(Gr., Imouthes), the master builder of the third dynasty, was the chief architect of King Djoser (ruled c.2687–2668 BCE) during whose reign the first pyramid (the Step Pyramid) was built at Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis, which was then the capital of Egypt. Whether or not this monumental tomb construction was the architect's concept or his king's, this remarkable innovation was surely planned and erected under the direction of Imhotep. The third-century BCE Egyptian historian Manetho attributes this stone building to him. He was also the high priest of Heliopolis. Throughout his life, which reportedly lasted until the end of the dynasty (c.2649 BCE), he was greatly honored. This was demonstrated by the discovery of his name inscribed on the base of a statue of Djoser (Cairo, the Egyptian Museum JE 49889), a singular indication of his extraordinary standing at that time. Over a millennium later, during the New Kingdom, he was venerated and described in contemporaneous literature as the patron of scribes, and in the Turin Papyri as the son of Ptah, chief god of Memphis. Hornung (1982) cites a chronological list dating to that era that names Imhotep as the earliest Wisdom teacher. In the Late period, veneration evolved into deification; Imhotep had his own temples and priesthoods. During this final stage of native rule, he was glorified for his skills as a physician and healer. The Greeks, after conquering Egypt, associated him with their god of medicine, Asclepius, and continued to build temples dedicated to him. Imhotep's reputation survived into the era of the Arab invasion of North Africa during the seventh century CE.

Although presumably buried in North Saqqara, near the pyramid of Djoser, Imhotep's tomb remains unlocated and the evidence of his life's accomplishments can only be deduced from records based more on legend than fact. Despite this paucity of information, there is little doubt that Imhotep was one of the most important personalities of ancient Egypt, an early version of a Renaissance man. Although a considerable number of his statues survive from the New Kingdom, Imhotep is best known today from a large quantity of Late period bronze statuettes depicting him as a shaven-headed, seated priest holding a roll of papyrus on his knees. These artifacts were undoubtedly made as votive representations intended to endow their owners with erudition.

Bibliography

  • Grimal, N. A History of Ancient Egypt. Translated by I. Shaw. Oxford, 1992.
  • Hornung, E. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt. Translated by J. Baines. Ithaca, N.Y., 1982.
  • Wildung, D. Imhotep und Amenhotep-Gottwerdung im alten Ägypten, MÄS 36, Munich and Berlin, 1977.
  • Wildung, D. “Imhotep.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 145–148. Wiesbaden, 1980.

Jack A. Josephson