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Imhotep: Priest, Architect and Physician

Statuette of Imhotep
Statuette of Imhotep

Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE) was a priest, vizier to Egypt’s King Djoser, an architect, mathematician, astronomer, poet and physician. An Egyptian polymath, Imhotep achieved fame for his breakthrough architectural design of King Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

His virtuoso contribution to Egyptian culture was recognized when he became the sole Egyptian outside of the pharaoh Amenhotep to be elevated to the rank of a deity in c. 525 BCE. Imhotep became the god of wisdom, architecture, medicine and science.

Facts About Imhotep

  • Imhotep was the Pharaoh Djoser’s vizier and adviser, his second in command
  • Born a commoner in c. 27th century BCE, Imhotep worked his way up by his sheer genius
  • He was the architect of the Step Pyramid in Saqqara, the oldest known Egyptian pyramid
  • Imhotep was also a revered healer and High Priest at Heliopolis,
  • Imhotep was the first Master Architect known to history by name
  • He authored an architectural encyclopedia used by Egyptian architects for millennia
  • After his death, Imhotep was elevated to divine status in c. 525 BCE and was worshipped at his temple in Memphis.

Imhotep’s Lineage And Honours

Imhotep whose name translates as “He Who Comes in Peace” was born a commoner and advanced to one of the most important and influential roles in the service of his king through sheer natural ability. Imhotep’s early administrative origins lay as a temple priest of Ptah.

Imhotep served as King Djoser’s (c. 2670 BCE) vizier and chief architect. During his life, Imhotep accumulated many honours spanning Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, First After the King of Upper Egypt, High Priest of Heliopolis, Administrator of the Great Palace, Chief Sculptor and Maker of Vases and Hereditary Nobleman.

Djoser’s Groundbreaking Step Pyramid

Rising to the position of high priest of Ptah under King Djoser, his responsibility to interpret the wishes of their gods positioned Imhotep as an obvious choice to oversee construction of King Djoser’s eternal resting place.

The Egyptian kings’ early tombs took the form of mastabas. These were massive rectangular structures built from dried mud bricks built over a subterranean room where the deceased king was interred. Imhotep’s innovative design for the Step Pyramid involved altering a royal mastaba’s traditional rectangular base to a square base.

These early mastabas were constructed in two phases. The dried mud bricks were laid in courses angled toward the pyramid’s centre. The tomb’s structural stability was significantly increased using this technique. Early mastabas were decorated with engravings and inscriptions and Imhotep continued this tradition. Djoser’s massive mastaba pyramid was enlivened with the same intricate decoration and deep symbolism as the tombs, which preceded it.

When it was finally finished, Imhotep’s Step Pyramid towered 62 meters (204 feet) into the air making it the ancient world’s tallest structure. The sprawling temple complex surrounding it incorporated a temple, shrines, courtyards and the priest’s quarters. Surrounded by a wall 10.5 meters (30 feet) high, it covered an area of 16 hectares (40 acres). A trench 750 meters (2,460 feet) long by 40 meters (131 feet) wide ringed the entire wall.

So impressed was Djoser by Imhotep’s magnificent monument that he set side ancient precedent dictating only the king’s name should be inscribed on his memorial and ordered Imhotep’s name to be inscribed inside the pyramid. Upon Djoser’s death Imhotep is believed by scholars to have served Djoser’s successors, Sekhemkhet (c. 2650 BCE), Khaba (c. 2640 BCE), and Huni (c. 2630-2613 BCE). Scholars continue to disagree as to whether Imhotep stayed in the service these four Third Dynasty kings, however, evidence indicates Imhotep enjoyed a long and productive life and remained in demand for his talents and experience.

Third Dynasty Pyramids

Whether Imhotep was involved in Sekhemkhet’s pyramid and his mortuary complex is still debated by scholars today. However, their design and construction philosophy shares some similarities with Djoser’s pyramid. Originally designed on a larger scale than Djoser’s pyramid, Sekhemkhet’s pyramid remained incomplete at his death. Certainly, the pyramid’s foundation and initial level are similar to Imhotep’s design approach to Djoser’s step pyramid.

Khaba succeeded Sekhemkhet and started work on a pyramid of his own, today called the Layer Pyramid. It too remained incomplete at Khaba death. The Layer Pyramid displays design echoes of Djoser’s pyramid, particularly its square foundation base and the method of laying the stone inclined toward the pyramid’s centre. Whether Imhotep designed the Layer Pyramid and Buried Pyramid or they simply adopted his design strategy remains unknown and as far as scholars are concerned, open to debate. Imhotep is also believed to have advised the Third Dynasty’s final king, Huni.

Imhotep’s Medical Contribution

Imhotep’s medical practice and writing predate Hippocrates, commonly acknowledged as the Father of Modern Medicine by 2,200 years. While Imhotep’s Step Pyramid is regarded as the pinnacle of his achievements, he is also remembered for his medical treatises, which regarded disease and injury as naturally occurring rather than being inflicted by curses or punishments sent by gods.

The Greeks compared Imhotep to Asclepius the demi-god of healing. His works remained influential and extremely popular throughout the Roman Empire and the emperors Tiberius and Claudius both had inscriptions praising the benevolent god Imhotep in their temples.

Imhotep is widely considered to be the author of an innovative Egyptian medical text, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which outlines almost 100 anatomical terms and describes 48 injuries together with their recommended treatment.

A fascinating aspect of the text is its almost modern approach to tending injuries. Eschewing magical treatments, each injury is described and accompanied by a diagnosis together with a prognosis and a recommended course of treatment.

The prognosis that accompanies each entry was described by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as outlining one of the earliest forms of medical ethics.

Legacy

Imhotep’s vision of a colossal monument honouring his king broke new ground in Egypt changed the world in the process. Aside from the creative genius of is amazing design, translating his imagination into stone required unparalleled feats of organization, logistics and technical virtuosity.

All the majestic temples, Giza’s monumental pyramids, the sprawling administrative complexes, tombs and palaces and soaring majestic statues which have come to represent Egypt in the popular imagination, all flow from Imhotep’s leap of inspiration for Saqqara’s Step Pyramid. Once the Step Pyramid had been completed, freshly wrought skills were applied with newly won experience and improved technology to Giza’s pyramid complex. Moreover, visitors touring Egypt witnessed these epic feats of construction and sent back accounts describing them, firing the imagination of a new generation of architects.

Alas Imhotep’s writings on religion and morality together with his treatises on architecture, poetry and scientific observations, referred to in later writers’ works failed to survive the passage of time.

Reflecting On The Past

Was Imhotep’s rise and rise evidence of upward mobility amongst Egypt’s social classes or was he a one-off propelled by his polymath genius?

Header image courtesy: Rama [CC BY-SA 3.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Imhotep: Priest, Architect and Physician," Give Me History, March 7, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/imhotep.

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