Imhotep, King Djoser’s Doctor, Architect, High Priest, Scribe, And Vizier

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One man is probably better known than all others among Egypt’s non-royal population. Imhotep (Im-hetep, Greek Imouthes) was such a success that he is now one of the world’s most famous ancients, and his name, if not his true identity, has been made even more famous by various mummy movies. His name is probably much more well-known today than that of his principal king, Djoser. In most scholars’ minds, Imhotep, whose name means “the one who comes in peace,” existed as a mythological figure until the end of the nineteenth century, when he was established as a real historical person.

Statuette of Imhotep from Imhotep Museum in Saqqara
Statuette of Imhotep from Imhotep Museum in Saqqara

He was the world’s first identified architect, and he is sometimes credited with being the world’s first doctor, priest, scribe, sage, poet, astrologer, vizier, and chief minister to Djoser (reigned 2630–2611 BC), Egypt’s third dynasty’s second king. He could have lived under four different kings. According to an inscription on one of the king’s statues, Imhotep- was known as the “Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt,” the “first one under the king,” the “administrator of the great mansion,” the “hereditary Noble,” the “high priest of Heliopolis,” the “chief sculptor,” and finally the “chief carpenter,” according to an inscription on one of the king’s statues.

Although countless statues and statuettes of him have been discovered, very little information about his life has remained. Some depict him as a common man dressed in everyday clothes. Others depict him as a sage seated in a chair, a papyrus rolled on his knees, or under his arm. Later statuettes depict him standing with a godlike beard, holding the ankh and a scepter. Early in Egyptian history, Imhotep may have been born at Ankhtow, a suburb of Memphis. Other classical writers, on the other hand, stated that he was from Gebelein, a village south of ancient Thebes. Kanofer, his father’s surname, could have been an architect. His mother could have been Khreduonkh, who most likely came from the Mendes area, and he could have married Ronfrenofert, but none of this is certain. He advanced fast through the ranks as a commoner thanks to his intelligence, natural talents, and perseverance.

He would have been one of the major priests of Lower (northern) Egypt as the High Priest of Heliopolis. Even if Egypt’s capital was maybe in Memphis, Heliopolis was most likely acknowledged as Egypt’s religious center throughout this time. Imhotep is the first master architect whose name we can identify. He is not only regarded as the first pyramid architect, having constructed Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, but he may also have had a hand in the construction of Sekhemkhet’s unfinished pyramid and, possibly, the establishment of the Edfu Temple. The Step Pyramid is still regarded as the first monumental stone structure and one of the most brilliant architectural wonders of the ancient world.

Imhotep's Medical Tools
Imhotep’s Medical Tools

Imhotep’s most famous works were medical texts. Imhotep is thought to have been the author of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which describes more than 90 anatomical terms and 48 injuries. He may have also established a medical school in Memphis as part of his cult center known as “Asklepion,” which was famous for two thousand years. All of this happened around 2,200 years before Hippocrates, the Western Father of Medicine.

According to Sir William Osler, Imhotep was the “first figure of a physician to emerge clearly from the mists of antiquity.” Imhotep diagnosed and treated over 200 diseases, including 15 diseases of the abdomen, 11 diseases of the bladder, 10 diseases of the rectum, 29 diseases of the eyes, and 18 diseases of the skin, hair, nails, and tongue. Imhotep was used to treat tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout, and arthritis, among other things. He also practiced surgery and some dentistry. Imhotep derived his medicine from plants. He also understood the position and function of the vital organs, as well as the blood circulation system. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the evidence provided by Egyptian and Greek texts supports the view that Imhotep’s reputation was highly regarded in ancient times.” His prestige grew over the centuries, and his temples were medical teaching centers in Greek times.”

He was a patron of architects, knowledge, and scribes in addition to medicine. “In priestly wisdom, magic, the formulation of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure of Zoser’s reign left such a notable reputation that his name was never forgotten,” writes James Henry Breasted. He was the patron spirit of the later scribes, to whom they poured a libation from their writing outfit’s water-jug before beginning their work.

Imhotep is an example of Kemet’s “personality cult,” in which a learned sage or another exceptionally adored person could be deified after death and become a special intercessor for the living, similar to how Catholic saints do. He was elevated as a medical deity some 100 years after his death. He was raised to a complete god in around 525, roughly 2,000 years after his death, and replaced Nefertum in the great triad at Memphis. He was identified as the “son of Ptah” in the Turin Canon. Imhotep and Amenhotep were the only mortal Egyptians to ever attain the status of full gods. He was also linked to Thoth, the god of wisdom, writing, and learning, as well as the Ibises, who were linked to Thoth as well.

We are told that he was worshipped in the Ptolemaic temple to Hathor at Dier el-Medina and at Karnak in Thebes, where he was worshipped in conjunction with Amenhotep-Son-of-Hapu, a sanctuary on the upper terrace of the temple at Deir el-Bahari, at Philae, where a chapel of Imhotep stands immediately in front of the eastern pylon of the People purchased offerings to his cult center at Saqqara, including mummified Ibises and clay representations of sick limbs and organs, in the hopes of being healed.

The Coffin of Imhotep
The Coffin of Imhotep

He was later regarded as one with Christ by early Christians. It will be remembered that the early Christians adapted to their use certain pagan customs and personalities whose influence had woven itself so deeply into tradition through the years that they could not ignore them. He was even worshipped in Greece, where he was linked with Aslepius, the god of medicine. The Romans admired him, and Emperors Claudius and Tiberius erected inscriptions honoring him on the walls of their Egyptian temples. He even found a place in Arab traditions, particularly in Saqqara, where his grave is believed to be.

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