Ancient Genius

The Secrets of Imhotep and the “Black Box” of Saqqara


In the region of Greater Cairo, in the northeast segment of the modern city, stands a lonely obelisk. It marks the position of the most revered ‘learning center,’ a ‘university,’ of the ancient world. No Egyptologist really knows how old this mysterious center is, who first put it at that place and why, let alone what systems of science and knowledge were taught there. Most, however, believe that Heliopolis was there long before the pyramids. It was known as Innu by the ancient Egyptians; later the Hebrews called it On, and even much later the Greeks gave it the current name of Heliopolis, which means ‘City of the Sun.’ Today the local inhabitants call it Ain Shams, ‘Eye of the Sun.’

Egyptologists tell us that in its heydays Heliopolis was headed by a high priest, the our mau, the ‘Chief of Observers’ or ‘Chief of the Astronomers,’ whose main function was to observe the night sky and the motion of the stars—-and that one such high priest, indeed the earliest known by name and most revered, was a man, once believed a god, called Imhotep, ‘He Who Comes in Peace.’ So famous and admired was Imhotep that during the latter part of the pharaonic civilization he was venerated as a god, and later the Greeks regarded him as the ‘father of medicine’ and associated him with Asclepius. Imhotep even gained super-villain stardom status from Hollywood with the original 1932 The Mummy starring Boris Karloff and the 1999 loose remake blockbuster by Stephen Sommers, starring Brendan Fraser. The latter went on to gross 415 million dollars and spawned several sequels: in 2001 with The Mummy Returns, in 2004’s Revenge of the Mummy, and many spinoffs such as The Scorpion King, as well as a series of novels, cartoons, and comic books. Second after Tutankhamun, or perhaps now on par with this boy-king, Imhotep’s name has thus entered modern pop culture. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Imhotep ranks in the Top 10 list of Supervillains of History, thanks to Boris Karloff and Brendan Fraser.

The truth, however, is that very little is known about Imhotep the man. Although often referred to as a ‘genius,’ ‘inventor of architecture,’ ‘father of science,’ and other such high epithets by Egyptologists and historians alike, when it comes to who Imhotep really was, it’s all down to guesswork and speculation. As high priest of Heliopolis during the Third Dynasty of Egyptian kings, Imhotep’s name, however, appears less than half-a-dozen times in contemporary texts, with little or no information attached to it. The most recent academic work on the Third Dynasty, which also refers to Imhotep, which we consulted for research in our present book, devotes barely seven of its 300 pages to him, and most of the information is culled from much later writings, the earliest being nearly 1000 years after his death. One could say that Imhotep is a sort of ‘Jesus’ of the ancient world, highly mythologized and eventually divinized, but with little or no contemporary archaeological or textual evidence that has survived concerning the man himself. Perhaps, though, the main reason for this huge lacuna is that Egyptologists have generally ignored one of Imhotep’s most important proficiencies and aptitudes—-indeed, we believe, the most important: his highly advanced knowledge of astronomy. Imhotep’s architectural masterpiece, the fabulous Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara, has for too long been studied as just that, an architectural masterpiece. But we, on the other hand, have come to see it as something else or, to put it differently, an astronomical ‘manual’ in stone. The Step Pyramid Complex, in fact, is a sort of pharaonic Da Vinci Code, which, if properly understood and decoded, can take us into the mind, and even the origin, of the architect; i.e., astronomer genius who created it. Because, to put it in simple terms, the Step Pyramid Complex was designed according to what can be termed ‘sacred astronomy;’ i.e. astronomical observations and calculations incorporated into the architecture and alignments of the complex.


The “Black Box” of the Step Pyramid Complex

“Nothing,” wrote the enthralled Egyptologist Wendy Wood, “in the architecture of archaic tombs, would constitute an adequate preparation to the technical mastering of which suddenly appears in the Step Pyramid Complex.”

Indeed, nothing of this type of construction and scale had occurred before. It is as if, totally out of the blue, the principles of architectural design and hewn stone construction were born in the mind of one man: Imhotep. The surface area of the complex alone is mind-boggling: 545 x 277 meters, vast enough to accommodate more than 560 tennis courts! A gigantic, rectangular boundary wall, some 10 meters high made of high quality Tura limestone, surrounds the whole complex. This wall has 211 ‘bastions’ (rectangular projections) about 3 meters wide, each having 15 long vertical ‘panels’ (6 inserts and 9 flats); fourteen of these ‘bastions’ are much larger than the rest and are, in fact, ‘false doors.’ The largest of the ‘bastions’ is near the south end of the east side of the wall and has a real, open door leading into the complex. The whole wall is decorated with long, vertical indents that create a paneled effect. The precision of these indents and the effect they create is breathtaking and would alone—there are 1722 of them—be considered a supreme example of the mason’s art.

As you pass though the high, open doorway, you find yourself at the east end of a long, narrow corridor flanked with wonderful fluted columns. This colonnade, as it is now called, had two rows of twenty columns. At the other end of the colonnade there are two sets of four columns built back to back, giving each row a total of twenty-four columns. Past the colonnade and immediately to the left is the so-called ‘south tomb.’ To the north of the colonnade is the jubilee court. The latter has two rows of small ‘dummy buildings’ or ‘pavilions,’ the western row containing three zeh-nejer (divine pavilions) pavilions and ten per-our (Great House) pavilions, and the eastern row containing twelve per-nou (associated to the city of Bouto) pavilions. The Step Pyramid is more or less at the center of the enclosure. On its north and south are vast open-air, rectangular courts. The south court apparently was used for a ceremonial ‘race’ in which the king had to run around it to symbolically mark the four cardinal sides of his domain (Egypt). Other buildings in the complex are the ‘North House’ and the ‘South House,’ which are located along the east part of the complex; a temple on the south part of the complex; and a ‘northern temple’ on the north side of the Step Pyramid. There are also ‘store rooms’ along the west and north walls.

The base of the Step Pyramid itself is not quite a square and, oddly, not at the exact center of the enclosure but is, rather, offset a few dozen meters toward the east. The base of the pyramid occupies an area some 12,000 square meters, enough to include 45 tennis courts. The pyramid is about 60 meters high, and the base is 118 x 105 meters, according to the latest published data by Michel Baud. Archaeologist Jean-Philippe Lauer has always claimed that the Step Pyramid was built in five, successive stages. Previously it was thought that the project started as a small, square mastaba (primitive rectangular tombs) and, after four other extensions, it finally ended up looking as the Step Pyramid we see today. The eminent German Egyptologist Rainer Stadelmann, however, rejects this ‘progressive ad hoc construction’ thesis and insists that the Step Pyramid was planned and built as it is seen today, i.e., as one project—a view that we wholeheartedly share. The British engineer John Perring had carefully measured the angle of the steps in 1838 and had concluded that ‘the face of each story or degree has an angle of 73º 30’ with the horizon’—which means that the steps of the pyramid are inclined 16º 30’ to the vertical. Various Egyptologists—Jean-Lauer, Edwards, Vandier, and Baud agreed with this value, give or take 0.5º.

In 1925, while removing fallen debris on the north face of the Step Pyramid, the British Egyptologist Cecil M. Firth and his assistant James E. Quibell uncovered a most unusual structure: a small, box-like, stone structure—that we have recently come to regard as the pharaonic equivalent of the ‘black box’ on a jetliner. Firth and Quibell were intrigued by its most peculiar design: firstly, it was not level but tilted against the lower ‘step’ of the pyramid. The tilt was clearly not due to settlement or subsidence, because the stone, box-like structure was solidly built into the Step Pyramid itself. Even more intriguing, there were two, small, round holes drilled in the north face of the box at about eye-level; and when Firth peered in one of them, he was astounded to find staring back at him the lifeless eyes of a pharaoh! It was a life-size, seated statue of king Netjerykhet, as the inscription on the pedestal confirmed this. Jean-Phillipe Lauer, who joined Firth’s team at Saqqara at about this time, described the curious impression he had of this strange artifact, “…a curious edifice of cubic shape inside of which, like a cosmonaut inside his space capsule, was the statue of Djoser…”

The serdab, as this stone box is now called, was made from good-quality, Tura limestone blocks, and designed like a cube with sides of 2.6 meters. It is inclined against the first step of the pyramid and thus has the same inclination of about 16.5º to the horizon, and it has the same orientation of the pyramid, namely 4.5º east of north (azimuth 4.5º). The two round holes on the north face were at eye level of the statue, and thus clearly intended to direct the king’s gaze towards the northern sky. Many Egyptologists who have recently commented on this unique serdab have arrived at more or less the same conclusion: the peepholes were intended for the statue of the king, which represents his Ka, his spirit, to gaze eternally towards the circumpolar stars called ‘imperishable’ or ‘indestructible’ by the ancient Egyptians because they never set below the horizon; i.e. they never ‘die.’ For example, French Egyptologist Christiane Ziegler wrote that, “through the two peepholes the king would gaze towards the ‘imperishable’ stars near the North Pole.”

In the same vein, American Egyptologist Mark Lehner commented that, “On the northern side of his Saqqara Step Pyramid Djoser emerges from his tomb in statue form, into a statue-box, or serdab, which has just such a pair of peepholes to allow him to see out …with eyes once inlaid with rock crystal, Djoser’s statue gazes out through peepholes in the serdab box, tilted upwards ….to the northern sky where the king joined the circumpolar stars…”

Lehner quoted a passage from the Book of the Dead, which, according to him, explains the ‘function’ of the two holes or ‘peep holes’: “Open for me are the double doors of the sky, open for me are the double doors of the earth. Open for me are the bolts of Geb, exposed for me are the roof… and the Twin Peepholes.”

But which circumpolar star or constellation was the king’s statue intended to gaze upon? And, more intriguingly…why?


The Thigh in the Sky

Egyptologists will agree that the alignment of the Step Pyramid Complex, like most other sacred monuments in ancient Egypt, was achieved during the ceremony known as the ‘stretching the cord’ during which the ancient astronomers/surveyors aimed at a star in the circumpolar constellation of the Big Dipper—-called the ‘Thigh’ by the ancient Egyptians because it reminded them of a bull’s leg.

Today it is a rather dramatic moment for unsuspecting visitors when they approach the serdab from the north and peep into the round holes and, to their amazement, see the stony face of an ancient king staring back at them. In fact, the statue is looking past them and into the circumpolar region of the northern sky beyond. It is tempting, at that point, to lean against the serdab so that you also gaze towards the same spot in the sky; that is, 16º 30’ above the horizon and 4º 35’ east of north. But all you will see in the daytime, of course, is the blue sky. But were you to be here at night for which Imhotep built this strange edifice, standing in the crystal-clear darkness of the open desert, you’d see the northern stars, the brightest being the seven stars of the Big Dipper, slowly and majestically moving around the pole.

Egyptologists are in agreement that the Step Pyramid complex dates to about 2650 BC, give or take a century. It is therefore a relatively easy thing these days, with the excellent astronomical software available such as Starry Night pro or similar, to actually “see,” in a virtually reconstructed sky for the epoch and location, which circumpolar star the statue of the kind inside the serdab was made to gaze upon. There can be little doubt that the star in question is one of the brightest stars in the Big Dipper, known by it Arabic name of Alkaid. This star, like all of the circumpolar stars, rotate counter-clockwise around the pole in 24 hours and thus act as the arm of a giant clock in the sky. What is most strange and interesting is that when the star reaches the “X” spot where the statue is gazing, this is the exact moment when the brightest of all the stars in the sky, Sirius, performs its ‘rebirth’ in the east; i.e., it is rising, or, as the ancients would have said, it is ‘coming out of the underworld and rising into the light of day.” Egyptologists all agree that Sirius was the star that defined the ‘birth’ or ‘rebirth’ of the divine pharaohs, themselves seen as the ‘son of Isis and Osiris’—-the ‘mythical’ founder of the Egyptian civilization in a remote time known as Tep Zepi, the ‘First Time.’

Why did Imhotep go to so much painstaking effort to mark the origins of the pharaonic civilization? What deeper message is enshrined in the whole Step Pyramid Complex? And for whom is this message intended?

Because of the complexity and extent of the subject matter, it is only possible here to deal with one aspect of Imhotep’s architectural masterpiece: the ‘serdab’ on the north side of the Step Pyramid. The answers to these and many other questions are in our forthcoming book, Imphotep the African: Architect of the Cosmos.


The above article is based on material from, Imhotep the African: Architect of the Cosmos, co-authored by Robert Bauval, with Thomas Brophy, Ph.D., to be published in September 2013, by Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.

By Robert Bauval