Imhotep Biography (c. 27th century B.C.-c. 27th century B.C.)
- physician, architect, vizier
Imhotep was a priest/physician and wise man in ancient Egypt who was creditedwith many miraculous healings. Although he achieved great fame during his lifetime, Imhotep's renown continued to grow after his death. He eventually achieved status as a god among the Egyptians, who prayed to him about matters ofhealth. He is best known today as the architect who began the "age of pyramids" in Egypt. He designed and supervised the building of the step pyramid complex at Saqqara (sometimes spelled Sakkara), which is believed to be the first colossal stone edifice ever built.
Because he was born a commoner, Imhotep's early life is largely unknown. He most likely was born in a suburb of Memphis, Egypt. Imhotep probably receiveda liberal education as a youth and, as a result, had wide ranging interests.Imhotep's superior intellect served him well, and he eventually became chiefvizier during Egypt's Third Dynasty for King Djoser (2630-2611 B.C.), or Zoser. As vizier, he was the king's chief advisor on nearly every aspect of Egyptian life, from law and finances to the military and agriculture. In this role, his reputation grew as a wise man. Many of his sayings were alleged to havebecome Egyptian proverbs, although none survive today.
Imhotep was a renowned as a physician and, because of his duties as vizier, he undoubtedly advised on medical matters. Scholars hypothesize, however, thathis role as a physician may have been glorified after his death. Nevertheless, many legends of miraculous healings surround Imhotep. It was said that Imhotep often appeared in the dreams of those who were ill and provided them with remedies. Another legend relates that infertile couples would pray at Imhotep's temple and subsequently could conceive a child.
The deification of Imhotep began as a medical demi-god for the sick. Around 525 B.C., when Egypt was under Persian rule, Imhotep achieved full deity status, meaning that his birth was attributed to the direct intervention of one ofEgypt's gods. As the son of Ptah, creator god of Memphis and of craftsmen, Imhotep had many shrines and small temples dedicated to him. A vigorous cult following grew during the New Kingdom (about 1580 B.C.) and lasted well into the Roman period of rule over Egypt. One of the temples built in his honor atMemphis became a renowned hospital and medical school. Imhotep is believed tobe the only non-royal ever elevated to god status by the Egyptians. The Roman emperors Claudius and Tiberius also had inscriptions in praise of Imhotep on the walls of their Egyptian temples. Festivals were held in honor of Imhotep and the events of his life, such as his birthday and death, although thereis not record of these exact dates.
Under the reign of King Djoser, Imhotep undertook the building of the step pyramid at Saqqara, south of Cairo. The pyramid and its compound were unique for several reasons. Imhotep decided not to use the then standard sun-dried mudbricks but rather would build the King's funerary complex using stone as a more permanent building material. The complex encompassed a towering six tiered step-like structure standing approximately 200 feet high and was the world's first large stone structure. When completed, the entire site, once surrounded by a single massive stone wall, was nearly 2,000 feet long and 1,000 feetwide. It included a 40 column colonnade, exquisite courtyard, and many shrines, temples, and outbuildings. The pyramid's burial chambers are an especiallyremarkable feat of design and engineering, with a series of shafts, tunnelsand chambers that are more complex than any pyramid that followed. It is theoldest surviving Egyptian pyramid.
Although Imhotep's renown lasted for more than 3,000 years, many scholars believed him to be a mythological figure. In fact, the tomb or mummy of Imhotephas never been discovered. As a medical man, architect, scientist, faith healer, and god, Imhotep was not only one of the most influential people of his times but maintained a lasting influence for centuries after his death. In thewords of famous English physician and scientist Sir William Osler (1849-1919), Imhotep was "the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from themists of antiquity."