Imhotep: The First Known Architect, Pyramid Builder, Astronomer and Engineer in Ancient history

Imhotep was an Egyptian scholar who deserves to be considered a historical archetype of a polymath; wise, doctor, astronomer, and the first architect known in history (ca. 2690 – 2610 BC). High Priest of Heliopolis, vizier of Pharaoh Djoser, and the man who designed the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, during the Third Dynasty.

Imhotep’s name can be translated to: “he who comes in peace.”

Not only was Imhotep a doctor, but he was also an architect and an astronomer: this indicates that he had the operative knowledge of arithmetic’s and geometry necessary to handle those disciplines.

The honorary titles attributed to Imhotep are Treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt, First after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Grand Palace, Hereditary Lord, High Priest of Ra in Heliopolis, Imhotep the builder, sculptor, maker of stone vessels. —Inscription on the base of the statue of Djoser found in Saqqara.

Saqqara pyramid ver 2
Saqqara pyramid of Djoser in Egypt

Before him, nobody had had his name inscribed next to that of a pharaoh.

Imhotep was venerated as a demigod in the New Kingdom

On the historical records that would be written in the millennia after his death, he was referred to as a polymath, poet, judge, engineer, magician, scribe, astronomer, astrologer, and especially a physician.

According to Sir Alan Gardiner, a famous English Egyptologist, linguist, philologist, and a man regarded as one of the premier Egyptologists of the early and mid-20th century, Imhotep’s cult was so different from the offerings that were usually made to commoners, that Imhotep was perhaps best described as a ‘demigod’ and it justifies the way he was venerated in the New Kingdom.

However, curiously, there aren’t any texts that have survived, or been found that mentions Imhotep’s capacities in his lifetime, and there aren’t really any written documents that mention his name in the first 1,200 years after his death.

The first text that makes reference to Imhotep can be traced back to the time of Amenhotep III (circa. 1391–1353 BC).

Evidence of Imhotep’s extensive medical knowledge can be traced back to the Thirtieth Dynasty (c. 380–343 BC) onwards, some 2200 years after his death.

The center of Imhotep’s cult was located in Memphis, and the location of his self-built tomb remains hidden from the beginning and its location remains unknown, despite numerous archeologists trying to uncover his eternal resting place.

There are many scholars who agree that Imhotep’s tomb may rest somewhere in Saqqara.

God of Medicine

Imhotep’s achievements during his lifetime catapulted him into the annals of Egyptian history.

Not only was he venerated as a demigod, but around two thousand years after his death, Imhotep’s stats had been elevated to that of a god of medicine and healing. Eventually, Imhotep was equated with the Egyptian God Thoth, God of architecture, mathematics, medicine, and patron god of scribes.

According to Egyptologist James Peter Allen, even the ancient Greek knew of Imhotep, and they equated him with their own God of medicine, Asklepios.

The Builder of Pyramids

In addition to his extensive knowledge in a number of different fields, Imhotep was regarded as the first ancient Egyptian Pyramid builder. Mainstream Egyptologist believes he is to be credited with the design of the Pyramid of Djoser, the stepped pyramid at Saqqara Egypt.

The stepped pyramid of Djoser needed the extraction, transport, and assembly of thousands of tons of limestone, a notable challenge since such material had never been used in large constructions. Before limestone, the ancient Egyptians made use of adobe bricks, which were easy to make and much cheaper.

During the building process of the pyramid, he faced a number of problems.

Imhotep’s biggest technical problem was the weight of the stone.

Imhotep solved the problem in part by using relatively small blocks, easier to transport and handle.

The columns Imhotep incorporated were either decorative or were attached to the walls, without supporting much weight.

It is noteworthy to mention that during Imhotep’s time, the metal used in tools was copper, which is not suitable for these works.

The Pharaohs Vizier also had to organize the entire construction process, control the work, movement, and life of hundreds of workers, and build the first funerary city: surrounded by a wall of about fifteen hundred meters in perimeter. He had to build a number of decorative buildings, and at its center, he erected a pyramid of six tiers with a height of sixty meters.

He oversaw everything in the building process of the Pyramid, as well as excavations performed beneath the pyramid where Pharaoh Djoser’s tomb would be located. He also built a set of galleries to store thousands of funerary vessels, many engraved with the names of their predecessors.

The step pyramid designed by Imhotep is considered to be the earliest large-scale cut stone construction, although the pyramids at Caral in South America are contemporary.

Many scholars credit Imhotep with the implementation of stone columns to support a building.

The only question that perhaps remains is… where did Imhotep draw his knowledge from? From whom or what did he learn? How did he obtain his knowledge?

According to Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy in their Book Imhotep the African Architect of the Cosmos:

“Imhotep was initiated into the mysteries revealed at Heliopolis, the oldest religious city of the country, and was raised to the position of high priest… There existed at Saqqara a school of magicians under the aegis of this ancient sage who was both astronomer and astrologer. He was an “Architect of the Cosmos” … and taught the motion of the stars and constellations.”

Let me know and post your comments below.

Like it? Share with your friends!