imhotep (Greek name, imouthes, c. 2667-2600 BC) was an Egyptian scholar (a person skilled in many areas of learning) best known as the architect of the step pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara. His name means “he who comes in peace” and he is the only Egyptian other than Amenhotep who has been fully deified.
Over time, he became the god of wisdom and medicine (or, according to some sources, the god of science, medicine, and architecture). imhotep was a priest, vizier to king djoser (and possibly to the three subsequent kings of the third dynasty), poet, physician, mathematician, astronomer, and architect.
Although his step pyramid is considered his crowning achievement, he was also remembered for his medical treatises which considered disease and injury to occur naturally rather than punishments sent by gods or inflicted by spirits or curses. he was deified by the Egyptians in c. 525 B.C. c. and the Greeks equated him with the healing demigod of Asclepius. His works remained extremely popular and influential during the Roman Empire and the Emperors Tiberius and Claudius had their temples inscribed with praise to the benevolent god Imhotep.
step pyramid of djoser
Under the reign of King Djoser (c. 2670 BC) Imhotep was vizier and chief architect. Throughout his life, he would bear many titles, including first after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Grand Palace, Chancellor to the King of Lower Egypt, Hereditary Nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, and Chief Sculptor and Vase Maker. Imhotep was a commoner by birth who rose to the position of one of the most important and influential men in Egypt through his natural talents.
He may have started out as a temple priest and was a very religious man. he became high priest of ptah (and was reverently known as “son of ptah”) under djoser and, with his understanding of the will of the gods, was in the best position to oversee the construction of the eternal palace of the king. house. The first tombs of the kings of Egypt were mastabas, rectangular structures of dried mud bricks built over underground chambers where the dead were placed. When imhotep began building the step pyramid, he changed the traditional shape of the king’s mastaba from a rectangular base to a square one. It is unknown why Imhotep decided to change the traditional shape, but it is likely that he had a square-based pyramid in mind from the beginning.
The primitive mastaba was built in two stages and, according to Egyptologist Miroslav Verner, “a simple but effective method of construction was used. The masonry was not laid vertically but in sloping rows towards the middle of the pyramid, which significantly increased its structural stability, the basic material used were limestone blocks, the shape of which resembled that of large clay bricks (115-116).” The first mastabas had been decorated with inscriptions and engravings of reeds and Imhotep wanted carry on that tradition. His great and imposing mastaba pyramid would have the same delicate touches and resonant symbolism as the more modest tombs that had preceded it, and better still, all of them would be carved from stone rather than dried mud. historian mark van de mieroop comments on this, writing:
imhotep reproduced in stone what had previously been built with other materials. the façade of the enclosure wall had the same niches as the adobe tombs, the columns resembled bundles of reed and papyrus, and the stone cylinders on the lintels of the portals represented rolled-up reed screens. Much experimentation was involved, which is especially clear in the construction of the pyramid at the center of the complex. had several mastaba-shaped plans before it became the first step pyramid in history, stacking six mastaba-like levels on top of each other… the weight of the enormous mass was a challenge for the builders, who placed the stones at a height inclining inwards to avoid breaking the monument. (56)
When completed, the Step Pyramid rose 204 feet (62 meters) tall and was the tallest structure of its time. the surrounding complex included a temple, courtyards, shrines, and living quarters for the priests that covered an area of 40 acres (16 hectares) and were surrounded by a wall 30 feet (10.5 meters) high. the wall had 13 false doors cut into it with only one true doorway cut in the southeast corner; then the entire wall was surrounded by a trench 750 meters (2,460 ft) long and 40 meters (131 ft) wide. historian margaret bunson writes:
imhotep built the complex as a mortuary sanctuary for djoser, but it became a stage and an architectural model for the spiritual ideals of the Egyptian people. the step pyramid was not just a single pyramidal tomb, but a collection of temples, chapels, pavilions, corridors, storerooms, and halls. fluted columns emerged from stone according to his plan. however, he made the walls of the complex conform to those of the king’s palace, according to ancient architectural styles, thus preserving a link with the past. (123)
Djoser was so impressed with imhotep’s creation that he ignored the ancient precedent that only the king’s name appears on his monuments and inscribed imhotep’s name as well. When Djoser died, he was placed in the burial chamber below the step pyramid and it is believed that Imhotep went on to serve his successors, Sekhemkhet (c. 2650 BCE), Khaba (c. 2640 BCE) and Huni (c. 2630 -2613 BC). Scholars disagree on whether Imhotep served all four kings of the Third Dynasty, but evidence suggests that he lived a long life and was highly sought after for his talents.
third dynasty pyramids
imhotep may have been involved in the design and construction of the sekhemkhet pyramid and complex which, according to archaeologists, was originally intended to be larger than that of djoser. The pyramid was never completed because Sekhemkhet died in the sixth year of his reign, but the base and first level show similarities in design to Imhotep’s work on Djoser’s pyramid.
Sekhemkhet was succeeded by Khaba, who commissioned his own pyramid, now known as the Layer Pyramid, which was also left unfinished when Khaba died. The layered pyramid is also similar in design to the Djoser monument, especially in the square base of the foundation and the technique of building toward the center of the structure rather than upward. It is not known if the Layered Pyramid and the Buried Pyramid were designed by Imhotep himself or based on his designs.
There are scholars who argue for imhotep’s personal hand on the later pyramids and others who challenge that claim. Since both sides of the debate point to the same evidence, and nothing new has emerged to tip the balance, the matter remains unresolved. Imhotep is also believed to have served the last king, huni, but as little is known of huni’s reign, this claim remains speculative. huni were once thought to have built their own pyramids, but have now been positively identified with other kings.
imhotep was practicing medicine and writing about it 2,200 years before hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was born. he is generally considered the author of the edwin smith papyrus, an egyptian medical text, which contains almost 100 anatomical terms and describes 48 injuries and their treatment. the text may have been a military field manual and dates to c. 1600 BC, long after Imhotep’s time, but is believed to be a copy of his earlier work.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is named for the collector who bought it from an antiquities dealer in AD 1862. it is written in hieratic script, the cursive shorthand of Egyptian hieroglyphs. the most interesting aspect of the job is the modern approach he takes to treating injuries. Unlike many medical texts of the ancient world, the Edwin Smith Papyrus makes little use of magical treatments. each lesion is rationally described and diagnosed with the following treatment, prognosis and explanatory notes. This does not mean that reference is not made to the medical practices in common use at the time; the reverse side of the papyrus features eight magical spells and chants for healing.
exams are described in the same way as a modern visit to a doctor. patients are asked where they are hurt/in pain, then the doctor treats the wound by touching or prodding and questioning the patient. the prognosis given after each entry begins with the phrases “an ailment that i will manage” or “an ailment that i will fight” or “an ailment that nothing can be done about” which, according to the us . uu. the national library of medicine article on the subject, “could be seen as the oldest form of medical ethics, since an ancient physician would generally refuse to treat a condition he knew to be fatal.” the national library article goes on to observe that these forecasts could also have served as a kind of insurance “when a bad outcome is expected” and would have helped save a doctor’s reputation if the treatment failed to cure the patient.
A number of didactic writings on morality and religion, as well as poetry, scientific observations, and treatises on architecture are also attributed to Imhotep, but have not survived; they are referred to in works by later writers. Regarding his masterpiece, the Step Pyramid, Miroslav Verner writes:
few monuments hold such an important place in human history as the step pyramid of saqqara… its pyramid complex can be said without exaggeration to be a milestone in the evolution of monumental stone architecture in egypt and in the world. like an everything. here limestone was first used on a large scale as a building material, and here the idea of a monumental pyramid-shaped royal tomb was first realized. In an inscription from the 19th dynasty found in the south of Saqqara, the ancient Egyptians already described Djoser as ‘the stone opener’, which we can interpret as the inventor of stone architecture. (108-109)
The innovations attributed to Djoser were actually started by Imhotep following his vision of building a colossal monument entirely of stone. he was able to imagine a feat never before attempted, perhaps never even conceived, and make it a reality; in doing so, he changed the world. the great temples and administrative buildings, palaces and tombs, the majestic pyramid monuments and towering statues that came to define the Egyptian landscape all began with imhotep’s vision of the step pyramid at saqqara.
Once a stone monument was completed, it could be tried again and again with increased attention to detail and improvements in technology to create the “true pyramids” of Giza. Furthermore, visitors from Egypt who saw these immense creations brought reports of them back to their own countries, such as Greece, who then built on what Imhotep had first envisioned and then brought to life.