Imhotep was an advisor, architect, astronomer and structural engineer to Pharaoh Djoser of Egypt’s Third Dynasty in the 27th century BC. He was the architect of the step pyramid built at the necropolis of Saqqarah in the city of Memphis. The oldest monument of hewn stone in the world, it stands 200 feet tall and is a testament to the knowledge and vision of its designer.
His name translates to ‘He Who Comes in Peace’, and was a polymath of high esteem, also being a poet, mathematician, and physician. The first Egyptian to be fully deified, he was later worshipped as a god of medicine after his death. There are around 200 cures and techniques attributed to him 2,200 years before Hippocrates, the father of medicine.
Imhotep is thought to be the author of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which outlines a hundred medical terms and describes various injuries and their treatments. Imhotep was one of the first physicians to believe diseases occurred naturally and were not judgements from the gods. The papyrus contains detailed descriptions of physical conditions, with their treatments rooted in practical science.
An inscription bearing his name was found on a statue of Djoser at the site of the pyramid, designating him as head of the sculptors and head of the seers. This was a sign of respect from Djoser, as previously only the names of the kings would be written on their tombs. Imhotep held many titles, starting life with little money or connections before working his way to the very top of Egyptian society.
It is believed Imhotep began as a priest in the temple of Ptah, his understanding of the will of the gods making him the most qualified person to build the pyramid which would house the Pharaoh’s body for all eternity. This was a new venture: previous Pharaohs were buried in mastabas, rectangular structures with a flat roof which were built over the underground chambers where the dead were buried.
The pyramid was constructed out of six masatabas built on top of one another. Imhotep changed the design to be square but had to redesign it to be rectangular. He also wanted to use stone instead of mud. This meant greater structural integrity and allowed him to build higher.
There were 13 false doors cut into the stone with a 750m long trench dug into the ground. These were to discourage visitors, who would have to be told how to enter the complex. There were also mazes built into the underground chambers to protect Djoser’s body. 40,000 stone vessels of different shapes and sizes were also found beneath the pyramid, inscribed with the names of previous rulers.
The pyramid design was the tallest structure of its time and had a surrounding complex made up of a temple, courtyards, shrines, storerooms and living quarters for priests. Factoring in everything within the wall surrounding the complex, it was size of a city. These methods were used in later pyramids for other Pharaohs, but its is unknown whether Imhotep himself built these or if his designs were used by others emulating his style.
This is unsurprising, as the design and construction of the step pyramid stands as one of the most important milestones in architecture and engineering in human history.
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