Stairways To Heaven
For 5,000 years builders have lifted their sights toward the gods. In Egypt, the priest Imhotep started it all when he built the first pyramid
The world's first pyramid rose toward the sun for the glory of the dead king whose remains lay deep within. But its glory reflected even more brightly on its creator, the man whose architectural vision set the course for generations of builders to come. His name was Imhotep, and in trying to secure immortality for his ruler, he ensured that his own name would survive 5,000 years. Historian Will Durant, in his book The Story of Civilization, called Imhotep "the first real person in known history."
Later Egyptians revered Imhotep as a physician with miraculous healing powers, and for centuries sculptors created images of him as a demigod. But many historians consider his true legacy to be the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, built during the reign of King Zoser around 2600 B.C., about 100 years before the more famous Great Pyramid of Giza. Two hundred feet high, finished in dazzling limestone, it must have awed the people of the day, accustomed to nothing more than squat mud houses and tombs. Imhotep, says Betsy Bryan, chair of the department of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, "very likely was already recognized in his lifetime as someone who had made a remarkable contribution." Quite simply, he had invented pyramids, an entirely new kind of structure and mystical symbol.
According to inscriptions on statues found at the Step Pyramid, Imhotep held numerous titles in Zoser's royal court. He was first adviser to the king, high priest of the sun god, administrator of the palace, as well as "a builder, sculptor, and maker of stone vases." The inscriptions reveal that his father was also an architect, which may have influenced the course of his career. Imhotep was an educated man at a time when literacy was rare. But most scholars were priests or administrators, not builders, says Robert Ritner, associate professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. So it fell to Imhotep to design and oversee the construction of the tomb complex for King Zoser.
Archaeologists estimate the project took about 19 years and 100,000 workers to complete. Imhotep was trying to build a structure that would last for eternity, so he made a technological leap, choosing stone instead of the usual mud bricks. "There had been superstructures dating 500 to 600 years earlier," says David Silverman, curator of the Egyptian section at the University of Pennsylvania museum.
And Imhotep "could see that the bricks would break down."
In building with stone, he was entering unknown territory. The entranceway to the 37-acre pyramid complex is lined with large stone columns similar to the Doric columns found in Greek architecture 2,000 years later. But Imhotep was uncertain of the strength or stability of the stone, so he attached the columns to the walls lining the entanceway."It was a real period of discovery for the Egyptians," says Rita Freed, curator of Egyptian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The first stone. Imhotep also experimented with the aesthetics of the stone. He tried to imitate the look of conventional building materials of the day. In some cases, he had the stone cut to the size and shape of mud bricks. In others--the roof beams of the entrance hall, for example--carvers sought to make the stone resemble wood. And "there are doorways that look like wooden doors with hinges that are meant to look like they swing," says Silverman. "Some are even half open as if suspended in time."
But the most magnificent innovation was the pyramid structure itself. Although it represented the beginning of a new architectural form, its creation harks back to the traditional royal tomb style, known as the mastaba, the modern Arabic word for "bench." These horizontal rectangular graves consisted of mud brick walls supporting a low, flat roof. Archaeologists believe Imhotep began the Zoser tomb with the intention of building a mastaba structure. But throughout the construction he revised and expanded the project at least four times, until it culminated in the 200-foot-high, six-stepped pyramid. "He built six mastaba superstructures on top of one another, each smaller than the one below," writes Zahi Hawass, director of the Giza pyramids excavation, in his book, The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt.
Beneath the pyramid lay a vast underground complex: over 3 miles of tunnels, chambers, galleries for royal objects, and storerooms holding thousands of vessels containing food for the king in the afterlife. The burial chamber was made of granite blocks with a cylindrical opening at the top. Once the king was laid to rest, the top was sealed with a 3.5-ton granite plug set into place with ropes. It was far more than a resting place, says Mark Lehner, an archaeologist with the Harvard Semitic Museum and the University of Chicago. He likens the pyramid to a "cosmic engine" that helped transform the king from a human being into a god. "The pyramid was the instrument that enabled this alchemy to take place," he says.
By creating the pyramid, says Bryan of Johns Hopkins, Imhotep helped give concrete expression to the religious notion that after death the king traveled from the human world to the heavens to reside with the gods. "The word for `pyramid' in Ancient Egyptian is a type of noun that is formed out of a verb, and it means `to go up,' " she says. "So a pyramid quite literally is that which one ascends." The pyramid became a center of worship for the elite class, who believed the newly deified ruler could help guarantee continued prosperity for the kingdom.
That symbolic power, as much as the physical structure, was Imhotep's great invention, says David O'Connor, a professor of ancient Egyptian art and archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. "What is striking in the early dynastic [royal tomb] monuments is the strong emphasis on burial and the king going to the netherworld rather than ascending to the celestial realm," he says. "Once you get to the Step Pyramid, this idea of ascent may be becoming more prominent." Imhotep's training as a high priest of the sun god may have led him to emphasize an afterlife in the sky rather than the netherworld, Bryan says.
The idea caught on. For more than 2,000 years, the Egyptians built royal pyramid tombs, including the great pyramids with their flat sides and pointed tops. It is not known where Imhotep himself was buried. To this day, archaeologists continue to search for his tomb. But even if it is discovered, the pyramids will always be his greatest monuments.
The dictator's "Palace of Soviets" would have been 26 feet higher than the Empire State Building, crowned with a statue of Lenin three times as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The frame had barely begun to rise when World War II broke out. Later the project was scrapped and the site became a public pool. It now hosts a replica of the church Stalin originally tore down for his megamonument. -David Grimm
This story appears in the June 30, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.