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
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 Ptah.
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
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
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.
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