There was a real man named Imhotep in ancient Egypt, but he and his cinematic counterpart have little in common, except for a great devotion to the women they loved.
The RL Imhotep was among the first non-royal Egyptians to gain great power and respect. He lived during the reigns of Pharaoh Khasekhem and Pharaoh Djoser (Netjerikhet. )
Imhotep served as vizier to Pharaoh, as well as a head architect, priest of Ptah (god of craftsmen), astrologist and skilled sculptor. His plan for irrigation, food preservation and fishieries management ended a seven-year famine in Egypt.
After word of Imhotep's great medical knowledge spread, he was called to the court of Pharaoh Khasekhem. He soon saved the life of Pharaoh's Great Royal Wife, who had a very difficult time giving birth to Prince Djoser. Tragically, at the same time as Imhotep was battling to save the Queen's life, his own wife was in labor with their son, and died. Their son was put under the care of the Queen's nurse while Imhotep locked himself in with his wife's body through the 40 days of mummification and burial preparation.
Imhotep buried his beloved wife in the desert near Saqqara, and legend has it that he swore someday to return and raise a great building over her grave, which he did in 2630 (2680?) BC, when he was responsible for the construction of Egypt's very first pyramid!
The pyramid was constructed of small stone blocks instead of the traditional mud bricks, and soared 200 feet in the air. At the base, it measured 413 x 344'. Imhotep was probably buried in the Step Pyramid complex, but no site has thus far been conclusively proven to be his tomb.
Imhotep was actually more respected and famed as a physician than as an architect. Some even believe him to be true father of modern medicine, even before Hippocrates. Somehow I don't imagine young doctors swearing the Imhotepian Oath any time soon, however. ;-)
The RL Imhotep's deeds made him a very well respected man, and after his death he was among the first and few non-royals to be posthumously deified in Egypt. He became associated with Thoth, the ibis-headed god of knowledge and writing. During the Old Kingdom he was considered a son of the god Ptah. By the reign of Amenophis III in the New Kingdom era, Imhotep was honored as a near-deity and offered water oblations. The Greeks associated him with their healing god, Asklepios. King Hadrian later favored him as well, and the Romans built an obelisk monument to him, reading, "He hears the plea of him who calls him. He lets the needy become well." Evidence indicates that he was worshiped at the Step Pyramid complex in Ptolemaic times.
Imhotep's achievements seemed so extrordinary that some Egyptologists even doubted that he was a real person. Then his name was found inscribed on the base of a statue in the enclosure of the Step Pyramid.
Below is a statue found at Saqqara that may depict the real Imhotep. (I definitely prefer Arnold Vosloo! ;-)
Here's another statue said to depict Imhotep.
Hieroglyphic inscription of
courtesy of this site.
Ancient Egypt Site, The.
Casson, Lionel. Ancient Egypt. New York: Time-Life, 1965.
Malek, Jaromir. In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt During the Old Kingdom. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
Mertz, Barbara. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1978.
Stetter, Cornelius. The Secret Medicine of the Pharaohs: Ancient Egyptian Healing. Chicago: Edition Q, 1993.