Imhotep (/ɪmˈhtɛp/;[1] Egyptian: ỉỉ-m-ḥtp *jā-im-ḥātap, in Unicode hieroglyphs: 𓇍𓅓𓊵:𓏏*𓊪, "the one who comes in peace"; fl. late 27th century BC) was an Egyptian chancellor to the pharaoh Djoser, probable architect of the Djoser's step pyramid, and high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis. Very little is known of Imhotep as a historical figure, but in the 3000 years following his death, he was gradually glorified and deified.

Imhotep in hieroglyphs

Jj m ḥtp
He who comes in peace

Jj m ḥtp

Jj m ḥtp
Greek Manetho variants:
Africanus: Imouthes
Eusebius: missing
Eusebius,  AV:  missing

Traditions from long after Imhotep's death treated him as a great author of wisdom texts[2] and especially as a physician.[3][4][5][6][7] No text from his lifetime mentions these capacities and no text mentions his name in the first 1200 years following his death.[8][9] Apart from the three short contemporary inscriptions that establish him as chancellor to the pharaoh, the first text to reference Imhotep dates to the time of Amenhotep III (c. 1391–1353 BC). It is addressed to the owner of a tomb, and reads:

The wab-priest may give offerings to your ka. The wab-priests may stretch to you their arms with libations on the soil, as it is done for Imhotep with the remains of the water bowl.

D. Wildung (1977), Egyptian Saints: Deification in Pharaonic Egypt, p. 34.

It appears that this libation to Imhotep was done regularly, as they are attested on papyri associated with statues of Imhotep until the Late Period (c. 664–332 BC). To Wildung, this cult holds its origin in the slow evolution of the memory of Imhotep among intellectuals from his death onwards. To Alan Gardiner, this cult is so distinct from the offerings usually made to commoners that the epithet of "demi-god" is likely justified to describe the way Imhotep was venerated in the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1077 BC).[10]

The first references to the healing abilities of Imhotep occur from the Thirtieth Dynasty (c. 380–343 BC) onwards, some 2200 years after his death.[11][12]

He was one of only two commoners ever to be deified after death (the other being Amenhotep, son of Hapu). The center of his cult was in Memphis. The location of his tomb remains unknown, despite efforts to find it.[13] The consensus is that it is hidden somewhere at Saqqara.


Imhotep's historicity is confirmed by two contemporary inscriptions made during his lifetime on the base or pedestal of one of Djoser's statues (Cairo JE 49889) and also by a graffito on the enclosure wall surrounding Sekhemkhet's unfinished step-pyramid.[14][15] The latter inscription suggests that Imhotep outlived Djoser by a few years and went on to serve in the construction of King Sekhemkhet's pyramid, which was abandoned due to this ruler's brief reign.[14]

Architecture and engineering

Imhotep was one of the chief officials of the Pharaoh Djoser. Egyptologists ascribe to him the design of the Pyramid of Djoser, a step pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt in 2630–2611 BC.[16] He may also have been responsible for the first known use of stone columns to support a building.[17] Despite these later attestations, the pharaonic Egyptians themselves never credited Imhotep as the designer of the stepped pyramid nor with the invention of stone architecture.[18]


Two thousand years after his death, Imhotep's status had risen to that of a god of medicine and healing. He was eventually equated with Thoth, the god of architecture, mathematics, and medicine, and patron of scribes: Imhotep's cult had merged with that of his former tutelary god.

He was revered in the region of Thebes as the "brother" of Amenhotep, son of Hapu, another deified architect, in the temples dedicated to Thoth.[19][20] Imhotep was also linked to Asklepios by the Greeks.[21]

According to myth, Imhotep's mother was a mortal named Kheredu-ankh, she too being eventually revered as a demi-goddess as the daughter of Banebdjedet.[22] Alternatively, since Imhotep was known as the "Son of Ptah",[23] his mother was sometimes claimed to be Sekhmet, the patron of Upper Egypt whose consort was Ptah.

The Upper Egyptian Famine Stela, which dates from the Ptolemaic period (305–30 B.C.), bears an inscription containing a legend about a famine lasting seven years during the reign of Djoser. Imhotep is credited with having been instrumental in ending it. One of his priests explained the connection between the god Khnum and the rise of the Nile to the king, who then had a dream in which the Nile god spoke to him, promising to end the drought.[24]

A demotic papyrus from the temple of Tebtunis, dating to the 2nd century A.D., preserves a long story about Imhotep.[25] King Djoser plays a prominent role in the story, which also mentions Imhotep's family; his father the god Ptah, his mother Khereduankh, and his younger sister Renpetneferet. At one point Djoser desires Renpetneferet, and Imhotep disguises himself and tries to rescue her. The text also refers to the royal tomb of Djoser. Part of the legend includes an anachronistic battle between the Old Kingdom and the Assyrian armies where Imhotep fights an Assyrian sorceress in a duel of magic.

As an instigator of Egyptian culture, Imhotep's idealized image lasted well into the Roman period. In the Ptolemaic period, the Egyptian priest and historian Manetho credited him with inventing the method of a stone-dressed building during Djoser's reign, though he was not the first to actually build with stone. Stone walling, flooring, lintels, and jambs had appeared sporadically during the Archaic Period, though it is true that a building of the size of the step pyramid made entirely out of stone had never before been constructed. Before Djoser, pharaohs were buried in mastaba tombs.


Egyptologist James Peter Allen states that "The Greeks equated him with their own god of medicine, Asklepios, although ironically there is no evidence that Imhotep himself was a physician."[26]

See also


  1. "Imhotep". Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved September 25, 2014.
  2. D. Wildung (1977), Egyptian Saints: Deification in Pharaonic Egypt, p. 34
  3. William Osler, The Evolution of Modern Medicine, Kessinger Publishing 2004, p.12
  4. Musso, C. G. (2005). Imhotep: The Dean among the Ancient Egyptian Physicians
  5. Willerson, J. T., & Teaff, R. (1995). Egyptian Contributions to Cardiovascular Medicine, Tex Heart I J, p. 194.
  6. R. Highfield (2007). "How Imhotep gave us medicine". The Telegraph. London.
  7. Herbowski, L. (2013). The Maze of the Cerebrospinal Fluid Discovery, Anat Res Int, p. 5.
  8. Teeter, E. (2011). Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt, p. 96.
  9. Baud, M. (2002). Djéser et la IIIe dynastie, p. 125. (In French).
  10. Hurry, J. B. (1926). Imhotep: The Egyptian God of Medicine (2014 reimpression, 133 pages). Oxford: Traffic Output, pp. 47–48.
  11. Baud, M. (2002). Djéser et la IIIe dynastie, p. 127. (In French).
  12. Wildung, D. (1977). Egyptian Saints – Deification in Pharaonic Egypt, p. 44.
  13. "Lay of the Harper". Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  14. Jaromir Malek. "The Old Kingdom" in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw (ed.) Oxford University Press paperback 2002. p. 92–93
  15. J. Kahl "Old Kingdom: Third Dynasty" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt by Donald Redford (ed.) Vol. 2, p. 592
  16. Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt, Routledge 2005, p. 159
  17. Baker, Rosalie; Baker, Charles (2001). Ancient Egyptians: People of the Pyramids. Oxford University Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0195122213.
  18. John Romer, "A History of Ancient Egypt From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid", Penguin Books 2013 p.294-295
  19. Thoth or the Hermes of Egypt: A Study of Some Aspects of Theological Thought in Ancient Egypt, p. 166–168, Patrick Boylan, Oxford University Press, 1922
  20. M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, The University of California Press 1980, vol. 3, p.104
  21. Geraldine,, Pinch, (2002). Handbook of Egyptian mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif. ISBN 9781576072424. OCLC 52716451.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  22. Marina Warner, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, World of Myths, University of Texas Press 2003, ISBN 0-292-70204-3, p. 296
  23. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, University of California Press 1980, ISBN 0-520-04020-1, p. 106
  24. "The Famine Stele on the Island of Sehel". Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  25. Kim Ryholt, 'The Life of Imhotep?', Actes du IXe Congrès International des Études Démotiques, edited by G. Widmer and D. Devauchelle, Bibliothèque d'étude 147, Le Caire, Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 2009, pp. 305–315.
  26. Allen, James Peter (2005). The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt. Yale University Press. p. 12. ISBN 9780300107289. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  27. Reid, Danny. "The Mummy (1932) Review, with Boris Karloff and David Manners". Retrieved June 6, 2016.
  28. Holden, Stephen. "Sarcophagus, Be Gone: Night of the Living Undead". New York Times. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
  29. "Imhotep Review". Review. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
  30. "Look Around You - Series 2, Episode 1, opening sequence" on YouTube

Further reading

  • Asante, Molefi Kete (2000). The Egyptian Philosophers: Ancient African Voices from Imhotep to Akhenaten. Chicago: African American Images. ISBN 978-0-913543-66-5.
  • Cormack, Maribelle (1965). Imhotep: Builder in Stone. New York: Franklin Watts.
  • Dawson, Warren R. (1929). Magician and Leech: A Study in the Beginnings of Medicine with Special Reference to Ancient Egypt. London: Methuen.
  • Garry, T. Gerald (1931). Egypt: The Home of the Occult Sciences, with Special Reference to Imhotep, the Mysterious Wise Man and Egyptian God of Medicine. London: John Bale, Sons and Danielsson.
  • Hurry, Jamieson B. (1978). Imhotep (2nd ed.). New York: AMS Press. ISBN 978-0-404-13285-9.
  • Risse, Guenther B. (1986). "Imhotep and Medicine—A Reevaluation". Western Journal of Medicine. 144: 622–624. PMC 1306737.
  • Wildung, Dietrich (1977). Egyptian Saints: Deification in Pharaonic Egypt. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-9169-1.
  • Wildung, Dietrich (1977). Imhotep und Amenhotep: Gottwerdung im alten Ägypten (in German). Deustcher Kunstverlag. ISBN 978-3-422-00829-8.
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