Cartouche of Khufu


One of the advantages of armchair travel is that we can spare ourselves the physical discomforts attendant upon the real thing. Let us, then, avoid the dusty paths of Sakkara and imagine that we are already at that site looking up—and I do mean up—at a fantastic construction called the Step Pyramid.

It comes at the very beginning of the Third Dynasty, this large architectural achievement; and at first glance it seems unbelievable that the people who were playing around with mud bricks and holes in the ground during the Second Dynasty could have leaped so swiftly out of the hole and into the sky, with cut stone as their ladder. There is a lot of sand in Egypt that has never been shifted. But even if we moved all of it we would still be left with the wonder of the accomplishment in so short a time; and we might find, even then, that the greater part of the credit must be given to the genius of one man.

Tradition, that much maligned handmaiden of history, had long credited the construction of the Step Pyramid to a certain Imhotep, the vizier and architect of Djoser, first or second king of the Third Dynasty. His name has been found in the Step Pyramid area, and there is little doubt but that tradition was correct. Imhotep was one of those talented people who captured the popular imagination; by Greek times he had become a godling and was credited with astounding accomplishments in medicine, magic, and scribal lore as well as in architecture.

Types of Old Kingdom mastabas

When his lord and master asked Imhotep what sort of tomb he ought to build, the architect’s first notion was to construct a huge mastaba—the type of tomb that was built by kings and nobles alike during the First and Second Dynasties. It continued to be used by commoners after their rulers had soared in ambition to the splendor of the pyramid. In shape a mastaba is a low, flat-topped rectangle, something like a shoe box.

It would be fascinating to have the tomb autobiography of Imhotep, as we have the autobiographies of later officials; to know when and how he first got the idea of superimposing another, smaller mastaba on top of the first, and a third on top of the second, and so on, forming a four-step pyramid. Later the design was enlarged to a six-step pyramid by broadening the base and building on along one of the extant faces of the structure. The Step Pyramid differs from later pyramids in that it was never filled in with stone to give a smooth, uninterrupted slope. But it served as an inspiration for a thousand years, and we are happy to be able to give the architect his due instead of crediting Anonymous, as we must do so often in ancient Egypt.

Building stages of the Step Pyramid

The first pyramid did not stand alone. A French architect, Jean-Phillipe Lauer, spent most of his long working life at Sakkara exploring and restoring the structures that surrounded the Step Pyramid, so we can visualize, with only a moderate straining of the imagination, what the immense tomb complex of King Djoser looked like in the days of its pristine glory.

All the buildings, including the pyramid, were enclosed by a wall built of small white limestone blocks. The size of the stones was a survival of the older brick construction; the Egyptians had yet to learn how to exploit the new building material properly. Inside the wall lay courts and buildings and tombs of various types; so complicated is the structure that archaeologists are still finding things within the Step Pyramid enclosure. The broken remains of the buildings are important for the study of domestic architecture, since some of them reproduce the actual living quarters of the king, which were built of less durable materials than stone. Others are replicas of structures used in various ritual performances.

The pyramid itself is solid (we think); the burial corridors and chambers were underground, entered through a passage from the funerary temple next to the pyramid. This is not typical of later pyramids, and the Step Pyramid substructure is more elaborate than later Old Kingdom examples. Some of the walls had reliefs, done in a subtle and skilled style; others were covered with small blue-green glazed tile in imitation of matting. A badly battered though once magnificent statue of Djoser was found in the serdab of the pyramid, but the body of the king has long since disappeared. A few bones, flung irreverently on the floor of the burial chamber, may be all that remains of him—though there is no way of proving it.

Of the master architect Imhotep even less has survived. A few years ago, the world of Egyptology was more or less electrified by the discovery of what might have been the tomb of Imhotep. Unfortunately we can’t be more specific than that. The tomb is—or isn’t—at Sakkara, one of a group of large Third Dynasty mastabas—those of important people, to judge by their size. Not only were all these tombs thoroughly plundered in antiquity, but they were also virtually destroyed by later builders. Walter Emery, who first excavated in the area, believed that Imhotep’s tomb was there somewhere, and that it served as the cult center for a Ptolemaic temple dedicated to the deified vizier. Ensuing excavations uncovered a fantastic labyrinth of underground galleries containing the mummies of hundreds of thousands of ibises and baboons. These animals were sacred to Thoth, god of learning, who was regarded as the divine father of Imhotep. Perhaps one of the desecrated tombs was his. Perhaps it is yet to be found. People are still looking.

A statue base in the Step Pyramid area bearing his name confirms Imhotep’s connection with that structure, which is in itself a sizeable substantiation of one of Imhotep’s reputed talents; and we are entitled to wonder whether tradition may not have been equally accurate about his other abilities. Imhotep’s age, the Third Dynasty, was a formative period. An efflorescence of creativity took place, paving the way for the massive accomplishments of Egyptian culture that we will see fully developed during the next dynasty. Djoser’s statue shows that the fumbling attempts of earlier sculptors had been replaced by a technique that was to become the traditional method of carving stone. In the realm of abstract ideas, equally significant discoveries were being made. I want to talk about one of these discoveries now.

Those of us who have reached the years of wisdom and dignity are perhaps fortunate enough to remember the farm kitchen of a grandparent or an uncle: the black wood-burning stove; the basin and ewer where the men washed up when they came in from the fields; the long table covered with oilcloth; the heavy sideboard, which held souvenir cups from the World’s Fair and the family library—a Bible, the Sears Roebuck catalog, an almanac, and a leech book.

The leech book I own is not my grandmother’s; I bought it for fifty cents at a secondhand bookstore, in a fit of nostalgia. When I hold it in my hands I can tell myself, if I am feeling sentimental, that I am holding the direct descendant of an ancient Egyptian book of medical science. We can trace the lineage of these works, through the Greeks to the Romans to medieval Europe, and then across the seas to America. They are not what we would call scientific books. Mixed in with practical remedies for rheumatism and spavins and “fits” are many incantations of a purely magical character. The distinction between science and magic is a relatively modern one. The Egyptians, like many of their descendants all over the world, saw only the effect. When the effect was an obvious one—a hole in the head following a blow with a mace—no people were more pragmatic about explaining the cause and dealing with the results. But when the cause of the trouble was less clear they did not hesitate to ascribe it to demons.

There are half a dozen major papyri from pharaonic Egypt that are basically medical in purpose. One contains diagnoses of diseases of the stomach, another deals with gynecology, and a third with ailments of the anus and rectum. Perhaps the most famous of the medical books is the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which was found in 1862. Its subject is the surgical treatment of wounds and fractures. Most of our copies of the medical papyri were written during the New Kingdom. But it is in cases like this that the painstaking, plodding labors of the philologist contribute to historical study. So thorough is modern knowledge of the Egyptian language that scholars can tell the probable date of a manuscript by internal evidence alone—by stylistic, grammatical, and epigraphical details—just as a student of English literature can distinguish a work of the fourteenth century from one of the seventeenth. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is very old; it was probably composed during the Fourth Dynasty, or even earlier.

Like the leech books, Egyptian “medical” texts contain two distinct types of material. The great majority is medical in intent; the purpose is to cure, but the methods are those of magic. Normally these methods involved two elements: an incantation, calling upon the demon to give up its hold upon the body of the sufferer, and a ritual act. Often the ritual was as painful for the patient as for the hypothetical demon; the afflicted member might be burned with hot irons or jabbed with needles. We know of these techniques from many lands and many ages; indeed, so widespread and so consistent is the belief in demonic possession that if unanimity of belief were a valid criterion of truth, we would be forced to give it more credence than we do. However, we have learned—and it took us time to learn it—that hot irons are not as effective as penicillin, nor incantations as curative as quinine.

What makes us catch our breath is a hint—only a hint—that some Egyptian leech of the third millennium B.C. may have learned the same thing. In the Edwin Smith Papyrus there are forty-eight long sections, which differ drastically both in format and in approach from the magical spells that fill the rest of this papyrus and most of the others. The approach is rigorously matter-of-fact; there is no mention of supernatural causes. To be sure, the cases in the Edwin Smith deal with wounds and fractures, in which the cause of the injury is apparent even to a superstitious eye. But there is one case of partial paralysis resulting from injury to a section of the brain, which surely involves analysis one step removed from the simple observation of a broken bone. The ancient observer here makes a revolutionary statement. This is not, he says, a question of something entering from outside of a man; it is something which his own flesh has produced. In other words—no demons.

Some scholars believe that other medical papyri contain excerpts from the same ancient surgical treatise that was the source of the forty-eight sections in the Edwin Smith Papyrus. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a hodgepodge, a collection of material from various sources; if it was put together during the Old Kingdom, the surgical sourcebook must be even older—perhaps as old as the Third Dynasty.

The spirit of inquiry did not flourish. Down the centuries the magical formulae persist and multiply, and if any leech did get the eccentric notion that all illnesses, like the paralysis resulting from the brain injury, were caused by physical agents rather than diabolic ones, he never, to the best of our knowledge, voiced such heresy. Medicine and magic, sorcerer and leech—except for rare periods in the history of the human mind, they have been identical. It is indeed odd that we should be able to see a suggestion of scientific inquiry at so early a period in Egypt—odder still that it may have occurred at about the same time as the life span of the legendary wise man Imhotep. To the Greeks, Imhotep was not only the builder of the Step Pyramid and the patron saint of scribes; above all he was a master physician and was identified with Aesculapius. So great was Imhotep’s renown as a doctor that in Ptolemaic times a young wife would say:

With my husband I prayed to the Lord God Imhotep, son of Ptah, the giver of favors, who grants sons to those who have none, and he answered our prayer, as he does for those who pray unto him.

Perhaps her prayers had a sounder basis than she knew.

If Imhotep’s scientific insights fell on sterile soil, his architectural innovation was accorded the most sincere form of flattery—imitation. Djoser was not the only Third Dynasty king to begin a pyramid. Air photographs, a useful modern aid to archaeological mapping, had shown that there was some sort of construction on the desert sands close to the Step Pyramid complex; it was rectangular in shape, but there did not appear to be anything inside it. In 1953 to 1954 this strange structure was excavated by Egyptian archaeologist M. Zakaria Goneim, who found unmistakable evidence that another step pyramid had been begun. It was meant to be as big as Djoser’s, but it never got beyond the second level of building, perhaps because the ambitious king died too soon. The aerial photo had brought out the shape of the enclosure wall. There was also a substructure with many galleries where the excavators found vases and jar stoppers and, more thrilling, a number of gold bracelets. Generations of conscientious tomb robbers had somehow missed the gold, though they had removed the other contents of the tomb, which must have been fabulous—there were over 120 storerooms in the subterranean galleries. But the most momentous find was a sarcophagus in the burial chamber. Unlike the usual sarcophagus, whose top lifts like the lid of a box, this one had a sliding panel at one end. And, wonder of wonders, the panel was still sealed with plaster; on top of the sarcophagus lay the withered remains of a funeral wreath.

A Third Dynasty royal burial would have been a unique find indeed. The small world of Egyptology waited with some excitement until May 1954, when the sealed panel was raised. The sarcophagus was bare; it still remains one of the unexplained mysteries of Egyptology and has led some archaeologists to suspect that this pyramid has surprises in store even yet. If the empty sarcophagus was a trick to fool thieves, the real burial may still lie hidden.

This pyramid is attributed to one of Djoser’s successors, a king named Sekhemkhet. Then we have two peculiar tombs at the site of Zawaiyet el Aryan, near Giza, which are also ascribed to the Third Dynasty. Neither was finished, but from the little that remains archaeologists have deduced that they were meant to be step pyramids of considerable size. One of these structures, called the Layer Pyramid, was never used for a burial; perhaps its royal builder died before it was finished. The second Zawaiyet el Aryan pyramid, appropriately named the Unfinished, is even more mystifying; work on its superstructure never even began, but the substructure contained an oval sarcophagus, sealed—and empty. Some scholars believe the empty sarcophagi served a religious purpose—a ritual burial for the king’s ka, or spirit. I can’t help wondering, though, where the actual body was placed.

These vanished pyramids, monuments to the failure of human vanity, are not spectacular in themselves; but they fill in the historical gap between the Step Pyramid, at the very beginning of the Third Dynasty, and the series of true pyramids, which were built during the Fourth Dynasty.

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