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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > June 2017 > The search for Imhotep

The search for Imhotep

From the dawn of civilisation, to the age of Cleopatra, and eventually to modern movie myth, one man’s name repeats itself – but who was the real Imhotep?

IMHOTEP The world’s first genius

BEFORE HIS TIME MAIN: Imhotep was responsible for designing the Saqqara step pyramid RIGHT: He is shown in this statue holding a scroll, reflecting his great intellect and occupation
ALAMY X1, GETTY X2

The very name ‘Imhotep’ is enough to strike fear into the heart of any fictional explorer. After all, he is a malevolent, mummified Ancient Egyptian priest, determined to resurrect his lover at all costs – at least, according to The Mummy series. However, the character’s actual namesake was nothing like the evil character of movie legend. Imhotep

(meaning ‘he who comes in peace’) was a genius of his time. Living in the 27th century BC, he is considered to be the first polymath, or ‘person of great learning’, living long before the days of Aristotle and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Imhotep had a long life, spanning the reigns of three pharaohs, including

ird Dynasty pharaoh Djoser. Two millennia after his death, he rose to prominence once again, becoming the god of his very own cult. Later, during the Ptolemaic era, the Greeks who lived in Egypt equated Imhotep with their own god of medicine, Asclepius. Imhotep’s popularity soared. Temples to him were erected at Philae and Memphis, and people travelled from all over the ancient world to be healed there. Stories abounded, as his followers claimed that Imhotep allegedly cured Djoser’s blindness, and defeated a famine of biblical proportions. So far, hundreds of statues of him dating from this period have been unearthed – its owners hoping that having them would persuade Imhotep to cure their ills and ailments from beyond the grave.

This era of Imhotep-worship is where most of the evidence about him stems from, but historians have been sceptical of the more fanciful tales. It seems that his religious significance lasted right up until Christianity and Islam came to

Egypt in the Middle Ages, when pagan temples were burned and ransacked. Much of Imhotep’s priceless work was destroyed. Until the translation of hieroglyphs in the 19th century, Imhotep was largely lost to history. But when his name kept occurring in ancient texts, Egyptologists were keen to find out more about this enigmatic figure.

This Djoser statue base in the Egyptian Museum reveals Imhotep’s full name and titles
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About History Revealed

Find out how close the King of England came to conquering medieval France, as we take a look at the Hundred Years' War. Was bad weather really to blame for the English defeat? Elsewhere, uncover the shocking true story of the Nazi spies who managed to infiltrate New York, and meet the man who inspired The Mummy villain, Imhotep. Plus, don't miss out on the FREE pull-out magazine inside, which investigates the 50 greatest mysteries in history - from the Stonehenge to the Princes in the Tower.
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