If you have been following Universal Monsters Universe, the name Imhotep has become very familiar. He was portrayed by Boris Karloff in 1932’s The Mummy and by Arnold Vasloo in 1999’s The Mummy and 2001’s The Mummy Returns. What you may not know is Imhotep really existed. However, he was not an evil mummy who was resurrected and possessed magical powers. Instead, Imhotep possessed other great talents that would make him famous in ancient Egypt.
Imhotep lived in the 2600’s B.C. and served as chancellor under Pharaoh Djoser during the Third Dynasty. He was also high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis. He is considered by many to be the earliest known architect, mathematician and physician in history. His full list of titles reads:
Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.
Around the time between 2630-2611 B.C., the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara was built. It was not the pyramids we’re used to seeing though. The Pyramid of Djoser had steps and was made of limestone. Imhotep is legendary for his knowledge of medicine. He authored a medicinal treatise that stayed away from any kind of magical or spiritual trains of thought. Edwin Smith bought the papyrus it was written on and therefore is now referred to as the Edwin Smith Papyrus. It contains anatomical charts and 48 medical cases. The Papyrus is currently on display at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in New York.
Imhotep would become one of the few commoners to be granted posthumous divine status in Egypt. Nearly 2,000 years after his death, Imhotep was made a deity of medicine and healing. His cult following was in Memphis and Thebes. There is not much known about his early life but according to ancient myths, his father was believed to be a deity, Ptah.
It is clear the real Imhotep was the exact opposite of the on-screen characters he shared his name with. He did not have mythical powers but his knowledge of medicine and other subjects was so revered he was made a deity. So next time you watch any rendition of The Mummy, just remember the real Imhotep would have been too busy trying to cure his fellow Egyptian to destroy Rick O’Connell or Frank Whemple.