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Imhotep, the African

Imhotep, the African

Architect, Physician, Priest, Multi-Genius


Architect, priest, and physician, Imhotep (27th century BCE) was a real man, who is credited with designing and building one of the oldest pyramids in Egypt, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. For nearly 3,000 years he was venerated in Egypt as a semi-divine philosopher, and during the Ptolemaic period, as the god of medicine and healing.

Despite his close connections to deities, Imhotep was a real person, in fact, a high official in the court of the 3rd dynasty pharaoh Djoser (also spelled Zoser, c. 2650–2575 BCE). Imhotep's name and titles are inscribed on the base of Djoser's statue at Saqqara—a very rare honor indeed. That led scholars to conclude that Imhotep was in charge of building the funerary complex at Saqqara, including the Step Pyramid, where Djoser would be buried.

Much later, the 3rd century BCE historian Manetho credited Imhotep with the invention of building with cut stone. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara is certainly the first large-scale monument made from cut stone in Egypt.

During his lifetime, which intersected Djoser's (3rd dynasty, 2667–2648 BCE), Imhotep was an administrator at the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis. Djoser's monumental burial complex called "The Refreshment of the Gods" included Saqqara's step pyramid, as well as stone temples surrounded by protective walls. Inside the main temple are large columns, another innovation by the man described as "prince, royal seal-bearer of the king of Lower Egypt, the high priest of Heliopolis, director of sculptors."

Although there is no surviving text convincingly authored by Imhotep, by the Middle Kingdom, Imhotep was remembered as an honored philosopher, and as the author of a book of instruction. By the late New Kingdom (ca 1550–1069 BCE), Imhotep was included among the seven great ancient sages of the Egyptian world associated with literature: Hardjedef, Imhotep, Neferty, Khety, Ptahem djehuty, Khakheperresonbe, Ptahhotpe, and Kaires. Some of the documents attributed to these worthy ancients were written by New Kingdom scholars under these pseudonyms.

The classical Greeks considered Imhotep a priest and a healer, identifying him with Asclepius, their own god of medicine. A temple dedicated to Imhotep was built at Memphis, known to the Greeks as the Asklepion, between 664–525 BCE, and near it was a famous hospital and school of magic and medicine. This temple and the one at Philae were both places of pilgrimage for sick people and childless couples. The Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460–377 BCE) is said to have been inspired by the books kept at the Asklepion temple. By the Ptolemaic period (332–30 BCE), Imhotep had become the focus of a growing cult. Objects dedicated to his name are found in several locations in north Saqqara.

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