Imhotep Tomb Saqqara

The Lost Tomb of Imhotep?

One of the more terrifying films that I remember watching as a child was Stephen Sommers’, The Mummy (1999). In that film, the main antagonist was a character called Imhotep, who was the high priest of the pharaoh Seti. Obviously, the Imhotep from the film is not the same Imhotep of this article. In fact, the Imhotep we are interested in lived during the Old Kingdom, which is more than a millennium before the reign of Seti I. This Imhotep was also a benevolent figure, and he is probably most famous today as the architect of the Step Pyramid of the pharaoh Djoser. Apart from that, Imhotep was also a physician, high priest, engineer, polymath, and basically a very important member of the pharaoh Djoser’s court.

Step Pyramid of Djoser (Wikimedia).

One of the most interesting things about Imhotep was that he was deified after his death. Although it is claimed that “ Only one other commoner in the long history of Ancient Egypt achieved this status, another architect of the 18 th dynasty called Amenophis son of Hapu”, this may in fact be false. Other important people from ancient Egypt were also deified. For instance, there was Heka-ib, a monarch who lived during the 6 th Dynasty. He too was deified shortly after his death. Furthermore, spells from the Coffin Texts allowed the dead to transform into various gods, though this self-deification was not recognised by the institutionalised Egyptian religion. What makes Imhotep a unique case is not the ‘fact’ that he was one of only two non-royal ancient Egyptians who was deified, but that his cult survived well over 2,000 years after his death, and that he is mentioned by the ancient Egyptian historian, Manetho (which is the reason why we still know of him today). The fact that the bias of evidence has preserved the memory of Imhotep ought to take away some of the mysterious aura that some associate with this figure.

A statuette of Imhotep. Image source .

Nevertheless, there are those who have a fascination with finding his lost tomb. Even in ancient times, it seems that the location of Imhotep’s tomb is unknown, as mentioned in an ancient Egyptian poem called The Lay of the Harper . According to consensus, Imhotep’s tomb is hidden somewhere in Saqqara, perhaps close to or even under the Step Pyramid of Djoser. This article: “ 5000 Year Old Tomb of Imhotep Found? ” (Personally, I’m not too sure how credible this is), seems to sensationalise the discovery of “two large tombs”. According to the official website of the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project , however, these two “tombs” were described merely as the two “largest structures”. While Geophysical survey is capable of finding features beneath the ground, they do not tell archaeologists what these features functioned as. Therefore, to call these structures “tombs” without further investigation, i.e. excavation, wouldn’t be quite right. Furthermore, other interesting discoveries have been made, such as the Sacred Animal Necropolis, and numerous underground structures that were previously unidentified.

Although Imhotep is a figure who continues to fascinate people interested in ancient Egypt, his status is perhaps not as unique as some might like to believe. Moreover, the treasure-hunting days of Archaeology and Egyptology are now long-gone. Archaeology is no longer a search for treasure, or in this case, the tomb of Imhotep. Rather, it is allowing the evidence to speak for itself. While the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project has indeed yielded some highly interesting results, there is no claim, at present, that the tomb of Imhotep has been found. I suppose if one were to approach archaeology with a ‘treasure-hunter’s mind-set’, one will often face disappointment, Instead, if one were to allow the evidence to lead on, many amazing discoveries can be made.     

Featured image: Illustration of Pyramid of Saqqara. Image source .


Bunson, M. R., 2002. Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. 2 ed. New York: Facts on File.

CMHypno, 2014. Imhotep - Search For His Ancient Egyptian Tomb. [Online]
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Dollinger, A., 2004. Lay of the Harper. [Online]
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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014. Imhotep. [Online]
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Faulkner, R. O., 1973. Preface. In: The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts: Volume I, Spells 1-354. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd., pp. vii-viii.

Glasgow Museums, 2014. Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project: The Saqqara Necropolis. [Online]
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Nicely written article. I especially like the last statement " I suppose if one were to approach archaeology with a ‘treasure-hunter’s mind-set’, one will often face disappointment, Instead, if one were to allow the evidence to lead on, many amazing discoveries can be made." And totally agree.

It is my understanding that the non-Egyptian high priest Imhotep is more readily known by his Biblical name, Joseph, the 11th son of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob. The book of Exodus reads that Joseph's remains we're carried out of Egypt during the great exodus of the Hebrews, lead by Moses. In addition to being a high priest and an architect, Joseph/Imhotep was a physician, performing several hundred surgeries & procedures in Egypt. He is considered by the Greeks to be the father of medicine. He I is also the creator of the embalming process made famous by Egyptian pharaohs. Pop Quiz: what was Moses' Egyptian name & role in Pharaoh's court? Stay tuned.

I keep seeing that idea all over the internet, usually by people who seem to be Biblical literalists.  But how do they account for the 1600 year difference between when Imhotep lived and the generally agreed upon dates for King David’s reign?  The Bible says there were only 3 generations between Joseph and Moses:  Joseph's brother Levi, Kohath, Amram and Moses.  After Moses led the Exodus there were 40 years of wandering and the period of the judges.  Even a high estimate of 480 years for the period of the judges gets you nowhere near 2650 BC for Imhotep and Djoser.  It makes no sense.

Peter Harrap's picture

Imhotep was Imhotep and Joseph was Joseph. They were two different individuals living at different times. You cannot simply shrink the world’s population because different people have coincidental characteristics (for which here there is little actual proof anyway).

Why do this? Velikovski made a similar mistake- he reckoned Oedipus and Akhenaton were the same person, duh!!

Who is the author of this article? The Lost Tomb of Imhotep


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