Built during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser I, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara is regarded as not only the first pyramid, but the brain-child of Imhotep.
This blog post is a follow-up to one of the most popular articles I’ve ever written on Black and Intellectual called ‘Were the Ancient Egyptians Black? The Obsession With White-Washing Ancient Kemet.’ In the first paragraph I mentioned the Kemetic God Ptah and how Imhotep (a real man) became so venerated and practically worshiped in later generations and dynasties that he was considered the son of Ptah. The son of a God – but not just any God…the Kemetic God of Creation! Clearly Imhotep was very highly regarded if he were considered the son of the God of Creation and he wasn’t even a Pharaoh.
Before we learn about Imhotep and what he did, let’s first delve into the mythology of Ancient Kemet and of the Egyptian God Ptah.
Ptah – Holder of the Ankh, Lord of Truth
Ptah is arguably the most important deity in Ancient Kemetic mythology. Many have heard of Osiris (Ausar) and Isis (Auset) and even Ra, but as stated above, Ptah was known the Egyptian”creator” God – the one who came before everything else…the original. He was also the God of craftsmen and architects, which is where Imhotep comes in later. Ptah was the Lord of Truth, the Lord of Eternity and the Master of Justice.
Ptah is often seen carrying the ankh, which was the Ancient Kemetic symbol for life or eternal life. Now many Pharaoh’s were depicted with the ankh symbol and to this day, there is no agreed upon theory on when the symbol was first used or which God was most often associated with it. We do know however that Ptah carries it and was the God of Creation. The God of Creation holding the symbol for life. To me the symbol is his, but that’s my opinion more than anything.
Who Was Imhotep and What Did He Do?
Imhotep was a high priest of a cult that worshiped the Sun God Ra which was based at Heliopolis, the oldest religious city in Kemet. He bore the title ‘Chief of the Astronomers’ and is credited with being the world’s first great astronomer. Heliopolis may have been Kemet’s oldest religious city, but it wasn’t the first capitol. The first capitol of Pharaonic Kemet was Memphis and the site Imhotep chose for the construction of the Step Pyramid complex overlooked that capitol city.
Deeper than that however is the realization that the Step Pyramid complex didn’t just serve the purpose of overlooking Memphis, but it also had very particular ritualistic uses as well. Robert Bauval, author of the book ‘Imhotep The African – Architect of the Cosmos’, believes that the Step Pyramid complex involved concerns over the astral rebirth of the Pharaoh himself – to ensure safe passage of the soul of the Pharaoh into the starry heaven to be reunited with his divine ancestors.
We know that it was Imhotep that built the Step Pyramid complex due to the discovery of a broken statue near the entrance to the pyramid. When researchers cleared the dirt off of the base of the statue, Imhotep’s name was clearly seen in conjunction with the King at the time named Netjerykhet. Bauval argues that contrary to popular belief, King Djoser may not have been the Pharaoh that Imhotep built the Step Pyramid for. King Netjerykhet’s name is the only one that has ever been seen either around or in the Pyramid itself.
The sheer scale of the Step Pyramid complex also show’s off Imhotep’s brilliance. The surface area of the complex is a massive 545 x 277 meters…large enough to fit 560 tennis courts! Nothing of the type or scale can be found anywhere on Earth before Imhotep designed the Step Pyramid complex using the astronomical mastery that he possessed.
The Shabaka Stone
To further understand the Step Pyramid complex that Imhotep built, we have to understand what we can about the Dynasties at the time around when Imhotep lived. We can look to the Shabaka stone and what it was and how it plays into all of this.
According to Bauval and other scholars, the Shabaka stone was found in 1800 on a farm near Memphis by a soldier of Napoleon’s army. The stone is 92 x 137 centimeters and has 64 hieroglyphic lines of text carved into it. It is called the Shabaka stone because according to the writing on the stone itself, King Shabaka of the 25th dynasty wanted the writings on the stone carved to preserve knowledge from much more ancient, but worm-eaten texts. Scholars believe the actual writings carved the Shabaka stone date to sometime during the Old Kingdom. Based on the archaic language used, it’s aged to around the time of the Pyramid texts.
Researchers believe the Shabaka stone recounts the events that occurred between the late 2nd and early 3rd dynasties that involved three different Pharaohs and their symbolic usage of opposing Gods when identifying themselves in the afterlife. It is believed that the story became legend and retold as a mythical battle between Seth (Set) and Horus (Heru) involving the unification of Upper and Lower Kemet. An interesting story that you can read more about in ‘Imhotep the African.’
There is an even deeper understanding of the Shabaka stone that some researchers have gone into that I won’t here because it deals more with Kemetic cosmology and mythology than Imhotep per se. Perhaps another blog entry for another day, but the stone itself provides a looking glass of sorts into what is known as Memphite Theology which was prevalent during Imhotep’s time and would have been used and practiced by Imhotep himself who we already know was a High Priest.
The Shabaka stone also expands our knowledge about how Ptah was worshiped and revered during the time of Imhotep. So we have to be aware of the connections between the Shabaka stone, Imhotep and the cult of Ptah and see that these threads are all connected.
Was Imhotep Black?
‘White’ Egypt Hollywood silliness. Here were see Arnold Vosloo playing the role of Imhotep in the fictional, unhistoric film ‘The Mummy.’
This is not a trick question, because of course he was. Contrary to Hollywood myth-making standards, Imhotep was not a white man who became a mummy because he had an affair with Queen Nefertiti. Matter of fact, Nefertiti and Imhotep didn’t even live in the same era. Imhotep lived during the Old Kingdom, Nefertiti lived during the New Kingdom over 1,000 years later. Hollywood, in its attempt to make money, often disregards science and factual scholarly data when it comes to how the Ancient Kemetians have historically been depicted. I go into this in much more detail in me previous blog article on this topic.
While most traditional Egyptologists place Imhotep’s origin in Lower Egypt (Northern Egypt), there is evidence to suggest that he was actually of Upper Egyptian (Southern Egypt) origin. One of the titles Imhotep held was known as ‘Master Builder of Nekhen.’ Nekhen is also known as Heirakonpolis and is located near the Sudanese border. So deep in the heart of so-called “Black Africa.” Some have also suggested that Imhotep’s father may have also been from the south and that Imhotep might have been born into a priestly family full of architects and astronomers and that’s why he was so well versed in those teachings. Back then people didn’t have colleges you could go to in order to learn a profession you decided on, they were born into castes that they remained in all their lives and their caste defined their duty – their job. This is a more down-to-earth explanation of Imhotep’s parentage than the mythology of him being the son of the mythological Egyptian God Ptah.
Placing Imhotep in Upper Egypt (southern Egypt) is very important and there’s a reason why Egyptologists want him to have a Northern origin in Memphis. Firstly, as stated above, Memphis was near Imhotep’s major architectural masterpiece, the Step Pyramid. Secondly, for a long time in an effort to lighten the Ancient Kemetians, Lower Egyptians (Northern Egypt) were always depicted as a people with a lighter complexion than southern Kemetians. They don’t like to admit the blackness of southern Kemetians either, but it’s well known that the further South you go…the closer you get to “Nubia” and “Black Africa.” You also have always had people like Zahi Hawass, the former head of Egyptian Antiquities, who have tried to push this myth of a so-called “Mediterranean race.” This fictional grouping conveniently applied to groups like the ancient people of Kemet…especially northern Kemetians who live closer to the Mediterranean Sea.
Some people may ask why does it matter? I answered this question in the previous blog article, but I don’t have a problem reiterating why it matters. A major aspect of white supremacy has always involved culturally appropriating medieval and ancient civilizations and attributing their success to Whites…or any other group than Blacks. There is a very long and very well documented history of historical whitewashing that goes back to the time of slavery. We still live with remnants of this mentality which is why to this day you still can’t get a movie made where black actors and actresses are playing Ancient Egyptians. They still whitewash these cultures today because so much time and effort was placed in the past denying the blackness of these very groups. It’s all about saving face for Hollywood and the historical community at this point.
Now maybe you don’t think this is an important topic. I will admit that there are much more pressing issues to argue over than the skin color of a group of people that haven’t existed in over a millennia. However acknowledging the blackness of one of the greatest civilizations in world history is a major part of debunking white supremacy – and with the rise of Donald Trump…clearly white supremacy and it’s backwards ideology still needs to be debunked even today. Despite the fact that some don’t see it that way.
Discussing the blackness of Imhotep and why so many people venerate him is a step in the right direction. Just recently, Richard Spencer had a debate with Roland Martin and the issue of Ancient Kemet came up and like a typical white supremacist, Spencer argued that the people of Ancient Kemet were white. This argument was made on national television in 2016! So no, I reject the idea that this is not still an important issue to talk about.
Imhotep, the world’s first mega engineer and builder of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, was a black man. He built the pyramid for what was likely a black Pharaoh in the midst of the rise of a great black civilization.