Overview/Biography -- In many academic circles, the man Imhotep (He who comes in peace) exemplifies the rich tradition of Ancient Egypt. He was an Egyptian royal, but not a ruler, who served under the Third Dynasty King Djoser as his Chancellor and then High Priest to the sun god Ra in the city of Heliopolis. His accomplishments were quite numerous; many consider him to be the first recorded expert planner in architecture, engineering, and physicians (Osler).
What is particularly interesting about Imhotep is that he was one of the very few mortals to be honored by being depicted as part of a pharaoh's statue. This was extremely rare in Egyptian history, and shows the tremendous importance Imhotep had to the political and cultural hegemony of the time period. He was also given divine status after his death, with the center of the Imhotep cult centered around the city of Memphis. Besides his scientific achievements, after his death many of his sayings and ideas were popularized among the aristocratic and, what we would call, the technological class. In fact, his sayings were often referred to in song and poetry: "I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hordedef with those discourses men speak so much" (Kemp, 156).
By now, a number of the tombs and monuments from Egyp's past have been discovered whole, looted, or at least marginally recoverable. The location of Imhotep's self-constructed tomb, however, remains well hidden. Most Egyptologists believe it is hidden somewhere near Saqqara, but even with efforts from the major museums and the Government of Egypt, no one has been able to narrow down a precise location (Mertz, 49-50).
We do, however, know that Imhotep was a real, historical person, because his name and accomplishments appear on two contemporary inscriptions. The first, made of the base of one of Djorser's statues, lauds Imhotep's achievements in service to the King. The second is a series of graphics (graffito) on the enclosure wall that surroundes the unfinished step-pyramid of Sekhemkhet. These inscriptions suggest that Imhotep actually outlived Djoser and served in the construction of King Sekhemkhet's pyramid, later abandoned because of Sekhmekhet's brief and turmoil filled reign (Khal).
Achievements and Legacy- Imhotep's technological contributions focuses on the primary needs of the State at the time -- architecture and building and medicine. The concept of builder in Egypt encompassed the positions of architect, engineer, and builder. There was no distinction between the three roles, and all were normally conducted by one person: the master builder. This concept lasted for some time until more complex structures and construction techniques led to the disciplines becoming separated (Jackson 5). At first, the architects and engineers of Egypt (and Rome) belonged to the priesthood or were closely related with it. This idea is based on the fact that the Latin word pontaifex or "bridge builder" designated a priest. As time passed, along with the growing initiation and supervision of the construction of temples, aqueducts and roads, specific people needed to be designated in charge. In Egypt, the quarrying of stone material and its transport from the quarry to the site, the removal of the huge blocks including the hardest granite, the organization and catering for the tremendous numbers of labour forces that were required at the edge of the desert all caused considerable challenges and difficulties that could only be handled by those who had specific knowledge (Straub, 9-32).
Imhotep was idealized as a creator of Egyptian culture, a view that endured into the time of Ptolemy. Manetho, an Egyptian historian, claimed that Imhotep developed a method of stone dressing a building, though stone had been used in construction before this time for walls, floors, lintels and door jambs (Mikic). Imhotep designed and supervised the Step Pyramid of Djoser from 2630 -- 2611 BC, thereby creating the largest structure ever built using only stone and one of the earliest uses of architectural columns. As the builder of the Step Pyramid, and as a physician, it was necessary for him to assume responsibility for the healthcare of thousands of labourers engaged in this immense project. Further, Imhotep is credited as authoring the so-called "Smith papyrus," which consisted of a collection of 48 specimen clinical records with detailed accurate record of the features and treatment of various injuries (Kemp).
Imhotep is also credited by many with being the founder of community medicine. Imhotep wrote on of the earliest surviving medical treatises that were remarkable for the time-period because it did not contain issues dealing with magical thinking or spiritualism in the prediction and healing of disease. A copy of that Papyrus is held at the Brooklyn Children's museum, probably made about 500-900 years after Imhotep's death. The treatise uses more than 90 anatomical terms that describe about 50 different injuries. The importance of this material is that it was anatomically accurate, showing skill in dissection and the cataloging of body parts, as well as the insight into cause -- and -- effect on a logical frame of reference that hints at the germ theory of disease, 3,000 years before that would become the standard in Europe (Dunn).
Imhotep's logical mind was especially focused on observation of disease in humans, as well as a thorough cataloging of ways to decrease suffering. Some have speculated that his father was an architect or healer too, yet others believe that his medical acumen came from the necessity of treating injuries and disease in thousands of workers who toiled on his projects. In a very practical way, understanding how to relieve pain and disease would contribute to a more successful building team, which in turn would endear him to the Pharaoh even more. In addition to the treatise, however, Imhotep founded a medical school in Memphis over 2,000 prior to Hippocrates. The treatise and information from the medical school was part of some of the earliest commentaries and manuals on military medicine (McCallum, 159).
Birth Myths - It is likely that the number of myths surrounding the birth and life of Imhotep were not popularized until after his death and deification. The literature shows us that according to some mythos, Imhotep's mother was a moral who was later elevated to divine status because of claims of her mother being the Ram God Banebdjedet (Warner and Fernandez-Amesto, 296). In other surviving documents, Imhotep is known as the "Son of Ptah," or the embodiment of the primordial mound (the beginnings of the earth being called into being), which then changed his lineage so that his mother may have been Sekhmet, the patron of Upper Egypt, whose consort was Ptah (Lichtheim, 106). However, these ideas are likely to have been used simply to give creedence and buttressing the reasons for Imhotep's deification.
Deification -- In Egyptian popular myth, because Imhotep was thought to be the founder of formalized medicine, he was thought to have been the one who helped the goddess Nut (sky) and the separation from Geb (earth). This was part of the cycle of holding back chaos, and Imhotep is also linked with Hathor, who in later Egyptian times was considered to be the wife of Ra. Imhotep was also associated with Ma'at, the goddess who personified truth, justice, and cosmic order -- again, to hold back chaos. Origins of these ideas likely came from a combination of Imhotep's understanding of logic and the mathematics of building, all of which seemed to be divine at the time. However, it was not until after his death that his status was raised to that of a deity in which he actually became the God of medicine and healing. As the Greeks gradually took over the ruling administration of Egypt, Imhotep was linked to Asclepius and also to Amenhotep son of Hapu, another deified architect. The two architects were often part of a cult in the area of Thebes in which they were worshiped as "brothers" under the universal eye of Ra (Lichtheim, 104).
Imhotep's Dreams- Even during his lifetime, Imhotep became so famous and revered that even the various conquers of Egypt would hold him in high regard. There is also a "Famine Stela," located in Upper Egypt and dated from the Ptolemaic period, that bears an inscription about a legend about a famine of seven years that occurred during the reign of Djoser. Imhotep, through engineering designs (irrigation), and medicine, the legend says, ended the famine and brought prosperity back to the land. The connection was explained in that Imhotep had a pact with the God Khnum, who helped control the rise of the Nile. Imhotep was given several gifts (thought to be inventions or ideas to help with the drought) and the promise that the Nile God would end the drought if Imhotep would construct these heavenly devices (The Famine Stele on the Island of Sehel).
Religions and Mystical Side -- There are two ways of looking at this aspect of Imhotep. The first deals with the juxtaposition of science and magic in Ancient Egyptian culture. We must remember that…