Who was Imhotep?
Imhotep is one of the most important non- royal figures in ancient Egyptian history. Of uncertain origin, Imhotep developed a prominent career in state administration as vizier and in monumental architecture during the rule of Pharaoh Djoser (2667 – 2648), belonging to the Third Dynasty (2686 – 2613 BC), in the context of the Old Kingdom. (2686-2125 BC).
Imhotep has the merit of being not only the designer of the first pyramid in Egypt, which makes him also the first known architect in history, but also that of being the first non-royal person whose existence is documented.
This is demonstrated in the only two references to him that we conserve in archaeological finds from his own time: an inscription on the base of a statue of Pharaoh Djoser placed in the funerary complex of this king in the royal necropolis of Saqqara and a graphite in the wall of the enclosure of the pyramid of his successor, Pharaoh Sekhemkhet (2648 – 2640 BC).
The first inscription reveals Imhotep’s official titles: “royal chancellor of Lower Egypt, First after the King, administrator of the Great Palace, nobleman, high priest of Ra, master of stone builders, sculptors, and makers of stone vessels.”
Likewise, it is irrefutable proof of the great esteem that Pharaoh Djoser had for him, because thanks to that text he would accompany him on his eternal journey through the Hereafter.
On the other hand, the second finding allows us to deduce that Imhotep died at some point during the years of Sekhemkhet’s reign.
After his death, Imhotep was possibly buried at Saqqara, perhaps in a large mastaba on the edge of the desert plateau that shows the same orientation as the pyramid of Djoser. However, the truth is that archaeologists’ efforts to locate his tomb have not yet borne fruit.
The origins of Imhotep
About his origins there are more uncertainties than certainties. Surely he was born at some point in the late Second Dynasty (2890 – 2686 BC), in a family of humble origin or one of noble character, which would explain his great rise in the court of the pharaoh.
As far as his family is concerned, the sources make him the son of an unknown Kanofer and a much more well-known Khereduankh, and make him married to Ronpenofret.
It is quite possible that, especially this last character, is a later invention that served to complete the holy family of Imhotep once he was elevated to the category of god.
He probably had to finish his training and start working at court in the time of Pharaoh Nebka (2686 – 2667 BC), Djoser’s predecessor to the throne, so that he had already made a name for himself when the latter came to power.
At first, he would have been a craftsman, a specialist in the manufacture of stone vases, and a head of carpentry, in charge of directing technical teams and managing product shipments destined for the royal palace.
Once the pharaoh noticed him, Imhotep also became high priest of Ra in Heliopolis, the main center of worship of the Sun god.
Imhotep: The carpenter who became a god
The dimensions of his monumental and eternal work meant that the figure of Imhotep not only did not fall into oblivion, but also grew larger and mythologized over time.
Thus, from the First Intermediate Period (2160 – 2055 BC), Imhotep became a demigod, a great author of innumerable wonders in the fields of writing, medicine, magic or astronomy.
In this way he appears in some preserved literary texts, such as the first of the five tales of the Westcar Papyrus or in the poetic composition of the Song of the Harpist, engraved on the wall of the tomb of a king of the 17th Dynasty (c. 1580 – 1550 BC).
Also, at the end of the New Kingdom (1550 – 1069 BC) a divine cult of Imhotep began to exist, associated with the gods Thoth and Ptah.
From the 18th Dynasty (1550 – 1295 BC), Imhotep was considered the patron of scribes, and from the Late Period (664 – 332 BC) he became the god of writing, architecture, wisdom and medicine.
It is at least curious to think that, also in the New Kingdom, Imhotep was remembered as a miraculous healer, when there is no proof that he practiced medicine at any time in his life.
In this sense, tradition attributes to Imhotep the authorship of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the oldest medical papyrus in the world. Even so, the truth is that with the passage of time the Saqqara region became a great center of worship for Imhotep, and crowds of pilgrims flocked to it hoping to be healed by the god.
In the times of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (664 – 525 BC), small bronze figurines were popularized that represented various divinities, including Imhotep.
Of this alone, more than 400 statuettes are known, all of them with a very similar formal appearance: a young man sitting on a chair, bare-chested, dressed in a kilt and headgear, just like that of his divine father Ptah.