Imhotep (also known in Greek as Imouthes or Asklepios) was many things to many different people, depending on when they lived. During his lifetime (fl. 2667 – 2648 B.C.) he was the chief architect to King Djoser. By the New Kingdom he had become a god to the Egyptians. Today he shows up in the movies as a mummy determined to wreak havoc.
Imhotep in the Movies
Boris Karloff played Imhotep in the original 1932 movie, The Mummy. In this film, Imhotep is an Egyptian priest who reawakens after 3000 years, determined to be reunited with his long-lost love, Anck-Su-Namun, who was also the Pharaoh’s mistress.
The more recent movie, The Mummy (1999), follows this same theme. Imhotep is Seti I’s high priest and keeper of the dead, living around 1290 B.C. Imhotep is again carrying on an affair with Anck-Su-Namun, Seti’s mistress. When they are discovered, the high priest kills the pharaoh. Imhotep’s apparent ability to work magic is evidenced by Anck-Su-Namuns willingness to kill herself rather than surrender to the murdered pharaohs guards, believing that he has the power to bring her back to life. After her burial Imhotep steals her body and starts the process to bring her again to life, but before her spirit can quicken, he himself is captured. As punishment, Imhotep is buried alive with flesh-eating beetles. When his mummy comes to life in modern times, he unleashes a series of plagues. In the sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001), Imhotep is again resurrected, this time to defeat the Scorpion King.
So who was Imhotep? An Egyptian high priest? An Egyptian god capable of raising the dead and unleashing plagues upon the land? To learn what is known about Imhotep, we must first go back to the Old Kingdom.
Imhotep in the Old Kingdom
King Djoser (or Zoser, also known as Netjerikhet or Tosorthros), the first king in the 3rd Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, ruled from c. 2687-2668 B.C. Imhotep was his advisor and chief architect, as well as a physician and the high priest of Heliopolis.
Before Djoser, the kings were buried in mastabas, which were rectangular buildings of mud-brick. Over time they came to have underground rooms for the king’s use in the afterlife. That changed with the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. This first pyramid was built during Djoser’s reign, and was almost certainly planned and constructed by Imhotep. It had six building phases, and went from a small mastaba to a step pyramid more than 60 meters high. The base, which was rectangular rather than square as in later pyramids, covered 12,000 square meters. In addition to its being the very first pyramid, it’s also notable for having been constructed in limestone blocks (over 330,000 cubic meters of them!). Prior to that time, sun-baked bricks were used for building.
Imhotep also held the position of Chief Lector Priest, or Kheri-heb her tep. Lectors were considered magicians, as they recited the religious texts which contained magical powers. Imhotep took part in many ceremonies dealing with the dead, such as The Liturgy of Funerary Offerings and The Opening the Mouth.1 Lectors were held in high regard as they held influence in the afterlife. It is from this role that we can see how Imhotep became a likely candidate for a movie character with magical powers.
Imhotep was revered during his lifetime for his achievements as architect, priest, and physician, and also for the proverbs that he wrote. He was given the singular honor of having his name inscribed on a statue of Djoser: “Imhotep, Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, Chief under the King, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary Lord, High Priest of Heliopolis, Imhotep the Builder, the Sculptor, the Maker of Stone Vases”. His exact burial place is unknown, but is thought to be in North Saqqara, near the temple of Djoser. It is likely that Imhotep’s tomb was unearthed during the 26th Dynasty when the Step Pyramid was being restored.
Glorified as a physician and healer, Imhotep’s fame continued to grow long after he died. His deification took places in stages, with him becoming a demigod first before reaching full godhood status. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (c. 2nd century A.D.) relates that in the 4th Dynasty King Mycerinus built temples for Imhotep, the son of the god Ptah, and others. A religious revival at the beginning of the New Kingdom, about 1580 B.C., brought renewed interest in Imhotep. As a hero of the past he was considered to be accessible to the common people, and was elevated to the status of demigod with other heroes from legend.2 Statues from this time often show him with a papyrus, but without ankh or sceptre.
In the Turin Papyrus (c. 1300 B.C., also known as the Turin King List or Turin Royal Canon) he is again referred to as the son of Ptah, the chief god of Memphis. By about 525 B.C. Imhotep was fully deified as the god of medicine, and a member of the triad of Memphis gods together with Ptah and Sekhmet. At least three temples were built for him. In statues from this period he is often carrying an ankh or sceptre.
Imhotep is also associated with the first temple of Edfu, which was said to be based upon plans which fell from heaven and landed near Memphis. According to the legend, Imhotep and Ptah joined their divine forces to build the temple.
His legend lived on even after the Greeks conquered Egypt. Mention of Imhotep showed up in the History written by Manetho (fl. 290-260 B.C.). It is Manetho who ascribes to Imhotep the honor of being the first builder to use stone.
Tosorthros [Djoser], reigned twenty-nine years, in whose time was Imouthes [Imhotep], who is equated by the Egyptians with Asklepios because of his medical skill and his invention of building with hewn stone; also for the excellence of his writings.3
His reputation lived on until the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century A.D.
Images from the top: Imhotep * the Step Pyramid * an Egyptian sarcophagus * Ptah * the temple at Edfu
- Imhotep, the Vizier and Physician of King Zoser, and Afterwards the Egyptian God of Medicine, p. 30-32.
- Ibid, p. 29-30, 34-35.
- Reflections of Osiris, p. 17.
Photographs of the Step Pyramid and Edfu temple taken by Jayhawk
Other images from www.clipart.com.
- The Ancient Gods Speak, by Donald B. Redford.
- A History of the Ancient Egyptians, by James Henry Breasted.
- Imhotep, the Vizier and Physician of King Zoser, and Afterwards the Egyptian God of Medicine, by Jamieson B. Hurry.
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, v. 2-3, Donald B. Redford, editor in chief.
- Reflections of Osiris, by J.D. Ray.
- When Egypt Ruled the East, by George Steindorff and Keith C. Seele.