Biography of Imhotep, Ancient Egyptian Architect, Philosopher, God

Pyramid of Djoser, a step pyramid considered the first pyramid built in Egypt
Pyramid of Djoser, a step pyramid considered the first pyramid built in Egypt.

Dennis K. Johnson / Getty Images Plus

Demi-god, 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. 

Key Takeaways: Imhotep

  • Alternate Names: "The One Who Comes in Peace," spelled variously as Immutef, Im-hotep, or Ii-em-Hotep 
  • Greek Equivalent: Imouthes, Asclepios
  • Epithets: Son of Ptah, Skill-Fingered One
  • Culture/Country: Old Kingdom, Dynastic Egypt
  • Birth/Death: 3rd dynasty of the Old Kingdom (27th century BCE)
  • Realms and Powers: Architecture, literature, medicine
  • Parents: Kheredankhw and Kanofer, or Kheredankhw and Ptah. 

Imhotep in Egyptian Mythology 

Late period sources say that Imhotep, who lived during the 3rd dynasty of the Old Kingdom (27th century BCE), was the son of an Egyptian woman named Kheredankhw (or Kherduankh), and Kanofer, an architect. Other sources say he was the son of the Egyptian creator god Ptah. By the Ptolemaic period, Imhotep's mother Kherehankhw was also described as semi-divine, the human daughter of the ram god Banebdjedt.

Old Kingdom Funerary Complex at Saqqara
Funerary complex of Djoser and Step Pyramid in Saqqara Necropolis, Cairo, Egypt. EvrenKalinbacak / Getty Images Plus

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. 

Appearance and Reputation 

Bronze ex-voto depicting Imhotep, architect of pyramids of Giza. Louvre Museum, Paris, 8th century BCE.
Bronze ex-voto depicting Imhotep, architect of pyramids of Giza. Louvre Museum, Paris, 8th century BCE. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images Plus

There are a few Late Period (664-332 BCE) bronze figurines of Imhotep, illustrated in the seated position of a scribe with an open papyrus on his lap—the papyrus is sometimes inscribed with his name. These figurines were made thousands of years after his death, and indicate Imhotep's role as a philosopher and teacher of scribes. 

Architect

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." 

Interior of Old Kingdom Funerary Complex at Saqqara
Columns inside the funerary complex of Djoser in Saqqara Necropolis, Cairo, Egypt. EvrenKalinbacak / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Philosopher

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.

A sanctuary at Hatshepsut's Deir el-Bahari in Thebes is dedicated to Imhotep, and he is represented in the temple at Deir-el-Medina. The Banquet Song, written for a harper and inscribed on the walls of the 18th dynasty tomb of Paatenemheb in Saqqara, includes an explicit mention of Imhotep: "I have heard the sayings of Imhotep and Djedefhor, / with whose utterances people discourse so much." 

Priest and Healer

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.

It is possible that Imhotep's legend as a physician dates from the Old Kingdom as well. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a 15-foot long scroll looted from a tomb in the mid-19th century CE which details the treatment of 48 cases of trauma, the details of which simply astounds modern physicians. Although securely dated at 1600 BCE, the scroll contains textual evidence suggesting that it was a copy from a source first written about 3,000 BCE. U.S. Egyptologist James H. Breasted (1865–1935) was of the opinion that it might have been written by Imhotep; but that is not accepted by every Egyptologist. 

Imhotep in Modern Culture 

In the 20th century, several horror films featuring Egyptological plotlines included a mummy regenerated into a ghastly living form. For unknown reasons, the producers of the 1932 Boris Karloff movie "The Mummy" named this poor fellow "Imhotep," and the 1990s–2000s Brendan Fraser movies continued the practice. Quite a comedown for the genius philosopher architect!

Imhotep's tomb, said to be located in the desert near Memphis, has been searched for, but not as yet located. 

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