Ancient Egypt, Imhotep
Imhotep (circa 2650 B.C.),was an ancient Egyptian priest, officer, and builder who is credited as the architect of the earliest of all Egyptian pyramids. Some scholars assert that this engineering feat would earn Imhotep, who served the Pharaoh Zoser during the 3rd Dynasty, the honor of being the earliest known scientist. In the centuries after his death, Imhotep's memory became increasingly linked to far greater (and more dubious) achievements in medicine, the arts, and other fields. He was one of few ancient Egyptians born outside of royalty who later was raised to a godlike rank.
Born as a commoner near the ancient city of Memphis, located along Nile River south of modern-day Cairo, Imhotep rose to become an influential official, sculptor, and carpenter in Zoser's court. Records also indicate that he was an important priest and scholar.
The Step Pyramid of Zoser
Imhotep's greatest achievement was undoubtedly the erection of the pyramid complex at Sakkara, the world's first large-scale stone building. In ancient Egypt, large structures were built as funeral monuments for Pharaohs and their family. Before Imhotep's time, such tombs were covered by large, low rectangular buildings called mastabas. At Sakkara, however, Imhotep designed the first pyramid: a structure that featured a mastaba topped by six tiers, each of diminishing size. He surrounded this 200-foot-tall monument, which has become known as the Step Pyramid, with a elaborate building complex that included temples, a burial chamber, sculptures of Zoser, and pavilions. Much the expansive stone complex was connected by a system of underground passages.
The Step Pyramid and some of the surrounding stone buildings—which were built around 2630 B.C.—still stand today; archeologists are working to restore more of the complex. The design and successful construction of the complex helped inspire the Egyptians to built larger and more elaborate pyramids in later centuries.
Though designing and building the Step Pyramid were certainly great feats, Imhotep's name has also been tied to other monumental—and far less certifiable- -achievements. Later Egyptian kingdoms celebrated the famous architect's skills as a poet, sage, physician, and religious leader. Boosted by his impressive posthumous reputation, Imhotep was deified (elevated to the status of a god) some 2,000 years after his death by the Egyptian dynasty. Few Egyptians born outside of royalty were ever honored with such a distinction. Later still, the Greeks idealized Imhotep, particularly touting his divine powers as a healer. During the Roman Period, his tomb in Sakkara was believed to be a shrine where many people made pilgrimages from afar to seek cures for their ails.
In the 1960s researchers uncovered a new ruin in Sakkara that is thought to be Imhotep's burial place. Whether or not scientists can verify this assertion— like some of the lofty achievements in medicine, art, and philosophy credited to Imhotep—may never be answered with certainty.