In the recent DVD and streaming video version of The Ancient Alien Question, Philip Coppens asserts that Imhotep, the presumed architect of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, confessed to alien intervention. He states:
Nothing in this claim is true.
Imhotep did not build “the pyramids” (in total); he built perhaps two. The first, and best documented, was Djoser’s step pyramid, which was not a true pyramid like the Great Pyramid since it was a series of increasingly small rectangular platforms (traditional Egyptian stone mastaba tombs) stacked atop one another. The second was unfinished, another step pyramid, this time for Sekhemket, Djoser’s successor.
But here’s the rub: Modern scholars identify Imhotep as the architect of these pyramids, but not contemporary sources. It is an inferences based on his court titles and his name's appearance on the walls of the pyramids. Late tradition claimed he invented building in stone, as recorded by Manetho 2,400 years after Imhotep’s death—but this is both untrue (stone buildings predate him) and a more likely result of backward reasoning from his reputation to presumed deeds.
Actually, Manetho never mentions Imhotep (this is a modern inference), instead conflating him with Djoser, who in Greek was called Tosorthos:
In ancient Egypt itself, Imhotep was known for his wisdom and practice of medicine, of which he eventually became a minor god, later identified with Asclepius.
It is only modern people who created the inference that since Imhotep was Asclepius Manetho must have meant Imhotep who must therefore have built Djoser’s pyramid. (In the book version of Ancient Alien Question, Coppens fails to recognize this because he works mostly from secondary sources.) The discovery of Imhotep’s name at Saqqara confirms this inference, but it does not make it a genuine bit of ancient knowledge, much less the actual words of Imhotep that aliens gave him the plans.
Although Imhotep was known as the author of a book of maxims, none of Imhotep’s original writings survive, so he couldn’t have “said” anything directly, especially not about the pyramids that Egyptians didn’t remember that he had built, and especially not about aliens telling him to do it.
Besides, later Egyptian texts make plain that the Egyptians well understood the role of individual action in creating change. The Berlin Leather Roll, a New Kingdom copy of a twelfth dynasty text, documents the pharaoh delegating construction of an Amun temple to his architect whose “counsel” would carry “out all the works that my majesty desires to bring about. You are the one in charge of them…according to your designs.” In other words, the architect was expected to have (non-alien) individual initiative to design the temple.
So where did Coppens get his misinformation?
Fortunately, his ultimate source isn’t hard to find. It’s the Famine Stela, a Ptolemaic inscription created around 200 BCE, about 2,400 years after Imhotep died. On the famine stela, Imhotep—described as a high priest, not an architect—travels to Elephantine where he has a dream that the river god Khnum spoke to him and promised to make the Nile flood, bringing prosperity back to Egypt. The connection to architecture? Khnum promises Imhotep “stones upon stones” for building and restoring temples—clearly Khnum wasn’t inventing architecture for Imhotep (since temples—no pyramids are mentioned—must already have existed) but rather was promising a litany of natural resources to him, including river water and building stones.
But all of this is irrelevant since the story is a Ptolemaic invention millennia after the fact building on a widespread Near Eastern myth of the seven-year famine also found as far afield as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 41.
So, in one sentence Philip Coppens elides 2,500 years of history and serves it with a soupcon of untruth.
See also my follow-up post here.
Note: In response to Philip Coppens' complaint below, I have edited this post to remove the word "lies" to avoid any implication of intentional deception.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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