The celebrated novelist and science writer Isaac Asimov called him “the first historic equivalent, known by name, of what we would today call a scientist.” Historian J.A. Rogers wrote that, “no individual of the ancient world left a deeper impression on history…” And the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted wrote that 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.”
These scholars are talking about Imhotep: the ancient Egyptian polymath for whom history regards as the first architect and the first doctor known by name.
But you may be thinking, is this the same Imhotep – the evil priest of the Mummy Hollywood yore? The answer is unequivocally “No.” That movie version (ironically played by a White South African) is pure celluloid fiction; an apparition born from the west’s insatiable need to discolor and distort the achievements and appearance of the Egyptians in the pale-horse image of Northern Europeans.
The real Imhotep (his name means, “the one, who comes in peace, is with peace,”) was Black, Egyptian and was worshipped as a demigod in the ancient world.
Born in 2980 B.C, to parents of non-noble blood – his father, Kanofer, an architect, and his mother was named Khredounkh in the 3rd dynasty of the Old Kingdom – little of Imhoptep’s childhood is known to us today. We know that he first served in the court of King Zoser as a scribe, then a physician and vizier (official). He distinguished himself in the king’s court by designing a tomb for Zoser called a mastaba, and through a series of alterations – six blocks decreasing in size when vertically stacked on top of each other, created what architects call the step pyramid: the first pyramid in human history. It measured 389 by 463 feet at its base, and was 204 feet high. The pyramid, which symbolically represented a heb-sed a reincarnation jubilee ceremony, was part of a complex that included shafts, passageways, underground chambers, chapels, courts the king to enjoy in the afterlife.
The Egyptologist Jean-Phillippe Lauer called it “the first building in the world to be built of cut stone in level courses…”
Imhotep’s unprecedented architectural feat was only superseded by his fame as a physician. Many historians believe he is the author of the so-called Edwin Smith Papyrus – named for the European who discovered it, which contains over 90 anatomical terns and 48 injuries. Medical historian Sir William Osler wrote, “Imhotep diagnosed and treated over 200 diseases, 15 diseases of the abdomen, 11 of the bladder, 10 of the rectum, 29 of the eyes, and 18 of the skin, hair, nails and tongue. Imhotep treated tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout and arthritis. He also performed surgery and practiced some dentistry. Imhotep extracted medicine from plants. He also knew the position and function of the vital organs and circulation of the blood system.”
So great was Imhoptep’s prowess as a doctor that he was one of the few non-pharaohs to be deified as a god. He was worshipped in Greece as Asclepius, their god of medicine. And he was still venerated in Egypt and the Greco-Roman world centuries after his death in 2950 B.C. Along with his reputation as an architect and doctor, he was also revered as a philosopher and astronomer.
Today, we should do what the ancient scribes did when they paid tribute to Imhotep, and pour some libations for this immortal genius.
-Eugene Holley, Jr.
Article first appeared in https://www.ebony.com/black-history/unsung-heroes-imhotep-the-first-genius-505