Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Imhotep

Written in sophomore year as a portfolio piece.

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What must you do to be worshipped as a god after your death?

Chancellor. Administrator of the Great Palace. High Priest of Heliopolis. Builder. Doctor. Maker of Vases in Chief. If he didn’t live in the 27th century BC, we would call him a Renaissance man.

Imhotep’s beginnings are obscured by time and deification. Proposed identities of his mother range from Nut, the sky goddess, to Sekhmet, the lion goddess, to a mortal who may or may not be the daughter of the ram god Banebdjedet.

Mortal seems most likely.

Imhotep was born a commoner in a suburb of Memphis, sometime in late spring. Though he lacked noble blood, his father, Kanofer, was a successful architect.

The son, however, would far surpass the father. Imhotep eventually became one of the pharaoh Djoser’s highest councilors; the vizier, in fact, with control over the courts, the treasury, and other departments of the government. He is credited with ending a seven-year famine caused by the insufficient floodwaters from the Nile.

This event likely had little to do with his abilities; climatic issues and luck were more instrumental in ending the famine than Imhotep’s advice to Djoser on how best to please the god of the cataract. But Imhotep’s reputation rested on more than superstition. He was a noted physician, sometimes credited as the founder of medicine. Though it is dubious whether or not he was the author of a medical text with extensive anatomical and curative notes, he was known for plant-based medicines and treatments for a variety of illnesses.

Despite his achievements in the arts of healing, the greatest evidence of Imhotep’s deeds lies in the field of architecture and engineering. To understand the impact of his innovations, it is essential to understand the context in which they were created. Before Imhotep, pharaohs were buried in mastabas – which can be described best as trapezoidal prisms. The name mastaba even means, loosely, “bench of mud”, an apt descriptor of both form and composition.

In designing his pharaoh Djoser’s tomb, Imhotep had loftier visions: he stacked six mastabas on top of one another, creating a stairway to let the pharaoh’s soul ascend to the heavens. The resulting edifice at Saqqara was the first structure of its size (just shy of two hundred feet tall) to be built entirely from stone. It was also Egypt’s first step pyramid and an essential intermediary stage between the uninspired mastabas and the iconic smooth-sided pyramids of the later Old Kingdom.

Imhotep lived to see the pharaoh Djoser interred in the monument he had built. He himself may have died circa 2600 BC, during the reign of the pharaoh Huni. For most people, especially those of common blood, that would be the end of it. After all, as Marcus Aurelius said, “Short is every man’s time on earth…and short too the longest posthumous fame.” But after his death, Imhotep’s fame only spread.

Later dynasties called him the son of Ptah, a creator god, in recognition of his wisdom. Greeks associated him with their healer deity Asclepius. He had a temple at Memphis that also housed a medical school and library of medical knowledge. The cult of Imhotep grew such that scribes poured out a libation to him before beginning their work. Roman emperors Claudius and Tiberius praised him in inscription.

Even after over 4500 years, Imhotep’s name has not been obscured by the relentless march of history; he is more famous even than the pharaohs under whom he served. If you want posterity to view you as a god (and, to be sure, it is a desire not without megalomania), you could do worse than follow the example of Imhotep.

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