Architecture of Ancient Egypt Series

Biography of Egyptian Architect under Pharaoh Djoser.

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The Step Pyramid of Djozer
Built c.2630 BCE

Imhotep (27th Century BCE)
Chief Minister - Architect - Physician


Imhotep's Architecture
Further Resources

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see: Architecture Glossary.


One of the greatest architects of the ancient world, and the first recorded designer in the history of Egyptian architecture, the Egyptian designer, physician and Grand Vizier Imhotep served as chief minister to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser (ruled c.2670-2648 BCE). He is believed to have been the architect of the first temple of Edfu, on the Upper Nile. More importantly, he was responsible for the first monumental stone building, Djoser's Step Pyramid at Sakkara, which rises to a height of 200 feet in six steps, and is the earliest example of this particular form of religious art in Ancient Egypt. He also built the unfinished Step Pyramid of Sekhemkhet, Djoser's successor, which was discontinued due to the latter's short life. A theorist as well as a builder, Imhotep wrote an encyclopedia of architecture that continued to influence Egyptian architects for millennia. In addition to his pioneering work on Egyptian pyramids, he was also revered as a physician, and may have been the original author of a medical treatise (the Edwin Smith papyrus) now in the Brooklyn Children's Museum, New York. Supposedly born a commoner, the son of an architect called Kanofer, Imhotep rose to become one of the most powerful officials in Egypt, and his influence lived on until long after his death. His impact on Egyptian art is incalculable.



Imhotep's Architecture

As chief minister and high priest under Djoser, Imhotep designed the funeral tomb for the Pharaoh. This tomb and mortuary complex, accomodated within the Step Pyramid of Djoser, was built at Saqqara, northwest of the city of Memphis. Famous for being the first large-scale structure made of stone, and the most famous "step-sided" Egyptian pyramid, the original exterior was faced with polished white limestone. (See also: Egyptian Sculpture.)

The pyramid was based on the old mastaba, a simple tomb consisting of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure, made from mud-bricks, with slightly sloping walls, inside which, stairs led down to a deep underground burial chamber and lined with bricks. In time, the flat roof of the surface building was replaced by a pyramid design. Then, for Djoser's Pyramid, Imhotep conceived the idea of stacking mastabas one on top of another, forming a series of "steps" as each masta decreased in size, thus forming the characteristic "step pyramid". The interior of the pyramid contained a labyrinth of tunnels, shafts, burial compartments, chapels, and rooms for offerings.

But whereas all previous tombs were made from mud-brick and wood (with the sporadic inclusion of stone blocks as door thresholds, lintels, and jambs), Imhotep's design for Djoser's pyramid used stone, introducing a new method of pyramid construction that would usher in the golden era of early Egyptian architecture. During this period, known as The Old Kingdom, Egypt witnessed the building of most of the monumental pyramids, including: the Great Pyramid of Khufu (one of the traditional Seven Wonders of the World) (c.2550 BCE), and the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure (c.2530 BCE), as well as the Great Sphinx at Giza (c.2450 BCE).

Djoser's tomb at Saqqara was not the first pyramid built by Imhotep: previously he had designed a number of small provincial step pyramids, including the first pyramid of Edfu, a sandstone mastaba structure located in the village of Naga el-Goneima, on the west bank of the Nile River between Esna and Aswan.

After the death of King Djoser, Imhotep was retained as chief minister by the new Pharaoh Sekhemkhet (ruled c.2648-2640 BCE), for whom Imhotep also designed a step pyramid, situated close to the necropolis of King Djoser at Saqqara. However, due to Sekhemkhet's premature death, only the first step of the pyramid was completed, leaving a flat structure in the shape of a large, quadratic mastaba.

It is not known whether (or for how long) Imhotep outlived Sekhemkhet, nor do we know the circumstances of his death. Moreover, his disappearance from view coincided with the disappearance of his personal archive, including all his architectural manuscripts and medical texts. We do know that he built his own tomb, although its location has never been found. Archeologists believe it to be concealed within the area of Saqqara.


Imhotep has a unique importance as the first known architect of ancient antiquity. Highly influential on building design during his lifetime (he is believed to have instigated the use of columns and monumental stone in architecture, see also: Greek Architecture), his writings continued to influence generations of architects long after his death. His innovative pyramid designs were used and enhanced in the development of Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture (2055-1650 BCE), Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture (1550-1069 BCE) and Late Egyptian Architecture (1069 BCE - 200 CE). In the 'Turin Papyri', for instance, a document from the New Kingdom, Imhotep is cited as "son of Ptah, chief god of Memphis", in recognition of his impact on Egyptian architecture and medicine. He was later worshipped as a God of in both Egypt and Ancient Greece, and was honored by the Roman Emperors Claudius and Tiberius who had inscriptions created, praising him on the walls of their Egyptian temples. (See also: Roman Architecture.) His reputation endured until the Arab invasion of North Africa during the 7th century CE.

Further Resources

- Mesopotamian Art (c.4500-539 BCE)
- Ancient Art (2,500,000 BCE - 400 CE)
- Fayum Mummy Portraits (c.50 BCE - 250 CE)
- Greek Art (c.650-27 BCE)
- Roman Art (c.500 BCE - 500 CE)

• For more about ancient Egyptian architecture, see: Homepage.

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