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Who was the First Architect in History ?

Whenever one thinks about ancient Egypt, the magnificent pyramids come to mind. These timeless buildings, like representations of antiquity itself, have a mysterious charm. They are powerful representations of stability for contemporary governments. However, in the middle of this paradox of perception, it’s funny to remember that we do know a lot about these wonders. Interestingly, we even credit Imhotep, one person in particular, with creating them. This article delves into the history of the first Egyptian architect who gave the world the first pyramid, a prototype before the pyramids of Giza were even made. This is the story of Imhotep, who rose to the ranks as an architect and later was also known to be a great healer. Born into commoner status, Imhotep defied societal expectations with his exceptional intellect and unwavering determination. His remarkable ascent saw him emerge as one of Djoser’s most esteemed advisers, entrusted with the monumental task of designing the pharaoh’s tomb, the iconic Step Pyramid. 

Imhotep The first architect. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

The First Architect in the World; Imhotep

Later stories attribute the invention of stone construction to Imhotep, whose name means “he who comes in peace,” somewhere around 2600 BCE, at the beginning of the 3rd dynasty. The growth of monumental stone architecture occurred during this time, most notably under the leadership of Khasekhemwy, who may have been Djoser’s father and predecessor. During Djoser’s reign, the Old Kingdom underwent a substantial transition towards greater complexity, as demonstrated by several inventions such as the embellished tombs in Abusir and the Saqqara necropolis, copper mining expeditions to Sinai, and the appearance of well-formed grammatical sentences in ancient Egyptian texts. Imhotep most likely had a major influence on these developments, notably the building of a temple in Heliopolis that became a well-known location for Ra worship. 

The Stepped Pyramid, Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

The Stepped Pyramid of Djoser

Speaking about his first creation, there is the stepped pyramid of Djoser which is also called “The Refreshment of the Gods.”  Located northwest of ancient Memphis in the Saqqara Necropolis, this enormous limestone construction, with its four sides and six layers, represents an early step in the development of Egyptian architecture. Djoser’s Step Pyramid, which is located inside a huge mortuary complex with courtyards, temples, and ceremonial buildings, marks the beginning of the pyramid as a royal burial site in Egyptian culture. The customary mudbrick was superseded by Imhotep’s inventive use of limestone in building, which led to a change in decorative methods from carved stone parts to wooden planks with motifs. Because of Imhotep’s insistence on upholding previous customs, architectonic components were seamlessly transferred onto stone, it marks the great beginning of Egyptian architecture. Although the idea behind a pyramid can seem simple, building such a massive structure was a challenging task. Getting a huge number of regular people organised was crucial for this extraordinary construction operation. In order to keep the outer shell from breaking when the edges settled, stone blocks were deliberately positioned at an inward angle, pointing towards the centre of the pyramid. It is clear that this complex building method presented difficulties because other later pyramids collapsed, which was probably caused by similar settling processes.

Base of Djoser’s statue with Imhotep’s name and titles. Courtesy: Arce.org

Imhotep’s remarkable status within Egyptian society is immortalised in the base of Djoser’s statue, housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This inscription reveals Imhotep’s prestigious titles: “prince,” “royal seal-bearer of the king of Lower Egypt,” “high priest of Heliopolis,” and “director of sculptors.” These esteemed positions underscore Imhotep’s multifaceted influence and esteemed role in ancient Egyptian governance, religion, and artistic endeavors.  

Following significant damage inflicted by an earthquake in 1992, the pyramid faced imminent collapse until restoration efforts commenced in 2006. After a meticulous 14-year renovation, costing nearly $6.6 million, the Pyramid reopened to the public in 2020. This extensive restoration transformed the site into a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserving its cultural significance for future generations.

Architectural Contributions

Imhotep left behind two lasting contributions to architecture that are still essential to contemporary building techniques. First of all, he invented the idea of cladding, which is the process of covering one material with another. Stone was specifically used to clad walls and other structural components. Cladding is being used by architects all over the world to improve the internal and external surfaces of buildings, both aesthetically pleasing and functionally.Second, Imhotep transformed architectural design by introducing columns, which caused a fundamental change from load-bearing structures to stone columns. Even though reinforced concrete is now used in most modern construction, the idea of using framed construction to create large spans and multi-story buildings still exists. Imhotep’s inventions set the stage for the development of architecture and shaped the built world for millennia.

Imhotep, the Great Healer?

Imhotep’s adoration grew beyond mortal limits during the Late Period, and he was deified as a local deity in Memphis. He was revered as a physician and healer for his ability to extract therapeutic compounds from plants and efficiently treat maladies such as appendicitis, gout, and arthritis. Imhotep’s heavenly status in Memphis was cemented by his dedicated priesthood, which established him as a link between humanity and the gods. He was praised for his abilities to assist people in dealing with everyday obstacles and offering respite from medical conditions. 

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Detail statue of Imhotep. Courtesy: Facebook

As the corporeal personification of his amazing architectural masterpiece, the pyramid, Imhotep stands out as a unique figure. He is respected by medical students, researched by historians, and pondered by philosophy buffs. He has been showcased by many on celluloid, but the man still remains a mystery. 

2. https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/architectural-community/a8307-imhotep-the-first-architect/
3. https://blog.hmns.org/2017/02/imhotep-the-ancient-egyptian-architect-who-became-a-god/
4. https://arce.org/resource/search-imhotep-tomb-architect-turned-god-remains-mystery/

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