Imhotep Vizier of Works

Now you may have heard of the famed ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep or if you are a fan of a certain set of films including 1932’s The Mummy and an early 2000s film franchise. But away from the Hollywood versions Imhotep was the Vizier and Overseer of Works of King Djoser and is credited as the creator of the step pyramid at Saqqara. The first Egyptian pyramid and the world’s first known monumental stone structure. To add to his resume, he was also later defied for his wisdom, medical knowledge and scribal skill so let’s find out a bit more about him, shall we?  

Born during the 27th century BCE Imhotep is best known as the Vizier and Overseer of Works of king Djoser. Born a commoner he started his professional life as a priest of Ptah a connection that seemed to have led later in his demigod status to being considered the Son of Ptah[1]. Among the titles held during his lifetime were; First After the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, Hereditary Nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, and Sculptor and Maker of Vases Chief [2]. Although there is a general lack of information about Imhotep, he certainly has a legacy.   

Figure 1: Illustrated Map of Saqqara. Oakes, L., 2008. The illustrated encyclopedia of the pyramids temples & tombs of Ancient Egypt. London: Southwater. Page 77

A marvel in stone

The site of Saqqara was the main cemetery for the ancient city of Memphis (24 km south of modern Cairo) used by kings/ their officials from the First dynasty t the Christian era in total it covers 6 km long 1.5 km at its widest point (Figure 1). The step pyramid complex is made of two different types of buildings some practical and others dummy buildings. Jean-Phillippe Lauer felt that the dummy buildings symbolically represented the ancient city of Memphis so that, like the pyramid being stocked with food and drink for the afterlife, he was also provided with a capital city for eternity[3]. The step pyramid itself is a tower built in 6 stages based on a mastaba 63m square by roughly 8m tall which further covers a shaft 28 m deep that leads onto a network of subterranean rooms[4](Figure 2). A mastaba is an Arabic term applied to the Egyptian-style tomb in which a superstructure resembles the low mudbrick benches outside Egyptian houses[5]. These tombs often had sloping walls so that the roof was smaller than the base and was used for both royal and non-royal burials from the early dynastic period but only for private burials by the time of the Old Kingdom[6]. For reasons we do not fully know Imhotep took these mastaba structures and decided to stack them on top of each other gradually reducing them in size and creating the iconic shape of the step pyramid. This pyramid formed part of a wider plan by its architect. Imhotep built the complex as a mortuary shrine for Djoser. Still, it became a stage and an architectural model for the spiritual ideals of the Egyptian people- later pyramids and obelisks seem to suggest them to be the physical manifestations of the sun’s rays. Margaret Bunson writes ‘The Step Pyramid was not just a single pyramidal tomb but a collection of temples, chapels, pavilions, corridors, storerooms, and halls. Fluted columns emerged from stone according to his plan.’[7] In a recent post about the Heb Sed festival, or royal jubilee, you can see how this steppe pyramid complex played a role in the celebrations and how part of that celebration included the pharaoh running the ceremonial complex. The high relationship esteem that Imhotep is held in by King Djoser is clear in statutory fragments found at Saqqara. In these fragments, Imhotep is granted the unique privilege of being named alongside Djoser in formal statutory (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A statue base fragment belonging to King Djoser with the name of Imhotep. https://www.arce.org/resource/imhotep-sage-between-fiction-and-reality

Demigod status achieved  

Figure 4: Statue of Seated Imhotep 332–30 B.C.Ptolemaic Period Accession Number: 26.7.852a, b https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/548300

The ingenuity of the step pyramids’ design and his early connections with the god Ptah saw Imhotep become venerated and then deified reaching Demigod status some thousand years after his death. Being venerated as a wise man happened much closer around 100 years after his death[8]. In this role, he became a patron of medicine, writing and knowledge in general, all purviews closely linked to the God Ptah and Thoth. New Kingdom Texts list him amongst wise men of the past with him being noted as the most ancient among them. But his deification in the Late Period (525-332 BCE) and Graeco Roman period (332 BC -395 AD) was when his cult reaches its peak. Hippocrates the founder of Greek medicine is said to have been inspired by the books kept in the temple of Imhotep at Memphis.[9]

Figure 5: Bronze statue of Imhotep with gold, silver and electrum inlays circa middle 7 th century B.C.
https://www.mfab.hu/artworks/votive-statue-of-imhotep/ Inventory number 51.2313 Museum of Fine Arts Budapest
Figure 6 Green Faience Amulet of Imhotep
Late Period 664–332 B.C. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/164848

In this new form, Imhotep is usually shown in scribal fashion, seated wearing a long kilt and skull cap or shaven head with a papyrus roll unfurled across his lap symbolising his scholarly nature and scribal patronage[10] (Figures 4 and 5). Naturally, Imhotep’s cult centre was at Saqqara. The Greeks identified him with their god of medicine Asclepios and thus the cult centre became referred to as the ‘Asklepion’ and a place of pilgrimage[11]. At this cult worshippers often left mummified ibis as votive offerings to him in nearby underground catacombs, clay models of diseased limbs and organs in the hope that they would be healed by Imhotep and ever prevalent in the Later Period bronze figurines of Imhotep in his deified form.[12] Alongside this , like other deities, amulets of Imhotep could be worn for protection(Figure 6). Alongside Saqqara Imhotep was also worshipped at Karnak, Deir el Bahri, Phiale and in the Ptolemaic period temple to Hathor at Deir el-Medina where he was venerated alongside Amenhotep Son of Hapu another defied official.[13] But back to Saqqara. The Asklepion became a place of pilgrimage as I mentioned above but more specifically for the sick yes, but also childless couples who would sleep in these places to aid them. The significance of dreams was important to the ancient Egyptians and priests of Imhotep were often consulted about the meanings of dreams with Imhotep even said to appear in dreams as a shining figure or as a scarab.[14] A story taken from a Ptolemaic stela, although not clear who is doing the interpretation Imhotep himself of a priest of his, King Djoser is having a dream interpreted. He says he has dreamt of seven fat and seven thin cattle, leading to the discovery of the origins of the Nile[15]. Other tales of Imhotep and Djoser emerge during the Late and Graeco Roman period.  Papyrus Carlsberg 85 from the Tebtunis Temple Library dating to the Roman period narrates different episodes of a fictionalized life of Imhotep.  This text and other sources describe his divine father Ptah, his mortal mother Khereduankh, and his sister Renpetneferet, sometimes also referred to as his wife. Imhotep is depicted as a powerful magician in Djoser’s royal court. In one episode, he travels to Assyria to recover the 42 limbs of Osiris and fights in a magical contest against an Assyrian sorceress [16].  

So you can see that Imhotep had a bit of a remarkable life as the creator of an iconic building that has become synonymous with ancient Egypt and then later venerated for his knowledge – a pretty impressive legacy I would argue.

References 


[1] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson Page Page 111

[2] https://www.worldhistory.org/imhotep/

[3] Oakes, L., 2008. The illustrated encyclopedia of the pyramids temples & tombs of Ancient Egypt. London: Southwater. Page 78

[4] Oakes, L., 2008. The illustrated encyclopedia of the pyramids temples & tombs of Ancient Egypt. London: Southwater. Page 78

[5] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 192

[6] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 192

[7] Bunson, M. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Gramercy Books, 1991. Page 123

[8] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson Page 112

[9] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 149

[10] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson Page 112

[11] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 157

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 157

[13] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 157

[14] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 149

[15] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 149

[16] https://www.arce.org/resource/imhotep-sage-between-fiction-and-reality

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