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
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
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.
Episode | Search
Episodes | Index | Home | Next