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Chapter 13 Chapter 15

Egyptian Origins (14)
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Inventing the Divine Pharaoh:
Djoser and Imhotep

The division between the Second and the Third Dynasties falls about 2700 BC, four centuries after Narmer's unification, but it seems not to represent a very substantial break in the ruling authority. The first king of the Third Dynasty was Sanakhte. He is thought to have been the son-in-law of Khase-khemwy (him of the double symbols atop his serekh) and the Lower Egyptian woman whom Khase-khemwy married hoping to settle down the people who thought he favored the Valley.

Little is known of Sanakhte. The only sculpture of him shows him wearing only the crown of Lower Egypt. It seems as though bickering between regions continued, and perhaps the bickering between Heliopolis and Memphis was as big a nuisance as the bickering between Memphis and far-off Nekhen, which was presumably friendly to Heliopolis. When Sanakhte's son Djoser came to the throne it is clear that he felt drastic measures needed to be taken to hold the empire together.

Djoser's second-in command, his grand vizier, was a man named Imhotep, who was deified after his death and worshipped throughout the rest of Egyptian history as a god of wisdom and particularly of medicine; statues of him have been found from all periods, and ancient texts include wise sayings attributed to him. We shall never know how much of Djoser's strategy to prevent Egypt falling apart was actually Imhotep's. Possibly most of it. [Note 18]

Step One in their strategy was a firm assertion of Djoser's power, not just in the north, where the squabbling was, but as far south as possible, way up the Nile near the first cataract at Aswan. There Djoser placed monuments asserting his sovereignty as lord "of the Two Lands."

Step Two seems to have been to grant land rights for the construction of a temple to the goddess Isis on the island of Philae, near modern Aswan, and for a temple to the god Khnum, patron god of Elephantine, the southernmost nome, also near Aswan. Egyptologists know about the tradition of these land rights going back to Djoser's benevolence only from a later account, [Note 19] but granting such rights and establishing such shrines in the far south, if these things actually took place, would have resulted in political support from what might have been politically important local constituencies there. [Note 20]

Step Three in the strategy was the construction at Saqqara, outside Memphis, of the largest tomb ever built anywhere on earth up to that time. Given the long tradition of showing elite status with snooty funerary equipment, Djoser decided to outdo everyone on earth. He erected the famed "step pyramid," composed of a series of huge rectangular tomb structures placed one on top of another, and a vast complex of temples and smaller tombs around it. The complex was the first to make large-scale use of stone, with doors and columns redesigned to suit this new material. [Note 21]

Pointedly, the tomb was in Saqqara, in the border region between Upper and Lower Egypt, not with the tombs of his ancestors in Abydos in Upper Egypt. If earlier monarchs had two tombs, one real and one a cenotaph, one in Lower Egypt and one in Upper Egypt, Djoser had both built into the same complex, located in the Memphis-Saqqara "neutral" zone.

The chief architect was, according to legend, Imhotep himself, and the complex he designed was intended to serve Djoser even before death, for he also included among the temple compounds one for the celebration of the king's hebsed, a rebirthing rite to show the continued vigor of the monarch, apparently an inheritance from earlier traditions of kingship.

Transported to Saqqara for this event, if we are to believe the surviving reliefs, were statues of deities from the whole length of the country, brought in portable shrines and perhaps displayed in especially prepared niches on the sides of the hall. (The niches seem to be roughly the same in number as the estimated number of nomes at the period, suggesting that each nome may have had its own small shrine, and suggesting also, of course, that attendance was obligatory.) Some would have come from the far south, perhaps the important temples chartered in Step Two of the grand strategy.

In the ritual of the hebsed, Djoser appears to have included, perhaps as a new feature, a re-enactment of his original coronation, in which he was borne on a sedan chair by representatives of various gods of Upper and Lower Egypt, who naturally would have to have had to attend and cooperate. Even if they didn't exactly love each other, or the king either for that matter, gifts were presented for attending, and this, combined with fear of a man with a large labor force at his command, may have been a prime motive to participate. But in cooperating, they were complacent in their deities' acknowledgement of Djoser's supremacy over all regions and all factions. Just to be sure the message was clear, the rites of Djoser's supremacy were repeated facing each cardinal direction.

Djoser's display of military power, his patronage of local gods in distant areas, his manipulation of symbols of his authority, and particularly his expanded hebsed that co-opted priests of all factions — all these actions suggest that the claim of actual divinity for the person of the Pharaoh was being asserted, if not for the very first time, certainly more successfully than ever before. The claim was to serve as the basis of Pharaonic authority for the rest of Egyptian history. Kamil summarizes:

It seems, therefore, that in order to bind together the settlers in far-flung areas, the governing power encouraged the development and practice of local cults by low-ranking local priests, but limited their function and bound together their energies under a God-king whose Heb-Sed festival they attended, and whose divine nature they recognised. It was a policy of promotion and appeasement which served a dual purpose: it enabled a generous and tolerant Pharaoh, who provided offerings for local deities to take credit for favourable conditions and, at the same time, it provided scapegoats for disaster — the local gods were angry. [1984: 44-45]

… To establish a unified politico-religious system the ruling power encouraged local religious identity and, by promoting a God-king whose commands had divine authority, limited the jurisdiction of the local priests and justified their own dominance. Unity was the purpose, plurality the method. [1984: 46]

Djoser and Imhotep may or may not have thought he was really divine. (Like any second-in-command, Imhotep probably had moments when he thought his boss was a first-class blockhead.) But by declaring that Djoser was a god, they created the ideological rationale for suppressing troublesome assertions of local privilege wherever they should arise. United Egypt had at last triumphed over the ever-bickering priests of Memphis and Saqqara and Heliopolis and Nekhen and Naqada and all places else.

Djoser's heavy-handed approach to maintaining Egyptian unity depended in part on his ability to recruit an enormous labor force for his construction project. We do not know how this was done. We know that his successors in the Third and Fourth Dynasties managed to create the "age of pyramids," with public works on a scale that caused wonder in all subsequent eras. Building pyramids was not necessarily a merry romp for ordinary people, of course. If the graves of the mighty became grand, archaeologists have found that the graves of ordinary people became smaller and poorer than they had been for generations. The divine kingship of Egypt brought stability, but sustaining its symbols came at considerable cost.

In sum, although the details are murky and the evidence mixed, the important lesson is that the national unity that so characterized Egypt through its immense history did not come into being all at once or without resistance. The long Neolithic period featured independent communities sharing a river system, but also sharing ideas and goods. Eventually local conflicts were replaced by a centralized state, a unification associated with Narmer and dated to about 3100 BC. But this required constant maintenance, for the two great ecological zones of Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt were especially slow to meld together, and from Hor-Aha's founding of Memphis about 3050 BC to Djoser's construction of a greater tomb than the world ever before have seen some time nearly 400 years later, the unity of Egypt remained tenuous as critical symbols of authority were constantly negotiated and consolidated.

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