Forgotten Figures: Imhotep

No, this Imhotep is not the priest from The Mummy (1999).  Imhotep was an ancient Egyptian man who took a simple enough idea that had developed over the centuries and turned it up a notch to create what was then the world’s largest stone building.  He is forgotten by all but Egyptologists and amateur enthusiastic historians but in his own time and for centuries afterward, he was a legend as an architect and healer.  Eventually, he would become a god.

Imhotep at the Louvre

One of the few images of Imhotep, currently housed at the Louvre.

Background

Imhotep lived and came to prominence in the reign of Djoser, which happened circa 2650 B.C.  His origins are largely unknown but classical historians put his town of birth at Gebelein, which was south of ancient Thebes in Upper Egypt.  Still others put his birthplace at Ankhtow, a suburb of Memphis in the north (Lower Egypt).  So I think we can safely say that no one has any firm idea where this man came from.  What we do know is that Imhotep was born into a fascinating and complicated time.

This was the early period of ancient Egypt, before all the famous pharaohs like Ramses II and Tutankhamun.  No, those people lived in the 19th and 18th Dynasties respectively while Djoser is considered the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty.  These people lived more than a thousand years apart and Egypt was not yet the powerhouse it would become in the New Kingdom.  Narmer had united Upper and Lower Egypt circa 2900 B. C. so the country was fairly new when you compare it to what it would eventually become: a three thousand year long relatively successful regional power.  The art compared to the Middle and New Kingdom art was basic and architecture was just in its infancy but Imhotep would help bring along a sort of renaissance that we would call the Pyramid age.  That’s still a little farther off in Egyptian history than we’ll cover today, however.

A surviving limestone statue from Djoser's funerary complex at Saqqara.

A surviving limestone statue from Djoser’s funerary complex at Saqqara.

Rise to Prominence

Most accounts of Imhotep’s life seem to place him as a commoner.  No one knows how he rose to prominence at the court of Djoser, but his rise would have been pretty meteoric as Djoser’s reign is dated as only lasting about 30 years.  By the time he would be commissioned to create Djoser’s funerary monument, Imhotep had a huge string of titles including: Royal Seal Bearer, First Under the King, Ruler of the Great Estate, Member of the Elite, Greatest of Seers and Overseer of Sculptors and Painters.

To break down this long list, the first two mean that he was a close adviser of the pharaoh, possibly even his unofficial chief adviser.  Where Djoser was unwilling or unable to take care of a problem, Imhotep would take over since he was First Under the King.  ‘Ruler of the Great Estate’ meant that Imhotep was also likely responsible for the day-to-day problems of running Djoser’s palace and the administration of the government.  Imhotep had a lot of power for a commoner, but as Tony Wilkinson notes in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, his career was not unusual as we know from the tomb of a man called Metjen.  Metjen has one of the earliest autobiographical texts in ancient Egypt and in it describes how he rose from a “humble storehouse clerk to a position in local government, followed by promotion to the governorship of several delta provinces.  At the end of his career, as a trusted courtier, Metjen was appointed controller of the king’s pleasure palace in the Fayum (55).”

Wherever he came from and however he got into Djoser’s inner circle does not concern us as much as what he did once he got there.

A diagram showing the elaborate network of tunnels Imhotep designed in order to confuse grave robbers.  Unfortunately, the pyramid was still robbed in antiquity.

A diagram showing the elaborate network of tunnels Imhotep designed in order to confuse grave robbers. Unfortunately, the pyramid was still robbed in antiquity.

The Step Pyramid

The Step Pyramid was and still is a very impressive monument at Saqqara but its origins are actually quite simple.  Ancient Egyptians in pre-historic times (before the written word) used very simple pit burials with modest grave goods out in the desert since they did not want to bury their dead near where the Nile flooded and crops were grown.  The sand would leach out all of the moisture from these bodies, thus preventing decay because bacteria don’t like feasting on dry things.  The downside of these pit burials was that over time, sand would blow away and expose the bodies, leaving them for jackals and other animals to rip apart and haul off.  This was completely unacceptable so the Egyptians thought of a rather novel innovation: mastabas.

Mastabas are essentially large house-like structures placed over these pits.  The pits would be dug into more solid rock and covered with a stone and then a monument would be built over them where people could enter and visit/pay their respects to their deceased loved ones.  Obviously the mastabas of commoners were a little more simple than the ones the pharaohs and nobility had.  Enter into this tradition, Imhotep.

When Imhotep was commissioned to build Djoser’s final resting place, things started out simply enough.  He made sure the workmen dug down onto the bedrock and levelled it to make sure the mastaba would not collapse or shift while it was being built.  And so he built a fairly large mastaba.  Except he wasn’t satisfied with it.  Maybe he had bigger ideas from the beginning or maybe as the mastaba was taking shape, he began to dream big but whenever the idea came about, Imhotep then decided to build another mastaba on top of the first one.  Then another, and another and another until finally the single mastaba turned into its familiar six-stepped form that we know today.

Now, this achievement cannot be overstated.  To our best knowledge, this was the first great stone monument in all of ancient Egypt.  It was also the largest monument in the world at the time.  It would have been no mean feat to a) get all of those stones up that high (it originally stood about 200 feet high) and b) to make sure the pyramid did not collapse under its own weight as there were several long tunnels and chambers underneath it to bury the pharaoh and his entire extended family.  Even though the core of it was mud-brick and rubble, the limestone casing blocks on the outside (to give it a smooth, polished appearance) were heavy enough that had the tunnels been poorly constructed they would have easily collapsed.  But Imhotep, following pretty much no earlier precedents, apparently knew what he was doing.  He had built the largest stone building in the world to date.

The treatise that may have been inspired by Imhotep's early efforts, written in a beautiful hieratic script.

The treatise that may have been inspired by Imhotep’s early efforts, written in a beautiful hieratic script.

Imhotep as a Physician

Imhotep is believed to have been one of the founders of ancient Egyptian medicine, which was so respected throughout the ancient world that any Greek physician who could went to Egypt to study there.  The Edwin Smith papyrus is usually attributed to him and if you get a chance to read it or a translation of it, you will notice that many of the maladies described within it are trauma-related.  It’s the oldest known surgical treatise on trauma and one of the reasons why I believe at least some of it may have been written by Imhotep himself is because many of the traumas described could have happened on a construction site.  The papyrus has at least two different authors and cuts off for no reason so it may have been a copy of an older papyrus from the Old Kingdom.  Either way, people in later centuries in Egypt came to believe Imhotep had been a powerful physician and magician, so I don’t think it’s an impossibility that Imhotep deserves at least some credit for the scroll.

Although the papyrus has the usual mistakes and misunderstandings from ancient times as well as ‘magical’ spells for the treatment of some maladies, it’s far more practical and advanced than you would think.  For instance, it talks about how to properly set bones so that they are more likely to heal, how to prevent and treat infection by applying honey to open wounds (honey having antiseptic properties) and stopping bleeding with raw meat.  If at least part of this text did come from the Old Kingdom and was written by Imhotep himself, he deserves far more recognition to us in the modern era than he normally gets.

Inspired by Imhotep's efforts with the Step Pyramid, the great pyramid-building era of Egypt began with Sneferu, who finally built a true pyramid on his third attempt.

Inspired by Imhotep’s efforts with the Step Pyramid, the great pyramid-building era of Egypt began with Sneferu, who finally built a true pyramid on his third attempt.

Imhotep’s Legacy

This edition of Forgotten Figures is shorter than my usual ones largely because it’s hard to separate Imhotep the man from Imhotep the god.  In the later dynasties of ancient Egypt, particularly during the reign of the last Cleopatra, Imhotep rose to prominence as a god.  He had been recognized for thousands of years as the equivalent of Christian saints today: he was recognized to have healing powers but was not a god per se.  This changed approximately 2,000 years after his death when he was officially recognized as the god of healing and medicine, equal to the other traditional gods of the Egyptian pantheon.  His prominence as a god then spread throughout the ancient world and he began to be identified with the Greek god Asklepios.

In a rather touching tribute to the man who created such an elaborate funerary monument, Imhotep was also thanked in his own lifetime by Djoser, who had Imhotep’s name inscribed by his own on his temple complex (which was in front of the Step Pyramid and was where people could worship the dead pharaoh).  To the ancient Egyptians, this was the ultimate thanks from a pharaoh, who was seen as a god on earth.  Djoser was making Imhotep practically his equal, which was utterly unheard of in the strict hierarchy of the times.  Imhotep seems to have outlived Djoser by a couple of years and helped out with his successor’s pyramid attempt, but died before it was finished and so it never really was finished because of that successor’s short reign.

He was a physician, a politician and an architect all rolled into one incredible package.  He lived a long life and seems to have done quite well for himself at court before dying of old age.  And most importantly to the ancient Egyptians, he would become a god.

Not bad for a commoner, right?


Sources:

(All pictures have been linked back to their original sites)

1.  The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

2.  The History of Ancient Egypt lectures by Dr. Bob Brier, published by The Teaching Company:

  • Lecture 7: The Rise of the Old Kingdom
  • Lecture 8: Sneferu, the Pyramid Builder
  • Lecture 24: Medicine—The Necessary Art

3.  Egypt:Imhotep, Doctor, Architect, High Priest, Scribe and Vizier to King Djoser from Tour Egypt.

4 comments

  1. Author Unpublished

    Woot! Finally, someone does an article on Imhotep. He really doesn’t get enough credit does he? Most people only remember the character from The Mummy movies. Imhotep’s always been one of my favorite Egyptian figures (since I did a report on him as a kid) and I’m a little embarrassed to say I named my cat, Imhotep, after him. Thanks for the informative article 🙂 You did a great job!

    • Carrie Slager

      Meh, no need to be embarrassed about naming your cat after a pretty cool historical figure. I named mine after a fictional character. 🙂

      No, Imhotep certainly doesn’t get enough credit. Enough of the Edwin Smith papyrus is likely from the Old Kingdom that I’m willing to give him at least some credit for the maladies/injuries described and their various treatments. The Egyptians certainly thought he was the father of their medicine. Since many Greek physicians studied in Egypt, I think Imhotep deserves the title of one of the ‘fathers of medicine.’ Even if he did believe fevers were caused by demons.

      And when you think about how he created the Step Pyramid, it’s just mind-boggling. The labour it would take to bring all of those heavy blocks and the cost of it all, both materials and labour (since contrary to popular belief, the pyramids were never built by slaves). I just wish there was more information out there about how Imhotep actually engineered the pyramid, particularly the tunnel complex underneath it. Unfortunately, no one really seems interested in such things, at least not in the sources I found.

  2. cav12

    A great post Carrie. Imhotep is a forgotten figure in Ancient history, as most of the credit seems to go to the pharaohs who commissioned the buildings. Some things never change.

    • Carrie Slager

      So very true! I definitely want to do articles on more pharaohs but everyone seems to forget that there were actual engineers behind all of those monuments. The architects and engineers of the times were absolutely brilliant in my opinion because in Imhotep’s time all they were going off of were some very basic stone buildings and their own imaginations and technical know-how. Literally no one else had done what they were about to do before so they had to be incredibly intelligent as well as practical. History has largely forgotten their names, though and that’s a shame.

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