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Imhotep the High Priest; a Movie Horror Mummy? Or the First Genius in Human History?

The author has 2 unrelated science degrees to his credit and a deep interest in the dissemination of science-related information on the web

Imhotep - architect, poet, philosopher, medic, astrologer, priest and political administrator

Imhotep - architect, poet, philosopher, medic, astrologer, priest and political administrator


To the man in the street, the name 'Imhotep' - especially when used in conjunction with 'High Priest of the Pharaoh' or 'Curse of the Mummy' - is likely to evoke a fantasy image of an evil malicious sorcerer from ancient times, or at least from the Hollywood version of ancient times.

What may come as a big surprise to many is that Imhotep was a real person, and in view of the way his name is abused today he has become perhaps one of the most maligned in history. Imhotep, the adviser to the Pharaoh Djoser, was an architect, designer, physician, poet, astrologer, politician and philosopher.

This is the story, as best we can tell it, of a man who deserves to be better known for his true-life achievements. A man who influenced all the rest of the Egyptian timeline, and who was in all probability, the first great genius of human history whose name has come down to us across the millennia.

It is also the story of Imhotep's most enduring legacy - the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara - a pyramid which is believed to be the oldest substantial stone building anywhere in the world.



To put the life of Imhotep into context it is necessary to lay down a very brief timeline.

After many thousands of years of Neolithic culture, the fertile lands of the Nile Valley gradually came together as a unified nation approximately 3000 years BC. This could be seen as the start of the great pharaonic civilisations which stretched until the fall of Egypt during the era of Roman conquest. I say civilisations - plural - because in truth ancient Egypt was not one simple linear succession of pharaohs each handing power to the next generation. There were times of war, chaos and decline, during which Egypt struggled to survive as an integrated nation. And yet civilisation would return time and time again to greatness. There were several significant peaks of achievement, power and prosperity which have been recognised, and these peaks, known as the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, can be used as markers of events through the many generations of ancient Egyptian society.

The life of Imhotep coincided with the commencement of the Old Kingdom, the rise to power of the dynastic pharaohs and the first era of truly great architecture in Egypt, characterised by the building of the pyramids. The subsequent millennia produced a succession of great pharaohs such as Thutmosis I and Amenhotep III, as well as the famous boy king, Tutenkhamen, culminating with the era of the great temple builder Rameses II in the New Kingdom. Pyramids - by this time - had long since ceased to be built and had been replaced by rock cut underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Much later still, Egypt underwent successive invasions by foreign powers, and then in 332 BC by Alexander the Great. Alexander's rule led to the dynasty of the Greek Ptolemies, and ultimately by the last of all pharaohs - the legendary Cleopatra.

The time span we are talking about is breathtaking - Imhotep had made his mark 100 years before the building of the great Pyramid and the Sphinx at Gisa, 1300 years before Tutankhamen, and 2600 years before Queen Cleopatra. Indeed the very best illustration of this time span of ancient Egyptian culture is the fact that Cleopatra lived closer to the modern 21st century than she did to the time of Imhotep. To Cleopatra, the name of Imhotep himself, and the stories of the people who built the pyramids, would have been just as much a part of myth and legend as they are to us today - and perhaps even more mysterious, because much of the evidence of their lives were long lost to her, buried in the sands of the desert, only recently rediscovered.

A copy of a Statuette of Imhotep. The original is exhibited in the Louvre, Paris

A copy of a Statuette of Imhotep. The original is exhibited in the Louvre, Paris

The Step Pyramid - the oldest monumental building in the world - testament to the work of the first great genius of architecture

The Step Pyramid - the oldest monumental building in the world - testament to the work of the first great genius of architecture

A statuette of Imhotep which resides in the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris

A statuette of Imhotep which resides in the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris


Many dates from this period are approximate - different authorities dispute precise dates. In recent decades, the era of Imhotep has been moved forward from c2900 BC to 2600 BC [1].

7000- 3200 BC

  • Settlers in the Nile valley begin using pottery, farming animals and growing crops. And with the development of walled villages and hieroglyphics, the beginnings of civilisation were underway in the Upper and Lower Nile.
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3200-2650 BC

  • King Narmer or King Menes (possibly the same individual) unite the Kingdoms of the Upper and Lower Nile, and the first records of dynastic rule appear.

c2650 BC - 2600 BC

  • The rise of 'The Old Kingdom'.
  • Memphis becomes the Capital of Egypt.

c2600 BC - 2450 BC

  • Pyramid building reaches its zenith. The pyramids of Giza are built, and the Sphinx is created.

c2050 BC - 1800 BC

  • After a period of decline and division, Egypt is once more united in 'The Middle Kingdom', with a new capital established at Thebes (modern day Luxor).

c1550 BC - 1250 BC

  • After a second period of decline, many great pharaohs rule during the era of 'The New Kingdom':
  • Thutmosis I is the first pharaoh buried in The Valley of the Kings.
  • Amenhotep III presides over Egypt at the peak of its power.
  • The heretic pharaoh Ahkenatum and his Queen Nefertiti try to establish a monotheistic faith.
  • The boy pharaoh Tutankhamun dies in 1324 BC.

c1250 BC - 1200 BC

  • Rameses II builds temples and statues along the Nile.
  • This is the period which is most associated with the Biblical story of Moses.

c1055 BC - 332 BC

  • A period of decline Is followed by 'The Late Period' in which Egypt succumbs to the rule of Libyans, Nubians and Persians.

332 BC - 30 BC

  • Alexander the Great invades the Middle East and Egypt in 332 BC, and establishes a line of Greek pharaohs - the Ptolemies.
  • Alexandria becomes the capital of Egypt.
  • Queen Cleopatra VII, the last autonomous ruler of ancient Egypt, commits suicide in 30 BC.


So who was Imhotep and what was his influence on the culture of ancient Egypt?

Sadly and inevitably, little is known of the life of a man who lived more than 4600 years ago, but there are some contemporary records of Imhotep and statues of the man himself, and that in itself is a testament to the great power and influence he must have wielded during the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Very few names have come down to us from this time. Even the pharaohs before Imhotep are mostly obscure, shadowy figures about which very little is certain and of whom no images survive. Their existence is known only from lists of names and inscriptions which are presumed to be of rulers, but without proper explanation. They can be described - in effect - as legendary figures. So it is all the more surprising that a mere 'commoner' from these times should be known today. It has, in fact, been suggested that Imhotep is the first truly identifiable figure in history. This man must indeed have been a most notable, respected individual in his time [2].



Imhotep may have been the first identifiable man in history, and he may have been respected in his own time, but that doesn't make him a genius. So what does? Before continuing with this story of Imhotep, one must make clear the very special - almost unique - problems encountered in determining the worth of this man from a modern perspective. And the most fundamental problem of all, must be the great antiquity of his existence.

Almost nothing is known with absolute certainty of Imhotep's life, and what we do know is gleaned from sparse contemporary hieroglyphics and statue inscriptions, and from the writings of later generations of scribes. This is a shame when it comes to writing his life story, but it is a major concern when assessing the intellectual merit of his achievements. Particularly sad is that not one of Imhotep's own writings is known to have survived to the present day. We have to rely on third person reports.

The second big problem is that these third person reports are often embellished with tales of God-like miracles as well as stories which we would recognise as being rather more factually based. For example, Imhotep was said in legend to have ended a seven year famine in Egypt by the use of incantations to the Gods. Such fanciful stories cannot of course be taken as genuine evidence for genius [3][4].

On the other hand, Imhotep was very definitely a real man - a person who rose to a position of enormous responsibility. We have several records of the esteem in which he was held in the 3rd millennium BC, and the quite extraordinary range of skills and duties with which he was entrusted. We also know how universally he was revered after his death (and not just in Egypt). And we have one tangible surviving piece of hard evidence - namely the Step Pyramid of Saqqara.

All of these points must be borne in mind when assessing the man and his talents.



Information is also limited about the man who became forever linked with Imhotep in the history of Egypt - the Pharaoh Djoser. Even his name is in some doubt. Contemporary sources refer to this pharoah as Netjerikhet, but Djoser (also Zoser) is the name by which he became known in later centuries, and it may well have been his birth name, if not his title name as king [6]. He is believed to have been the first or second king of the third dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and he is believed to have come to power about 2650-2630 BC. His reign lasted for at least 19 years, but some circumstantial evidence and later writings suggest that his reign may well have been 29 years, and possibly as long as 38 years [7][8].

It is believed that Egypt under Djoser was politically stable and comparatively wealthy, allowing conditions in which he could develop his nation, expand its borders to the south, and indulge in great construction projects - not least, the conception of a monumental tomb for himself - the Step Pyramid designed by Imhotep. Djoser's name would remain prominent and revered throughout the millennia of ancient Egypt, even to the time of the Ptolemies [8]. Much of that prominence can be credited to the work behind the scenes of his right hand man. And that indeed seems to have been recognised by the pharaoh himself in an inscription on a statue of Djoser which remarkably records the accolades and titles of the commoner who served him.

A limestone statue of Djoser in the Cairo Museum is today the oldest known life-size statue in Egypt. A replica of this statue is depicted below.

The replica statue of Djoser which now rests in one of the chambers in the burial complex at Saqqara. The original was discovered here during excavations in the 1920s

The replica statue of Djoser which now rests in one of the chambers in the burial complex at Saqqara. The original was discovered here during excavations in the 1920s


Unsurprisingly little can be known with certainty of Imhotep's birth or young life, not least because he is believed to have risen from really quite humble origins. Various suggestions were made by later writers as to his place of birth including a locality in Memphis or possibly Gebelein, a village south of Thebes. His father was recorded as a man called Kanofer, who may have been an architect by profession, and his mother was named Khreduonkh. According to some, he had a younger sister, and it is believed that in later life he had a wife called Ronfrenofert. None of these family relationships however, appear to be based upon very strong factual evidence. Although Imhotep's date of birth is unknown, he was undoubtedly a contemporary of the Pharaoh Djoser [3][5].

How this commoner whose name means 'the one who comes in peace', would have come to the attention of the pharaoh can only be speculated upon, but whatever abilities he was demonstrating as a maturing young man, they led to his appointment as the 'vizier' - the trusted advisor of the Pharaoh, and essentially the overseer on all matters political, religious, social or academic. In this role he would have controlled such departments as the Judiciary, Treasury, Agriculture and Construction [3]. He also became the High Priest of Heliopolis, believed to be the religious centre of ancient Egypt. Here he had an entourage of his own to serve him in his role as intermediary between the human world and the world of gods. He was regarded as of:

  • 'high and unsullied character, with a wide outlook on life (and) a tender heart towards suffering humanity' [3]

An image very far removed from the demonic mummy of fiction.

Imhotep is believed to have outlived the Pharaoh Djoser, and probably at least one other king before he died at great age during the reign of the Pharaoh Huni - the last ruler of the 3rd dynasty. Although many of the tombs of the better known pharaohs have been discovered, the same is not true of Imhotep. Where he was buried remains one of the great mysteries of ancient Egypt; some later Egyptian historians believe it was at Gebelein, but most likely it was at Saqqara, the site of his greatest architectural achievements [5]. One or two possible locations have been identified, but currently the absence of a sarcophagus, mummy or relics only serves to add to the mythology which has grown up around this figure from the early days of Egyptian civilisation - a mythology which will now be explored further.

This remarkable inscription on the base of a statue of Djoser in the Cairo Museum unites the pharaoh and his Chief Minister. It features both the hieroglyphic representation of the Pharaoh (outlined in red) and the name of Imhotep (in green)

This remarkable inscription on the base of a statue of Djoser in the Cairo Museum unites the pharaoh and his Chief Minister. It features both the hieroglyphic representation of the Pharaoh (outlined in red) and the name of Imhotep (in green)



The writings of one Middle Kingdom scribe pay full tribute to Imhotep (and to another philosopher named Hardeduf):

  • I have heard the discourse of Imhotep and Hardedef, with whose words men speak everywhere' [2]

The written and spoken word can show wisdom and intellect more readily than any other skill, and it seems that it was as a poet and philosopher that Imhotep first became revered. These are talents which even a mere commoner could express and which might have brought him into contact with Djoser.

Sadly, Imhotep's own writings have all been lost, but many who came after, testified to his significance as a scribe and philosopher. Historian Manetho, writing in the Ptolomeic era of ancient Egypt, provided some of the very best records. He attributed reforms in the writing system to Imhotep, and he states that he wrote a 'book of instructions', believed to be a text of advice and opinion on a variety of subjects. Imhotep also wrote poetry - possibly some of the very first in history - and proverbs relating his philosophy were recited for centuries and noted for their 'grace and diction'. Throughout dynastic history, Imhotep was recognized as the Master of the written word [2]. He was also honoured as 'Patron of Scribes' [3] and even as 'A God of Literature' [11]. One reference (which I haven't been able to verify) also suggests he even improved the papyrus used for writing text [10].



According to Sir William Osler, the Canadian physician and historian of ancient medicine, Imhotep was:

  • 'the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity.' [3][5][10]

If Imhotep was first recognised for his writings, it was his studies in medicine which later developed his reputation more than anything else in the ancient world, and for which he would be most honoured. Many later scribes attested to his work. It was believed Imhotep could 'help people solve difficulties in their daily lives' and 'cure medical problems'. Djoser certainly concurred, as Imhotep 's duties included that of Court Physician [3]. The scribes say that Imhotep studied the basic functions of vital organs, and how the blood circulated around the body. It is said he practised surgery, and treated 200 or more ailments, extracting medicines from plants to treat conditions such as appendicitis, arthritis, gallstones and gout. He also reputedly founded a School of Medicine in Memphis [5]. Such was respect for Imhotep's abilities as a physician, that future generations would mythologise and deify his name as we shall see later on.

Little else can be said with certainty, but a papyrus manuscript found in 1930 offers circumstantial evidence of much more. This text is dated to c1700 BC, but its style and terminology leads some authorities to believe it to be a copy of a much older treatise dating to the time of Imhotep. The Edwin Smith Papyrus lists 90 anatomical terms and descriptions of 48 injuries, ailments and cures. It also indicates knowledge of human anatomy through dissection studies. It must be remembered that at this time 'science' as we understand it did not exist. There was no clear distinction between true medicine and magic. According to the nature of the illness, incantations and spells would surely have accompanied any genuine medical treatment, and physicians would have undoubtedly utilised both. But what is important and unique about the Edwin Smith text from a scientific perspective is that it is largely written in factual terms. Magic may have been applied to undiagnosable internal disease and terminal illness, but more practical remedies were advocated for such things as infection, wounds, and broken bones. The remedies included sutures, splints, and the aforementioned herbal medicines. The text refers to anatomical structures, most notably the cerebrospinal system and recognises the relationship between trauma to this system, and conditions such as paralysis or sensory impairment [3][5][12][13].

Whether the Edwin Smith papyrus can be attributed to Imhotep is debatable. It is however now accepted by historians that medicine in ancient Egypt was developed to a far more sophisticated level than was once imagined, and that Imhotep, if not the originator of this papyrus, would at least have been a physician of genuine practical note.


The archeologist and historian James Henry Breasted says of Imhotep:

  • 'In priestly wisdom, in magic, in the formulation of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure of Zoser's reign left so notable a reputation that his name was never forgotten. He was the patron spirit of the later scribes, to whom they regularly poured out a libation from the water-jug of their writing outfit before beginning their work.' [3][5]

The ancient Egyptian priest and historian Manetho, who lived in the 3rd century BC, wrote in 'Aegyptiaca':

  • (Djoser) reigned twenty-nine years, in whose time was Imouthes [Imhotep], who is equated by the Egyptians with Asklepios (Asclepius - a Greek God) because of his medical skill and his invention of building with hewn stone; also for the excellence of his writings.' [9]


In the absence of much direct written contemporary evidence, how can we justify the statement in the title of this article that Imhotep may have been the first genius in human history? At the very least, we can say that he achieved a position of remarkable influence - a man whom the pharaoh respected above all others. The inscription under the statue of Djoser described above pays full tribute to Imhotep and it lists his titles:

  • 'Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt', 'First One under the King', 'Administrator of the Great Mansion', 'Hereditory Noble', 'High Priest of Heliopolis' and (more prosaically) 'Chief Sculptor' 'Chief Carpenter' and 'Maker of Vases in Chief' [6][9][10].

In other words - he did everything.

He was Djoser's Chief Minister, and was directly involved in the politics and administration of the nation. It is believed he controlled every branch of social and economic organisation. He was also an astrologer, an astronomer and a priest [3]. (Although astrology is now discredited as a science, in the ancient world there was a very strong association between astrology and the true science of astronomy - Imhotep would undoubtably have possessed great knowledge of the night sky and the movement of the stars to carry out his duties). As a priest he would have been involved in sacred rituals and the embalming of the dead.

Wisdom was a quality very much associated with Imhotep and this will be referred to at various points below. Even in a story of myth and miracle such as Imhotep's ending of a seven year famine described earlier, there are definite clues which suggest some thoughtful consideration of the crisis. The original account of the miracle states that he had refused to offer his pharaoh any immediate solution. He stressed his need to think and consult with others. In short, he did not merely offer simple magical incantations - he researched, and whatever the basis of that research, the story gives the first record in history of a desire to analyse a problem before solving it [2].

Indeed if there is any basis in fact in the story of the famine it may also be that he had an understanding of the natural cycles of rainfall and flooding and so could predict the end of a famine in a way which might have seemed miraculous to lesser mortals.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says:

  • 'Evidence afforded by Egyptian and Greek texts support the view that Imhotep's reputation was very respected in early times. His prestige increased with the lapse of centuries and his temples in Greek times were the centers of medical teachings.' [10]

Leaving aside political administration, work in astrology, and priestly magic, in three fields there are quite clear records and stories of conventional, non-miraculous achievements to give some credence to Imhotep's genius. These three fields are mentioned both in the 20th century quote of Breasted, and in the ancient quote of Manetho, both of which are reproduced at the top of this section. The three fields in question are literature, medicine and architecture. The skills of Imhotep in architectural construction, when taken in conjunction with his duties as visier, also demonstrate an organisational flair. All these will now be considered.

The reconstructed entrance gate to the Saqqara complex

The reconstructed entrance gate to the Saqqara complex

Some of the earliest columnar architecture ever constructed - to be seen at Saqqara

Some of the earliest columnar architecture ever constructed - to be seen at Saqqara


If Imhotep was honoured in his own lifetime for his work as a scribe, and exalted by later generations for his medical skills, it is as the architect and builder of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara that he is best known to historians today. That is no surprise - buildings can last longer than pieces of papyrus and human memories, and Imhotep's building has lasted longer than any.

He was not the first architect to design and build with stone, but certainly the size, solidity and complexity of his great masterpiece, the Step Pyramid, sets it apart. Nothing else of older construction can compare with this entirely stone-cut edifice, and it must rank as one of the most influential buildings in history - without Imhotep's pioneering work, the famous pyramids of Giza would never have been built. The Step Pyramid and the complex of Saqqara will be featured separately below, but this was not Imhotep's only architectural work during Djoser's reign or that of subsequent pharaohs.

He is also associated with the building of an original temple at the site of Edfu (later the site of a Ptolomeic temple which exists to this day). The present temple of Edfu includes an inscription which describes 'the great priest Imhotep the son of Ptah, who speaks or lectures' [2][3][5].

He may also have been the first architect in history to make use of stone columns for support - columns decoratively carved to represent bundled water reeds. And it is believed that he influenced or designed many other buildings during his life-time, including the pyramid of Djoser's successor, the Pharaoh Sekhemkhet. However, Sekhemkhet sadly died soon after taking power, and his pyramid was left unfinished [5][12]. Imhotep is also credited with the writing of an encyclopaedia of architecture which was used by Egyptian stone masons throughout the millennia to follow [4][12].

The Heb Sed Ritual Courtyard and buildings in the Saqqara complex

The Heb Sed Ritual Courtyard and buildings in the Saqqara complex


A simple mastaba - Before and after Imhotep these blocks or platforms of stones often covered the entrance to Nobles' tombs. The mastaba however, lacked the impressiveness which Pharaoh Djoser craved

A simple mastaba - Before and after Imhotep these blocks or platforms of stones often covered the entrance to Nobles' tombs. The mastaba however, lacked the impressiveness which Pharaoh Djoser craved

The Step Pyramid of Saqqara - created by Imhotep, this was effectively a series of mastabas reducing in size, one on top of the other, part of a huge complex of buildings and underground rooms.

The Step Pyramid of Saqqara - created by Imhotep, this was effectively a series of mastabas reducing in size, one on top of the other, part of a huge complex of buildings and underground rooms.

The Great Pyramid of Giza - Developed by 'filling in' the steps of a step pyramid to create a smooth sided structure. For thousands of years this was the tallest building in the world, and a recognised 'Wonder of the World'

The Great Pyramid of Giza - Developed by 'filling in' the steps of a step pyramid to create a smooth sided structure. For thousands of years this was the tallest building in the world, and a recognised 'Wonder of the World'

Three phases in the building of the Step Pyramid. The initial mastaba (brown), the first Step Pyramid (orange-yellow) and the enlarged final structure (cream)

Three phases in the building of the Step Pyramid. The initial mastaba (brown), the first Step Pyramid (orange-yellow) and the enlarged final structure (cream)


From the earliest of recorded times, Egyptians had a belief in an afterlife. But for the deceased person to enjoy the afterlife it was considered to be essential for the body to be preserved sufficiently long for the soul to depart. And this preservation could take two forms. First, there was the physical preservation of the body - the process which we now know as embalming and mummification. The second thing that could be done was to protect the body from the forces of nature and human disturbance, and the way to do that was to build a solid structure in which the body could be protected. A solid structure made of mud brick or - better still - stone. And thus it was that Egyptians of wealth and substance, and most notably the pharaohs, would be buried in tombs called 'mastabas'. In the construction of a mastaba, the tomb - a deep chamber cut into the ground - would be sealed by a flat topped mound or slab of stones, of the kind illustrated in the evolutionary sequence shown opposite. Mastabas like this were used for the burial of nobles for many generations through to the New Kingdom of Egypt. And they became quite impressive, with development of several underground chambers and mounds which grew to more than 10 metres (32 ft) in height.

Quite impressive, but it seems not grand enough for a pharaoh whose reign was one of affluent success. For whatever reason, Pharaoh Djoser wanted something more spectacular and permanent. And the man to build it was his expert on everything, Imhotep. And Imhotep's solution was to build successive mastabas one on top of the other, each stage smaller than the one below to create a 'step pyramid'. It's not clear whether the finished pyramid was the vision from the start. It may be that the design evolved over time, perhaps as the Pharaoh's own ambitions grew, or as Imhotep expanded his belief in what was possible with early Bronze Age age tools. However, the base mastaba was originally square, which is not the typical shape of mastabas of this period (usually they are rectangular) so it seems quite probable that some considerable extension was always intended by Imhotep [6][14][15][16].

The base mastaba was 64 metres (210 ft) long and 8 metres (26 ft) high. At the centre, a 7m (23 ft) diameter shaft descended 28m (92 ft) into a burial chamber, the entrance of which was later sealed with a 3 ton granite plug, lowered into position after the body was placed in the chamber. A passageway extended 50m (164 ft) north from the burial chamber to the surface to create an external entrance to the tomb. Four galleries around the burial chamber were lined with blue and green tiles and used for the King's funerary equipment. Eleven deep shafts were also dug on the Eastern edge of the mastaba with long galleries extending inwards - these were used to house other royal family tombs and possessions. Soon after the initial mastaba was designed, it was extended by 3 m in all directions, and then by a further 10 m (33 ft) in just one direction to conceal the eleven shafts, at the same time making it a more typical rectangular shape approximately 80 m by 70 m (262 ft by 230 ft) [6][14][16].

Then the pyramid was built, initially a four stage structure 40 m high. and finally a six stage pyramid. This not only increased the height dramatically but it also greatly extended the base mastaba. As a result the original entrance to the north had been covered and a new passageway had to be constructed from the burial chamber to the outside. As the pyramid developed, further shafts, corridors and chambers were added - an astonishing labyrinthine design eventually comprising nearly 6 km (3.5 miles) of corridors and 400 rooms. The base of the pyramid ultimately measured 109 m (358 ft) by 125 m (411 ft), and the entire completed structure was 62 m (204 ft) high - a large building by today's standards, but unimaginably big by Bronze Age standards. It weighed 850,000 tons [6][14][15][16].

What's more, the Step Pyramid set a new standard in terms of beauty - originally the entire structure would have been surfaced with polished gleaming white limestone. Today, the white surface has gone; 4600 years ago, it would surely have made the pyramid the most magnificent construction on Earth [3][6].

The pyramid and its great underground labyrinth was only part of the construction at Saqqara. There was also a mortuary temple to the north and an adjacent room containing a limestone statue of Djoser on his throne. A colonnaded walkway, two courtyards and additional tombs to the south, make up the entire complex of about 16 hectares (40 acres) - an area as large as most towns in the 3rd millennium BC. The whole complex was surrounded by a 10.5 m (35 ft) high wall nearly 2 km long. 15 gateways punctuate the wall, though only one of these was functional for the living to pass through, leading to the roofed colonnade of 48 paired columns up to 6m (19 ft) high - the others were for the dead king's use in the afterlife [6][14][15][16].

Today, the Step Pyramid complex stands as Imhotep's crowning glory - the earliest known entirely rock-cut building in history, 20 years in the making by artisans who were equipped only with Bronze Age tools, a monument in the name of King Djoser, but identified as much with the architect of its construction. And as with many great designs, the Step Pyramid was simple yet revolutionary. Simple because it built on the existing knowledge of mastaba construction. Revolutionary because nothing so grand (and so resistant to the weathering of time) had been constructed before. It also provided a blueprint for future developments, because without the Step Pyramid, the vast pyramids of Giza - even today the most famous buildings on Earth - could never have come into being less than 100 years later.

Cutaway diagram from the South West of the Step Pyramid (outlined in red) to show the complex of passageways which lie beneath it. A major undertaking today but 4600 years ago this was constructed with Stone Age and early Bronze Age tools

Cutaway diagram from the South West of the Step Pyramid (outlined in red) to show the complex of passageways which lie beneath it. A major undertaking today but 4600 years ago this was constructed with Stone Age and early Bronze Age tools



It has been said that the design of the Step Pyramid, its geometry and underground chambers, are the mark of a mathematical genius. Maybe so, but also important for such a massive building to be initiated and successfully completed, was the wealth to pay for the enterprise, a stable government, a huge yet efficiently organised labour force and all their many supervisors, food and water supplies and housing for the workers, communication across country, and technical knowledge in the quarrying, precision cutting and transporting of the stone. Previous construction projects had not only been small by comparison - they had also usually been built of dried mud bricks, locally cut, and much easier to move. The Step Pyramid required skills which made this an enterprise of unparalleled innovation, and that is an aspect which can easily be overlooked in the modern world of telecommunications, computer planning and sophisticated machinery and other conveniences. Imhotep as vizier would not only have designed the building, but he would almost certainly have also had a controlling hand in all these other elements which were essential for its successful completion [2][3][6].

The oldest of all pyramids

The oldest of all pyramids



Imhotep's reputation in his lifetime was sufficient for him to be given responsibility to run almost all aspects of his country's affairs under the pharaoh. In matters practical, administrative, philosophical, cultural and medical, he was consulted. He had his own staff, and he was showered with honours. It does seem that respect for Djoser's Chief Minister was absolute.

But achievements in life were not the end of Imhotep's story. After his death this man took on a new existence more extraordinary than any that he or his pharaoh could possibly have imagined, With the still quite recent invention of writing on papyrus and in hieroglyphic script on stone, Imhotep's name would live on through the millennia. And it wasn't long before a cult began to grow up, and in mythology Imhotep was raised to the status first of a demi-God, and then as a full God in his own right.


It seems that quite soon after his death, the process had begun, and it was Imhotep's reputation as a physician and a healer of the sick which was the driving force. Just 100 years on, the 4th dynasty pharaoh Menkaure (entombed in the third of the three great Giza pyramids) is believed to have commissioned temples to be built in his honour, and the centuries to follow during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom saw pilgrims attending shrines like these in the hope of cures for their ills. Imhotep wasn't regarded as a God at this stage, but as a demi-God - an 'ordinary' mortal who nonetheless was viewed as a channel through which the Gods could be reached by those in need of healing. There's actually nothing particularly strange about this, historically speaking. Ancient Greece would later have their legendary heroes like Achilles and Perseus and Heracles who interacted with and had some influence with the Gods, and the Christian religion has its saints - mortals elevated to a status whereby shrines are built in their honour, and prayers are uttered in their names. In part it's a way of making the world of the supernatural more accessible to humans - a real tangible person, a 'super-hero' that one could identify with, in the way that one could not possibly identify with a God [3].


But demi-God status was not to be the end of the road for Imhotep. Throughout society his name remained in the public consciousness. Medicine was the key to his mythologisation, but his wisdom and philosophy meant that others also honoured his name and recited his words and contributed to the legend which was developing. And by 525 BC, when Egypt was under Persian rule, it seems that Imhotep was being regarded as a full God. In ancient Egypt, there were many different Gods who held sway at different times and in different centres, and each had particular powers for which they were recognised. In Memphis a triad of local Gods were worshipped - Ptah, the God of Healing and Chief Deity, Sekhmet, the Goddess of Childbirth, and Nefertem, a God of Healing, Regeneration and Perfume. During this 'Late Period' of Egypt under the pharaohs, Imhotep was frequently being referred to as the 'Son of Ptah' and he often replaced Nefertem in the Memphis triad. He also sometimes was associated with - or displaced - Thoth, the God of Wisdom, Writing and Learning, At least three temples were dedicated to Imhotep, a School of medicine at Memphis, a temple on the Island of Philae, and a temple at Thebes. And a multitude of personal domestic shrines were also dedicated to protect the home owner from misfortune. And sometimes these shrines were 'rented' out to the sick and needy who wished to pray at the shrine of this once-mortal God of Healing [3][5].

  • 'I was rich in all things; I had a very beautiful harem and yet I had reached 43 years without having a male heir. It is then that the consecrated God Imhotep, son of Ptah, gave me the son I wanted so much: he was perfect in form and I called him Imhotep-Petobastis. My wife, Taimhotep, the blessed daughter of the Father God and priest of Horus of Letopolis brought him into the world.'

The above inscription by Psenptais, a priest during the reign of Ptolemy XII in 76 BC, was found at Saqqara. 2500 years after Imhotep's death, it praises the God Imhotep for granting him a male heir [11].



Throughout the ages, numerous statues and engravings were created to honour Imhotep. These in themselves appear significant for what they tell us of the development of his cult. In some images he is dressed in 'ordinary man' clothing - simple garments of a commoner. In some however, he is seated on a chair or 'throne' with a roll of papyrus resting on his knees - a symbol of his status as a wise scribe, philosopher and teacher. Such portrayals may represent Imhotep as a human or as a Demi-God. But some of the later portraits show a very different Imhotep - clasping a sceptre and an ankh, with a beard of the kind usually associated with depictions of Gods and pharaohs, and with a skull-cap similar to that of the God Ptah. The human being was now turning into a figure of divine adoration. Sadly very few statues exist of Imhotep as a full God [3][5][8][9].


The following is a small selection of the many eulogies paid to Imhotep during this period of God worship. Reading the eulogies it is clear that Imhotep was regarded as a benign and gentle God of healing:

  • 'He visits the suffering to give them peaceful sleep and heal their pains and diseases' [3]
  • 'the good physician of gods and men, a kind and merciful god, assuaging the sufferings of those in pain, healing the diseases of men and giving peaceful sleep to the restless and suffering.' [3]
  • 'the worshipful god who gives a son to him who has none.' [3]
  • 'he heals the sick, he is the chief physician, and the protector of virtue; he encourages material comfort and prevents misery.' [11]
'Imhotep' as played by Boris Karlof in 1932

'Imhotep' as played by Boris Karlof in 1932



Today Imhotep is perhaps best known to the majority of people for all the wrong reasons - as a figure of 20th and 21st century fantasy. And not merely fantasy - but horror fantasy.

In 1932, Boris Karloff played a character named as 'Imhotep' in the movie, 'The Mummy'. In this film, Imhotep, 'an evil Egyptian priest' who awakens after 3000 years of entombment, is determined to be reunited with his long-dead love, (and Pharaoh's mistress) Anck-Su-Namun. Cue much malevolent magic. And more recently in 1999 another movie with the same name followed a similar theme, with Arnold Vosloo playing the bandage wrapped priest, unleashing plagues and generally being evil. Not content with meeting a horrible death in this movie, the mad Imhotep came back for more mayhem in 'The Mummy Returns' in 2001 [9]. In none of these films did he design a pyramid or cure any ailments, so they weren't very realistic.

Why 'Imhotep'? Presumably the legend of the High Priest who was involved in embalming rituals and sacred words to protect the dead in the underworld [3], coupled with the God status which Late Period Egypt bestowed upon him, was responsible for the decision to use his name in the films. To be fair, none of these movies relate to the reign of the Pharaoh Djoser but 'invent' a priest who serves a pharaoh more than 1000 years later. However, the association with the real Imhotep is obvious.

'Imhotep' as played by Arnold Vosloo in 1999

'Imhotep' as played by Arnold Vosloo in 1999


In 'The Odyssey', the great Greek poet Homer says:

  • 'In Egypt the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind'. [3]

Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century BC, wrote:

  • 'There is no country where the positions and movements of the stars have been observed with such accuracy as in Egypt. Registers in which these obersvations are recorded have been kept during an incredible number of years'. [3]

Reverence for Imhotep continued long after the Greek Empire had taken control of Egypt under Alexander in 332 BC. The Greeks had their own gods, and under the Greeks Imhotep became assimilated with the Greek God of medicine, Aeslepias [5]. And temples of worship continued to be erected in his honour - for example, the Ptolemaic temple to Hathor at Dier el-Medina. At Saqqara, people are believed to have made offerings including mummified Ibises and clay models of diseased limbs or organs in the hope of being healed. Under the Ptolemies six regular festivals were held in honour of Imhotep - but these festivals told the story of his birth to the God Ptah and the human mother Khreduonkh. They also told of his glorification, his death, and his spirit departing the body [3].

So it is clear that although deified, he was still recognised as a human who had been born, lived a life and died, before ascending to Heaven - quite different to the immortal history of most of the other Gods of Egypt.

Imhotep was also honoured by the 1st century AD Roman Emperors Tiberius and Claudius, who had inscriptions which praised him on the walls of their Egyptian temples [5]. Even the early Christian religion adapted the worship of Imhotep, and indeed the life of Joseph (vizier to a pharaoh) in the Old Testament is believed by some to bear likenesses to, or been modelled upon, the life of Imhotep [17].

It seems that his immense presence in the public consciousness of Egypt could not be ignored. And as Egypt declined as a power, and worship of other Gods also declined in p