Imhotep: Egypt’s Genius who Became a God

When you look back to the far ancient world, a few structures will stand out in your mind’s eye, rising in the dawn of human achievement – the pyramids. According to legend, one man was responsible for getting Egypt started on the road to the pyramids. That man was Imhotep, the royal architect, who the ancient Egyptians believed built the Step Pyramid. His reputation didn’t stop there. Imhotep was regarded as a genius scribe and healer. By the time of the Ptolemies, and probably long before then, Imhotep had become more than just a legend in Egypt. He’d become a god. His divine attributes weren’t only in architecture, but in medicine, letters, and magic. One document recovered from the Ptolemaic period is a prayer to Imhotep:

With my husband I prayed to the Lord God Imhotep, son of Ptah, the giver of favors, who grants sons to those who have none, and he answered our prayer as he does for those who pray unto him.

Now that’s a clue about a life well-lived!

Imhotep and the Step Pyramid

Though it had been a few hundred years since Narmer unified the country, ancient Egypt was still a nation being born during Imhotep’s time. The step that Imhotep was about to take was in fact more important than some of the grandest achievements of Egypt’s most glorious kings and dynasties. Thutmose III’s feats of arms were more successful than any of his predecessors, but they weren’t revolutionary. The Great Pyramid stood as the tallest man made structure in the world for 4,000 years, but it wasn’t revolutionary.

It was the work of Imhotep that took Egyptian architecture from square huts in the ground to towering structures in the sky. Previously, the dominant form of royal architecture in Egypt was the mastaba. This was a square or rectangular edifice that stood atop a tomb cut into the ground. It was what ancient Egyptian kings in the First and Second Dynasties used for their tombs and it lingered on long afterward.

Imhotep lived at the beginning of the ancient Egyptian Third Dynasty and he was the vizier to the king Djoser. Among the responsibilities assigned to this position (which was akin to a prime minister) was the construction of the royal tomb. Imhotep’s idea was to stack mastabas atop one another and create an entirely new form of architecture.

At first, the Step Pyramid had four steps, but it was enlarged to having six. Each “step” in the pyramid was a smaller mastaba superimposed over a larger one. The Step Pyramid was constructed of cut limestone, one of the first such Egyptian structures to be constructed in this way, as opposed to mud-brick. Like later pyramids, it was finished with an encasement of polished white limestone to give it a gleaming appearance.

The structure is solid, unlike later pyramids. There is an underground burial chamber which could be entered by way of the mortuary temple adjacent to the Step Pyramid. Tomb robbers got there a long time ago. Not even Imhotep’s genius could solve for that.

Imhotep Step Pyramid

Imhotep was credited with the building of the Step Pyramid by tradition, but excavations by archaeologists have found his name throughout the complex, revealing his connection to the structure as its overseer. Like other ancient legends, this one turned out to be true.

Medicine, Knowledge, and Magic?

What about the rest of the legend, beyond the Step Pyramid? This is where things get harder. The Third Dynasty of Egypt was a time of innovation in more ways than one. While the first two dynasties saw ancient Egypt make the giant leap from pre-history to civilization, the Third Dynasty was another giant leap from an embryonic civilization to a solid one. All of the norms of Egypt became canonized during this period. That included not only architecture and art, but more abstract knowledge.

This included medical wisdom. As we see in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, there have been medical texts discovered from the New Kingdom period that interestingly hint at modern theories of disease (that certain conditions are produced inside the body rather than through demonic possession). The language of the text is far older than the New Kingdom, though. In fact, it dates back at least to the time of the Fourth Dynasty. However, because these medical papyri were compendiums, it implies that the knowledge was gathered over an even longer time period. Some sources must have been even older, dating back to the time of the Third Dynasty – Imhotep’s heyday.

Does it prove that Imhotep was involved in gathering medical knowledge? No. As yet, all we have is a plausibility, but it’s interesting to note that yet another ancient legend has a kernel of truth. The knowledge we have about Imhotep is more than we have about a lot of legendary figures.

Legacy

It seems we haven’t talked enough about an immortal figure, but the passage of time erases a lot of things we could have otherwise known. Perhaps one day his tomb will be discovered and we’ll be able to get something akin to a true autobiography.

Imhotep Egypt

The important thing, though, is that Imhotep’s work survives to this day. The Step Pyramid is still visited by people from lands that the great architect would never have dreamed of existing. His name is carved in stone with the sprawling structure and he has implanted his name in history as a key figure in the rise of Egypt.

This is how true immortality is made. You don’t need to laud your own deeds on your tomb wall to make a name for yourself in time. If your work is spectacular and durable, it will speak for itself. It will even be more trustworthy than your autobiography, because the result will be seen, rather than heard. The Step Pyramid stands tall across Egypt and neither ancient nor modern men have disputed its grandeur. This is the way in which men become deified. Find your work and build it into a spectacle.

Get started on the process of finding, fulfilling, and making a spectacle of your work by reading Stumped today, and absorbing its persuasion knowledge.