Imhotep was the architect, astrologer, high priest and chief vizier of Pharaoh Djoser the second king of Egypt’s third dynasty (circa 2650 BCE). His name means “The One Who Comes in Peace.” Imhotep was born a commoner but it quickly became apparent that he was exceptionally smart, a true genius, and he rose through the ranks to became Djoser’s vizier, the highest official to serve the pharaoh.
Imhotep’s high standing in Djoser’s court is affirmed by an inscription bearing his name on a statue of Djoser found at the site of the Ṣaqqārah Step Pyramid. The inscription lists a variety of titles, including chief of the sculptors and chief of the seers. Although no contemporary account has been found that refers to Imhotep as a practicing physician, ancient papyri illustrating Egyptian society and medicine during the time of Djoser show that the high priest/chief magician of the pharaoh’s court also served as Egypt’s chief physician.
Imhotep was the architect and builder of the Step Pyramid constructed at the necropolis of Ṣaqqārah in the city of Memphis. It is the oldest carved stone monument in the world; a pyramid which consists of six steps and is over 200 feet tall. In addition to the Step Pyramid, he may also have been responsible for the first known use of stone columns to support a building.
As the builder of the Step Pyramid, and as a physician, he had to take medical care of thousands of workers who were needed to build that huge project. Although there are no confirmed writings by Imhotep, the Edwin Smith papyrus (named after the dealer who bought it in 1862) is considered by many to have originally been written by him. This ancient document is the oldest known written medical manual and describes 48 cases of wounds, fractures, dislocations, and tumors. Imhotep is thought to have diagnosed and treated over 200 diseases in his lifetime including tuberculosis, appendicitis, gout, gallstones, and arthritis. He also performed surgery and is believed to have founded the first ever medical school in Memphis.
Imhotep was considered by the Egyptian people as the “inventor of healing” and 100 years after his death his status was elevated to that of a demigod, and around 2000 years after his death in 525 BCE, Imhotep’s status was elevated to that of God of Medicine and Healing. It is written that people brought offerings in his honor to Ṣaqqārah, such as mummified Ibises and clay models of diseased organs and limbs, in the hope of being healed of diseases from which they were suffering.
Imhotep was known as the “Son of Ptah” and his mother was sometimes claimed to be Sekhmet, the Goddess of Upper Egypt whose consort was Ptah. The cult worship of Imhotep reached its peak during Greco-Roman times, when the Greeks equated Imhotep with Asklepios the God of Health, who was also a deified mortal.
The famous Egyptologist James Henry Breasted said of Imhotep:
“In priestly wisdom, in magic, in the formulation of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure of Djoser’s reign left so notable a reputation that his name was never forgotten. He was the patron spirit of the later scribes, to whom they regularly poured out a libation from the water-jug of their writing outfit before beginning their work.”