Imhotep: World’s First Astronomer
On a limestone base, which represents all that is left from a life-size statue of King Djoser, a unique inscription was found. It records, for the first and the last time in Ancient Egyptian History, the name and the titles of a non-royal person on a royal statue! The name of that person was Imhotep, the royal architect to whom the achievement of the construction of Egypt’s first pyramid is attributed. Many scholars agreed that Imhotep deserved to be honored by King Djoser by depicting his name and titles on the king’s statue because Imhotep’s architectural achievements did not only satisfy the king’s wishes of building a remarkable tomb to guarantee eternity for his name, but also Imhotep’s architectural evolution opened a new era for the Egyptian civilization, and well represented the shift between two main historical eras; namely the shift between the Early Dynastic Period (3050 – 2686 BC) and the Old Kingdom (2686 – 2181 BC). It is true that without Imhotep’s architectural revolution, the Egyptians would not have been able to build the Great Pyramid of Giza some eighty years after the construction of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
Imhotep’s first contribution to the science was obviously the use of stone, on a large scale, as the primary building material and consequently, it represented the shift from mudbrick architecture to stone architecture. However, Imhotep was not only an architect but also a “Wer-Maaw; the great stargazer”, or an astronomer! The title “Wer-Maaw” is depicted among Imhotep’s titles on the Djoser’s base, which is now on display at the Imhotep Museum in Saqqara. The title was studied by many scholars who agreed that Imhotep was also a priest at the sun-temple of Re at the ancient city “Iun; now Ain Shams in Cairo”. In fact, Architecture and Astronomy were very much intertwined in ancient Egyptian times. The alignment of every architectural component of the pyramid complex had to be fixed according to the position of the stars and true four directions of the world. It is true that all pyramid complexes in the Old Kingdom are different in shape and size but they all follow the same system of directions and alignments. The entrance to the pyramid is in the middle of the northern façade of the pyramid and the existence of the mortuary temple is on the east side of the pyramid starting from the Fourth Dynasty onward.
Statuette of Imhotep
Late Period (664-332 BCE)
A bronze statue of Imhotep sitting with his hands resting on his knees holding a papyrus roll. This Late Period statue was found in Saqqara.
The science of astronomy was engaged in many fields in the life of the ancient Egyptians, in addition to the architecture of their tombs and houses, the invention of Egypt’s first calendar was built on the observation of the moon and the stars. Also celebration days of the great feasts of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt were determined by the positions of the stars.
Thanks to the well preserved late temples, which have survived from the Greco – Roman time such as Dendara, Esna, and Edfu temples, we know that each temple contained one or two stair cases that lead to the roof of the temple where a place was reserved for a special type of priests – astronomers to observe the stars. The famous Zodiac of Dendara temple now displayed in Louver stands as witness as to how advanced the science of astronomy had developed in Ancient Egypt. Early excavation carried out in Old Kingdom pyramid complexes revealed that mortuary temples also contained staircases leading to their roofs for the same purpose; watching the stars to set up the exact days of celebrating holly feasts of different gods and goddess and most importantly fixing the schedule of the funerary rituals of the dead king.
Imhotep is a leader and pioneer in fields of architecture, astronomy and management that helped mold the ancient Egyptian civilization. After all, it is not a surprise that intellectuals in Ancient Egypt took him as their perfect model to follow in his footsteps. Ancient scribes and writers would spill water while pronouncing Imhotep’s name before they started a project. In later times, Imhotep joined the gods of the Pantheon and was worshiped among the gods and goddesses of knowledge and healing. Even with all the information we have on Imhotep from all different periods of history, we still do not know any information about his family or his origins, also, his tomb is still an unsolved mystery. In ancient Egyptian literature, Imhotep’s father was referred to as a commoner farmer. Undoubtedly, Imhotep will remain in the hearts of the Egyptians as the true founder of Egypt’s dazzling beauty.
- B. J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt, Routledge 2005, p.159.
- M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, University of California Press 1980, P. 106.
- J. Malek, “The Old Kingdom” in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt by I. Shaw (ed.), Oxford University Press 2002. p.92.
- J. Kahl, "Old Kingdom: Third Dynasty" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt by D. Redford (ed.) Vol.2, p. 592.
- K. Ryholt, “The Life of Imhotep?”, Actes du IXe Congrès International des Études Démotiques, edited by G. Widmer and D. Devauchelle, Bibliothèque d’étude 147, Le Caire, Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 2009, pp. 305-15.
Tarek El Awady Ph.D.,
Director of the Antiquities Museum
Library of Alexandria
The note of the editorial office.
 - a well-known Egyptian bas-relief of the pronaos (portico) ceiling of the chapel dedicated to Osiris in the temple complex of Hathor in Dendera, which has an image of Taurus and Libra.
Dendera Zodiac in Louvre