Statuette of Imhotep,
chancellor to the pharaoh, priest of Ra and architect.
Bronze, Ptolemaic Egypt (332-30 BC).
Image is released under a Creative Commons License.

Imhotep (whose name means "He comes in peace") was the first great architect of the Old Kingdom in Egypt and was responsible for building the pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. He lived about 2700 BC. Imhotep was also a scribe, inventor, magician, vizier (counsellor) of the Pharaoh Djoser and the founder of Egyptian medicine. This is his name expressed in Egyptian hieroglyphics:

In the New Kingdom Imhotep was worshiped as a god. Scribes sacrificed to Imhotep before beginning to write by offering a drop of ink.

The exact details of Imhotep's life are not known. The inscription of his name at the base of a statue at Saqqara, has led some researchers to believe that he might have been a brother or son of the Pharaoh Djoser (3rd Dynasty). However, in Egyptian tradition Imhotep was regarded as being of humble origins.

His greatest work as an architect was the construction of the first stone pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, for the Pharoah Djoser. His innovation of using stone for the construction of the monument, instead of mud bricks, made it possible to construct massive pyramids. Without his invention, the heritage of Egypt would have been very different.

Imhotep is also regarded as the inventor or various instruments that were used for pyramid construction.

The 60 m high step pyramid that Imhotep built had a great religious significance. In Egyptian mythology the sun god Ra of the Egyptians had once climbed down the side of a hill down to create Man. The pyramid is therefore a symbolic representation of that hill, and by analogy represents the rebirth or recreation of the man beneath it. The slopes of the pyramid point towards the sun god.

Imhotep's design of the Step Pyramid included huge stone stairway to heaven, which should allow the deceased pharaoh to reach his true father, the Sun God. There, he would then expect the immortality that was usually reserved for the gods. His pyramid therefore created a link between humans and gods, or at least the Pharaoh and god, and was designed to achieve immortality.

During a seven-year famine is Imhotep advised the King that he should sacrifice to Khnum, the god of the Nile flood, in order to bring water to the fields. But Imhotep also had a more practical side: as a real defence against famine in times of drought, he developed a new irrigation system, which supplied water from the Nile to the fields even when the level of the river was low. Even during his lifetime Imhotep was therefore highly respected.

As the closest confidant of the king, he was appointed by him to the office of high priest of the god Ptah of Memphis and the sun god Re of Heliopolis. Imhotep improved the technique of mummification, and introduced the practive of removing the internal organs of the dead to be kept in special containers, the canopic jars. After the death of Djoser, Imhotep had the honor heading the team that embalmed the king.

Imhotep himself died a few years after Djoser and was then no longer mentioned in the annals of the Egyptians. There are indications that Imhotep had rivals in the priesthood, who were envious that someone of humble origin had become one of the closest confidants of the Pharaoh and been invested with the highest priestly offices.

Despite the rivalry of his fellow priests, Imhotep's reputation was such that he came to be worshiped as a god during later dynasties, particularly during the "New Kingdom." Imhotep was regarded as a god of healing. In Memphis and Thebes he was revered as divine Son of the God Ptah. He became the patro god of scirbes, and the clerks sacrificed to him before beginning to write any work: to him was offered a drop of ink, from each document written. During the Ptolemaic period when the Greeks ruled Egypt, Imhotep came to be associated with the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Imhotep was a popular deity, and many prayed for his help in the affairs of everyday life. The anniversaries of his birth, death, and funeral were celebrated throughout Egypt.

Various legends grew around Imhotep and he was credited with the discovery of almost every Egyptian technological and cultural advance: he was said to have invented hieroglyphics, medicine, and even the calendar. From today's perspective, this can be seen as a legend.

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