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Volume 22, Number 4July/August 1971

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Search For Imhotep

"I am probably standing on my grave," he said. And he was.

Written by Raymond M. Wilkinson
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

About six months ago, Walter Emery, portly Englishman of nearly 68 years with a reputation as the world's top Egyptologist, pulled a large trilby hat down on graying temples and pointed his cane at a shallow pit where workmen were scooping away sand from the entrance to a limestone passageway. "I am probably standing on my grave," he said.

He was. On March 7, Walter Emery, after 48 years of "digging holes in Egypt," collapsed on the site of that passageway—the passageway where he had expected to spend the rest of his life and which he was sure would one day lead him to the greatest discovery of his career: the tomb of Imhotep. Four days later he died, his search unfinished, the mystery of Imhotep unsolved.

Like the famous King Tut, whose tomb Howard Carter unearthed in Luxor in 1922, Imhotep—doctor, architect, philosopher, magician and politician—has long fascinated Egyptologists. He was surely one of the most intriguing figures of ancient Egypt. Although the books he is supposed to have written have vanished and there is no record of his private life, signs of his presence are everywhere, the most unmistakable being the small but unique Step Pyramid on the plateau of Sakkara, 20 miles from Cairo.

The Step Pyramid, the world's oldest standing structure, is not impressive in either size or symmetry—the Great Pyramid at Giza is 250 feet higher—but in designing it, Imhotep introduced a new architectural form. To some sources that makes him the world's first engineer. In Egypt it won him great honors and sonorous titles: "Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt," "Hereditary Prince," "Greatest of Seers," and "Ruler of the Great Estates."

Curiously, Imhotep's achievements as a physician, for which he is most widely known today, were not widely recognized until 2,000 years after his death. But then his name became so popular that Egyptians swarmed to his tomb seeking cures. Eventually they deified him as the God of Medicine. Even the Greeks and Romans, despite their own advances in medicine, granted him recognition. The Greeks identified him with their own God of Medicine, Eskalapies, and Cleopatra reportedly placed a dedication to him in the Temple of Philae.

Almost as quickly as it was revived, however, Imhotep's reputation again disappeared under the sands of the desert—along with most traces of his accomplishments. It was not until 1920 that it was revived for the second time. That came about when Cecil Firth, a colleague of Emery's, began to excavate a vast complex of subsidiary buildings around the Step Pyramid near Emery's then-current dig. He discovered a statue apparently dedicated to the builder of the Step Pyramid and translated the name. It was Imhotep.

Excited by the discovery, Firth began to look for Imhotep's tomb. He was convinced that it was within a few hundred yards of the Step Pyramid and searched there until his death in 1932.

Emery, in the meantime, had also been poking into the sands of Sakkara, a place he once called "one of the most fabulous treasure houses of man's history." Shortly after World War I he had made what he considered his major discovery: the tombs of the first dynasty of kings. After Firth's death he took up the search for Imhotep, and despite other work in the Sudan and other parts of Egypt and World War II, kept at it intermittently until his collapse in March

Like Firth, Emery was sure that the tomb was near the Step Pyramid. In part his conviction was based on accounts written by Napoleon's scientists when they first began to open up the wonders of Egypt in the early 19th century. At Sakkara these scientists had discovered what they called the "Tomb of the Birds," and described how they "were lowered into pits which led to great passages covering vast areas full of birds." Since the sacred bird of Imhotep was the ibis, and one of his titles was "The Great One of the Ibis," Emery concluded that what the French had found was at least near Imhotep's tomb. When he found another reference saying Imhotep was buried near the "Lake of the Crocodiles," he conjectured that what is now a vast depression of sand in Sakkara was once a lake.

It was not until 1962, however, that Emery came across his first tangible clue: a huge trail of pottery fragments stretching hundreds of yards across the desert. Examination disclosed that they were fragments of vessels used in religious rites and that they dated back to the period when pilgrims began to approach Imhotep's tomb. That, plus two old Royal Air Force photographs of the area, which showed the darker outline of ruined buildings two feet under the sand, convinced Emery that this was the place to dig, and dig he did.

The first discoveries, said Emery last winter, were very promising. "Almost immediately we found a Third Dynasty tomb. Then, going down into one of the burial shafts, we found around this tomb the bodies of sacrificial bulls, designating a sacred man."

More significantly, they found a series of long underground galleries packed with mummified ibises, the sacred bird of Imhotep. There were more than a million of the birds, all packed in earthenware pots. Apparently, they had found the "Tomb of the Birds" referred to by Napoleon's scientists.

Emery quickly pushed ahead, but ran into an unexpected difficulty: the sheer richness of the archeology. In Sakkara history is literally piled on top of itself. In places, the ruins of buildings from several dynasties were piled one on top of the other. Moreover, in uncovering one area, early explorers more often than not dumped the sand on an as yet undiscovered tomb nearby. For Emery that meant moving from his own 500-square-yard site thousands of additional tons of sand flung there by other scientists, and sometimes digging underneath ancient buildings.

It seemed hopeless at first but Emery, to the consternation of his colleagues, decided on a most unorthodox step. He brought in a bulldozer and in a few days cleared away what could have taken years. Some of his colleagues, he chuckled later, went into shock.

As the search for Imhotep continued, Emery found a series of passageways containing hundreds of mummified baboons, ancient Egypt's symbol of wisdom and knowledge. In another he found mummified hawks. Shortly after that he found a small piece of stone in a wooden box deposited in a niche hewn into the rock wall of the hawks' chamber. It was barely eight inches long but inscribed on it in ancient demotic text were the electrifying words: "Imhotep the Great. The son of Ptah the Great God and other Gods Who Rest Here."

What did Emery hope to find? Treasure? Mummies? Emery was not sure, but he thought it unlikely. The grave robbers of the period would hardly have passed up the treasures that would have been put in Imhotep's tomb. But the thieves, Emery hoped, might have left scrolls of papyrus, and the scrolls could well contain descriptions of medical practices, architectural designs, notes on everyday life. If so, he said once, it would be the greatest discovery since Carter groped into the tomb of King Tut. Asked if he thought he could be wrong about the location, Emery shook his head vehemently. "Imhotep is here," he said, " and I will find him."

His faith may yet be justified. In Cairo, Geoffrey Martin, Emery's longtime assistant, has announced that the search for Imhotep will go on.

Raymond M. Wilkinson is a correspondent for United Press International. Formerly Bureau Chief in Cairo, he is now assigned to Paris.

This article appeared on pages 32-36 of the July/August 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1971 images.