In the 27th century BCE, there lived an incredible man named Imhotep. He was a commoner who arose to great prominence by impressing King Djoser, the second ruler of Egypt’s Third Dynasty, with his sheer genius in multiple fields of study. Imhotep was evidently a polymath who made groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in areas such as medicine, math, engineering, theology, and even art. The massive impact of his ideas on ancient Egypt was comparable in scope and importance to that of Aristotle in Greece and Confucius in China.
There is no doubt that King Djoser cherished the advice and aid of his brilliant minister, Imhotep. Archeologists have found several inscriptions carved during the reign of Djoser that give a clear description of Imhotep’s immense influence. On an excavated statue of Djoser, a dedication found on the statue’s pedestal (now labeled Cairo JE 49889) stated that Imhotep was the “first one” in rank under the king, and that he served as the king’s chancellor, his palace administrator, his chief sculptor, his chief carpenter and his High Priest in Heliopolis. The pedestal also stated that Imhotep had been promoted from his common social status to a hereditary noble. A separate artifact, the Famine Stela (discovered in 1890), also mentions Imhotep as King Djoser’s chief priest and chief architect. The Famine Stela received its name because it celebrated the end of a seven-year famine—one ended by none other than Imhotep.
The Famine Stela also referenced Imhotep’s most famous achievement, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. It was the first pyramid built in Egypt, and is thought to be the first monumental stone structure ever constructed in human history. Before Imhotep, the tombs of Egyptian kings had been rectangular, one-story tall structures called mastabas. Imhotep revolutionized the design of the king’s tomb by designing a more square mastaba and then stacking smaller mastabas on top of larger bases, producing a step pyramid. Djoser’s Step Pyramid, planned and constructed under Imhotep’s watchful eye, consisted of six stacked steps, reaching about 61 meters in height (approximately 200 feet). If building the first pyramid in Egypt is not impressive enough, Imhotep is also believed to be the first pioneer to suggest using columns in architecture.
Equally impressive is the legacy of Imhotep in medicine. He is thought to have been the first herbalist/pharmacist in history, as he is the earliest known medical practitioner to produce medicines from plants. In addition, scholars strongly suggest that the Edwin Smith Papyrus (dated about 1600 BCE) is a later copy of Imhotep’s work. The papyrus, named after the collector who discovered it in 1862, is the oldest known treatise on medicine—it covers about 48 medical ailments, teaching the reader how to diagnose and treat each situation, followed by a prognosis and other additional details.
Imhotep is thought to have outlived King Djoser and went on to serve several of the king’s successors. By the time of Imhotep’s own death, his reputation must have been otherworldly, for he was recognized as a demigod only a century after his passing. Millennia later, in 525 BCE, the Persians conquered Egypt. Interestingly enough, the worship of Imhotep only increased while Egypt was under Persian rule—during that time, he was promoted from demigod status to that of a full deity. When the Greeks came in contact with worshipers of Imhotep, they associated the Egyptian deity with their own god, Asclepius. By 293 BCE, Imhotep-Asclepius worship spread to Rome, under the name Aesculapius. Just as the mortal Imhotep was a polymath of many fields of studies, the divine Imhotep was also a god of many categories. He was considered a god of wisdom, science and architecture, but he was best known as a god of medicine. As a result, many people visited his temple at Memphis in search of miraculous healings.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Statue of Imhotep in the Louvre, created between 332 and 30 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).