traditional tombal structures. About 600 feet north of the original mastaba, where the inner organs of the mummy were kept, Imhotep began the pyramid with another mastaba structure twice the traditional size, approximately 350 feet on the north and south walls by 400 feet on the east and west. The pyramid was raised on top of this structure in five successively smaller steps, or accretion layers, with a passageway on the north side issuing upward within the structure from a sarcophagus chamber (where the stone coffin holding the mummy is kept) 75 feet below ground. The total height of the pyramid and base is just under 200 feet, unimaginably large for a single structure before Imhotep's design.
The project at Sakkara was designed in its entirety as a medium for the deceased to perform the rituals of the jubilee festival, or Hebsed. The complex consisted of many other buildings, as well as ornamental posts some 37 feet high sculpted into drooping leaves, blooms of papyrus, and sedge flower. These carved stone imitations of the images of Hebsed, which was traditionally carried out in buildings made of plant stems, were finished with a bright green ceramic to make them more colorful and lifelike. The Egyptians believed that a sufficient approximation of the real thing would respond by magic for the deceased to the various incantations of the festival.
The protection of the king and his endowment of burial gifts—about 36,000 vessels of alabaster, dolomite, aragonite, and other precious materials—was the other primary function of the burial site. The entire complex, about one-quarter by one-half mile in area, was enclosed within a stone wall about 35 feet high. Of 14 entrance towers projecting from the wall, the doors of 13 were carved imitations, complete with effects for door leaves and a lock. Only two of the buildings, the royal pavilion and the funerary temple where the spirit could perform the liturgies of Hebsed, were actually designed to be entered by the deceased. These were surrounded by dummy buildings filled with sand, gravel and other rubble, also included solely to confuse would-be invaders. As a final measure, the king's treasure was lowered through vertical shafts around the tomb into a long corridor 100 feet below ground. The digging of just this corridor without earth-moving machines of any kind is a phenomenal accomplishment by modern standards.
It is likely that Imhotep was the architect and master builder of many other projects completed during a 40-year period of the Third Dynasty, though none of them compare in size or stylistic influence to the burial site at Sakkara. A graffito, or ink-marking, in the unfinished temple of Zoser's successor, King Sekhemkhet, mentions the "seal-bearer of the king of Lower Egypt, Imhotep." The estimates of Imhotep's death date generally coincide with the fifth year of Sekhemkhet's reign, so it is possible that the abandonment of the project coincided with the death of the master builder. It would not be surprising that no other builder in Egypt could continue a work begun by the incomparable genius. Imhotep was also the author of an encyclopedia of architecture that was consulted by Egyptian builders for thousands of years after his death. A temple of Imhotep as god of medicine, constructed at Edfu under Ptolemy IX (r. 107-88 B.C.), was recorded to have been built "as specified by the Book of the Order of a Temple, which the chief lector priest Imhotep the Great, son of Ptah, had redacted."
Physician-Magician, God of Medicine
As a god of medicine, Imhotep was beloved as a mediator of everyday problems who could "provide remedies for all diseases," and "give sons to the childless." Members of the cult of Imhotep in the Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Dynasties would pay tribute to the God at his temple just outside Memphis, which also contained halls devoted to the teaching of clinical methods, and to the preservation of the materia medica, papyri detailing the entirety of Egyptian medical knowledge which may actually have originated with Imhotep. His name was often grouped in with such powerful deities as Thoth, God of Wisdom; Isis, the wonder-worker; and Ptah, a healer and the ancient God of Memphis. Although other mortals were deified by the Egyptians, Imhotep is unique for being known by his own name as a god inferior in power only to the chief Sun-God, Re. Imhotep was also a member of the great triad of Memphis, with Ptah, Imhotep's father among the gods, and Sekhmet, a goddess associated with procreation and childbirth.
Science historians do not have the surviving examples of Egyptian medical practices that the pyramids provide the student of architecture. It is a matter of debate today how much of Imhotep's reputation as a curer of disease stems from medical prowess and how much comes from his sage's command of magic and healing rituals. The renowned writer and historian of science, Isaac Asimov, referred to Imhotep as "the first historic equivalent, known by name, of what we would today call a scientist," while the Oxford Companion to Medicine takes the more conservative position that "there is no contemporary evidence of his being a physician." Unfortunately, the papyri of the materia medica have not been recovered, but other medical documents such as the Ebers refer to them as a rich source of scientific knowledge.
Further Reading on Imhotep
Breasted, James Henry, A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912.
Placzek, Adolf K., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects, Macmillan, 1982, pp. 454-464.
Hurry, Jamieson Boyd, Imhotep, the Vizier and Physician of King Zoser, and Afterwards the Egyptian God of Medicine, AMS Press, 1928, 1978.
Walton, John, Paul B. Beeson, and Ronald M. Scott, eds., The Oxford Companion to Medicine, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Doubleday, 1982, p. 1.
Great Engineers and Pioneers in Technology, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp. 9-10.