Who Was Imhotep? - Timeline & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Not all of Egypt's most influential figures were pharaohs. In this lesson, you'll learn about the polymath Imhotep and see just how he impacted Egyptian civilization.

Imhotep

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Imitation is great, but there may be a higher form of praise: deification. Yes, literally being transformed into a god. How's that for a compliment?

In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were gods on earth who achieved a fuller divine status after death. Deification was a process generally reserved for royals. Only a very few non-royals received this honor, and most notable among them was Imhotep.

Imhotep
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Imhotep was an ancient Egyptian architect, physician, astronomer, priest, politicians, and scribe of the 27th century BCE. He was one of the most influential figures in the rise of Egyptian civilization as we know it and one of the first great scholars in human history. He was later deified as the god of medicine and wisdom. Now that's a high form of flattery.

The Vizier of Djoser

Imhotep was an influential man, but one who lived a very long time ago- back in the early stages of Egyptian civilization. Therefore, there's a lot about his specific life that we don't know. He makes his major appearance in ancient records as a priest and vizier of Djoser. Djoser was the first pharaoh of Egypt's Third Dynasty and is remembered for sponsoring massive building projects across his kingdom. True cities grew, agriculture became more sophisticated, architecture was more advanced, and at the heart of it all, was Imhotep.

Imhotep was the brains behind Djoser's visions for a grander, more complex Egyptian civilization. Imhotep was extremely educated, studying a number of disciplines, and was able to help orchestrate the growth of Egypt. He is also said to have helped save it from famine and drought through his planning and ingenuity. While he contributed to a number of fields, there are two for which Imhotep is most remembered: medicine and architecture.

Medicine

In Western society, many look to Hippocrates as the founder of modern medicine. However, 2,000 years before the Greek physician wrote his treatises, Imhotep was writing some of his own. What we know about Imhotep's medical research has survived through the accounts of others, but we get a pretty good idea what the Egyptian polymath was all about.

Ancient Egyptian reliefs of surgical tools
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Imhotep was said to have developed systematic practices for diagnosing and curing a variety of common ailments, as well as things like tuberculosis, appendicitis, arthritis, and gout. He is said to have discovered how blood flows through the body, and developed sophisticated surgical techniques. Perhaps most notable, however, was Imhotep's system of treating disease. Imhotep was a priest in the Egyptian religion, but his medical practices do not seem to have relied on magic or ritual. Instead, he may have been the first physician of Egypt to develop systematic uses of ground plants and other natural substances to create what we can truly identify as medicine.

Architecture

Imhotep's most famous contribution to Egypt, however, may be in the field of architecture. Off the top of your head: what are the first three things that come to your mind when you think of ancient Egypt? For many people, that list has to include pyramids. Pyramids may be one of the most definitive symbols of ancient Egypt, and we can thank Imhotep for that.

Before Djoser, pharaohs were buried in underground chambers, covered with a rectangular mud-brick structure called a mastaba. As Djoser's architect, it was Imhotep's job to begin preparing the pharaoh's tomb. Instead of a rectangular mastaba, however, Imhotep made a square one. Rather than using dried mud-brick, Imhotep also used limestone. Building in stone is much stronger, but also much more complicated. There's a reason that stone structures were rare in the ancient world: balancing the weight of the stone so that the structure didn't collapse required impressive engineering.

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