Friday, April 18, 2014

Imhotep: Builder in Stone

Book Review: Imhotep: Builder in Stone: (Immortals of Engineering Series) by Maribelle Cormack (Franklin Watts, Inc. 1965)

OK, this was one of those books for young readers (with bigger words so I can read while I workout) but I found the book to be informative and a good read. Imhotep was a monumental figure in ancient Egypt. He is thought to have been a scientist, physician, and architect, and a close advisor to Pharaoh Zoser in the 3rd Dynasty of Old Kingdom Egypt circa 2780 B.C. Imhotep was a legendary figure among the Egyptians as well and was deified in Greco-Egyptian times – as the archetypal physician and Son of Ptah. It is very likely that Imhotep and Egyptian methods of healing were the model for the Greek demi-god of healing, Aesklepios and the numerous healing temples associated with him around the Hellenized areas. Dream healing practices of Aesklepios may have originated in Egypt, possibly with Imhotep. According to the book the tomb of Imhotep is thought to have been discovered in 1965 (when this book was published). This book, however, does not consider Imhotep as a healer, but as the designer and builder of the first of the great pyramids of Egypt, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

This book is also a nice overview of life and history in ancient Egypt as Egyptologists and archaeologists think it was. Egyptians were not known to be a traveling people, especially in the older kingdoms. They fought skirmishes and traded with local tribal peoples: the desert Bedouins, the Libyan tribes of the western desert, and the Nubians to the south of the Second Cataract of the Nile. Caravans brought goods from Mesopotamia and Palestine. They had no transport animals. The Nile was the means of travel and the lifeblood of the people.

Egyptian beliefs and practices are examined, including afterlife preparation and mummification, and the ritualized animation of statues. In older times the Pharaoh was the only to take the elaborate afterlife journey, or ascension to the stars. In later times other people could partake of such a journey.

King Zoser was the first king of the Old Kingdom Egypt in the Third Dynasty. The burial places of earlier kings were one-story slanted buildings called mastabas. Since wealth was buried with the dead there was fear of grave robbers – which became a popular pastime among the banditry.

The name “Imhotep” is thought to mean “he who comes in peace.”  Imhotep was the son of an architect. Imhotep was able to build in stone what others had done with reeds and mud on a much smaller scale.

A quick overview of Egyptian deities is given and some of the history of the pharaohs. The Greeks apparently found the Egyptian gods confusing – as they tried to compare them to their own gods. Priests and nobles were closer to the gods and rituals than lower class workers though they were thought to have their local cults and rites as well.

The author narrates a story of how the decision to build the first large stone pyramid might have come about. The Egyptians mined copper for millennia and used copper tools to cut stone. Such stone is less destructible in the desert climate than anything else but it still subject to erosion from sandstorms.

The question of why the Egyptians wanted to build pyramids is pondered. Some say that the pyramid shaped hills beyond Egypt’s southern borders were an inspiration. Others suggest that the slanting rays of the sun form a pyramid of light and that was the inspiration. Another explanation comes from an Egyptian creation myth where the point of a pyramid would be the first land surface arising from a primordial flood. A tiny pyramid stood on top of a pillar in the very ancient temple of the sun at Heliopolis so that relates the pyramid with solar worship. Another possible source of inspiration may have been the earlier constructions of the Mesopotamian ziggurats, a word meaning “pinnacle tops of mountains.” These were widely terraced, stepped pyramids made of brick. The shrine of the god or goddess (often it was the moon deity) was at the top. Only the priesthood could ascend the ziggurat and do the rites. The author notes that the Mesopotamian and Egyptian pyramid rites were likely very different:

“The ziggurat allowed a god to reach earth; a pyramid allowed the king’s soul to reach heaven. And if the soul of the king climbed to the sky on the sun’s rays to join the gods, what could be more fitting than to build a staircase of shining white stone for his celestial ascent?”

Saqqara is a high desert plain along the west bank of the Nile. The land was also close to cultivated fields and the royal grain stores so that workers could be supported. Tens of thousands (perhaps over 100,000 for the later pyramids) of workers were required. There is evidence that there was competition and pride among work crews. They were also paid
about a gallon of beer a day – of low potency beer considered to be a food. The pyramids are certainly a monumental feat of innovative construction utilizing manpower. It is also highly likely that grave robbers among the labor gangs marked certain passages to guide them to the goods at a later time – but before the death of Zoser as the tunnels would be filled in after his death.

One motif in Egyptian religion is sailing in a boat with set as it sets – to the underworld – and then rising with it again as it crosses the sky. Boats are found in the very old mastabas as well as in the pyramids. Often there were two boats – one for the underworld and one for the sky. In some cases the Phoenicians traded Lebanon cedar and built vessels to the Egyptians for this purpose. The Egyptians were expert at river travel, building barges to transport goods and plank, reed, and rope craft propelled by small sails and rowers – but they did not pursue sea travel at all.

People from Nubia and Sudan copied Egyptian pyramid burials even after the decline of Egyptian civilization. Tomb hieroglyphs there apparently show that the quality of scibes and craftsmen had deteriorated after Egypt had been conquered.

The author suggests that the next dynasty, the 4th Dynasty, would begin the time when Egypt would damage itself by building bigger and costlier pyramids and monuments. This would begin a hundred or so years after Zoser’s pyramid but quite a few were built within that hundred years. 

The author also details in both narrative and historical fashion, the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The story is told in 1920’s of the discovery of the tomb of Queen Hetaphras – Queen with King Snefru. When her tomb was opened it was found to be empty and then it was found that there was entry so that tomb robbers likely raiden her tomb early after her death and also likely unbeknownst to the king (as the author speculates) since the tomb would be sealed and no one would ever know that her chance of an afterlife according to ancient Egyptian traditions was gone.

The author also speculates about the Sphinx and why it was built. The Great Sphinx faces east and was equated with Horus-of-the-Horizon. It was built in the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom in the 2600’s B.C. The author suggests that since the site of the Sphinx was the quarry for the stone of the pyramids then the soft rock remaining like a mesa on the plain was carved into the figure of the Sphinx rather than removed to level the land. The face of the Sphinx is thought to represent the Pharaoh Khafre. Oddly, having a human face on an animal body is rather opposite to the Egyptian custom of depicting gods with human bodies and animal faces. Between the paws there is an inscription on red granite that tells of the prince that would become Pharaoh Thutmose IV in 1411 B.C.  Here, while hunting, he falls asleep in the shadow of the sphinx and has a dream that the Sphinx asked him to remove the sand around his face so that he could breathe and that he woud be rewarded with the throne of Egypt. However, it is thought quite plausib.le that the dream was a tale concocted to legitimatize his weak claim to the throne. He did build a retaining wall around the Sphinx to hold back the sand as inscriptions attest. Later the Pharaoh Amenhotep II built a small temple to Sphinx. The Sphinx was a popular pilgrimage sight in New Kingdom times. The Sphinx may have been created as (or became later) a sort of guardian of the tombs. This is how a later Greek poem written on the paw depicts it.


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