The Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1074:
IMHOTEP

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1074.

Today, let's meet the first real person in history. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Now here's an idea for you! Historian Will Durant offers Imhotep as the first real person to turn up in the historical record. Before that we have only cardboard figures -- legendary kings and patriarchs. So let's meet this Adam of recorded history.

Imhotep was the advisor to the Egyptian King Zoser. Zoser ruled soon after 2700 BC. He was the dominant king of the 3rd dynasty and the first ruler of what we call the Old Kingdom.

The Old Kingdom was the beginning of the ancient Egypt we read about. Egypt had recently invented writing and could now tell us about her works. Her heroic stone structures began under Zoser. The Great Pyramid would go up just a few centuries later.

The force behind all that was not Zoser, but Imhotep. Imhotep created a new architectural order. He designed the Stepped Pyramid of Saqqara -- the first great Egyptian pyramid. It's the oldest of those architectural treasures that still stand today. It rose like a great wedding cake, surrounded by a delicate low-lying limestone temple that covered three hundred by six hundred yards of ground around it.

But architecture was only a part of Imhotep's legacy. He was also a writer and a poet. And Egypt honored him less for writing or building than for his medicine. Here the water gets muddy. For, unlike his architecture, we have no idea what Imhotep contributed to medicine. What we do know is, the Egyptians eventually deified him for his healing. By the 6th century B.C, he'd displaced the god Thoth as the god of healing. He was even called the son of the god Ptah.

By then, the Greeks had their own god of healing, Asclepios. And, it turns out, Asclepios was also derived from a real person. Homer mentioned him in the Iliad only as a fine physician. But, as Asclepios was deified, he too was given a god for a father -- in this case, Apollo. Finally, Imhotep and Asclepios appear as a single god called Asclepios-Imhoutes. I guess that's called hedging your bets.

So Imhotep began as the first person in recorded history; then he was forgotten as a human being. History is the worse for that.

Emerson once wrote, "There is properly no History; only Biography," and that's all too clear here. As the person of Imhotep fades into the mists of deification, history dies.

But those glorious architectural remains at Saqqara are one sure imprint of the human Imhotep. When I see the majestic Stepped Pyramid I realize: The human Imhotep was deified just as you and I are. For the Godlike force of creativity offers each of us our own role -- in human history.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.ep

(Theme music)


Durant, W., The Story of Civilization. Part I: Our Oriental Heritage. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954. See especially p. 147.

Casson, L., Ancient Egypt. New York: Time, Inc., 1965.

See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Egypt. I am grateful to Dr. William Howell for suggesting Imhotep as "the first person in recorded history."



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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