Eyes On the Stars: A Review of "Imhotep the African"

Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy, Imhotep the African: Architect of the Cosmos (San Francisco, CA: Disinformation/Red Wheel/Weiser, 2013).

During this last month of the year, people in Western cultures are inundated with imagery that suggests three Magi followed a star to Bethlehem, heralding the birth of a wondrous divine child. Still others, with more supposedly secular frameworks in mind, look toward the North Pole for signs of the impending arrival at night of a certain visitor who spreads joy in the form of gifts for the morally upstanding youths of the community.

Stars, and in particular some important stars around the North Pole, are an important part of Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy's book, Imhotep the African: Architect of the Cosmos. Assessing the argument of the book is a bit more complex than just pointing out that astronomical and/or astrological concerns are significant to it, however.

Let me begin by stating that I found this book—especially in its initial chapters—an extremely exciting and page-turning read. The initial chapters are paced in such a fashion as to make it as much like reading a mystery novel as much as it attempts to present a novel interpretation of Egyptian archaeological findings. Whether these new interpretations are sound, and if they lead to the conclusions that the title suggests in a convincing fashion is another matter entirely.

In brief, the viewpoint of the authors suggests that the step pyramid complex of Saqqara, which all evidence indicates was designed by the multiply-skilled and later deified Imhotep, as well as several other monuments of ancient Egyptian civilization, have stellar alignments and placements which track a number of important stars or constellations, including Sirius as well as the "Bull's Thigh" (the Egyptian understanding of what we think of as the Big Dipper). This, in itself, is somewhat uncontroversial.

Bauval and Brophy go on, however, to demonstrate how these alignments are likewise found in a series of far older megalithic monuments at Nabta Playa in the Sahara. As far as their discussions and diagrams of these alignments go, the authors have proven their case, and I find their explanation of the similarities quite convincing.

The next step in their argument, however, is where things begin to fall apart.

Because the civilization that built the Nabta Playa site was likely a proto-Nubian people, and thus very definitely a "black African" culture and ethnicity, and the stellar alignments of many (often millennia) later Egyptian monuments parallel those at Nabta Playa, it is argued that these proto-Nubian peoples migrated into the Nile valley, adapted to the changed environment, shifted some of their associations based on the annual rising of the Nile—all of which is likely if not certain—and that therefore Imhotep was of this Nubian, black African ethnicity because he transmitted this astronomical tradition in his building program for Saqqara.

Before addressing certain other aspects of their argument, I think it might be useful to question these conclusions by way of a parallel situation.

In the state of Washington, there is a wonderful site near the town of Granite Falls known as the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America. It is a recognized part of the jinja honcho within the Shinto religious establishment of Japan, and is itself a branch shrine of the Tsubaki Okami Yashiro in Mie, Japan. Looking at the style of the buildings, the decoration, and the many parts of it which display the written forms of the Japanese language, one could easily assume that it is the product of one or more Japanese individuals who brought their distinctive Shinto spiritual practices and their accompanying architectural structures to the United States. The fact is that it was built by the Shrine's current (and founding) high priest, Rev. Lawrence Koichi Barrish, who is originally from southern California and is of European-American background and ethnicity.

Thus, it seems a bit rash to try and argue what an individual from the past's ethnicity and ethnic origins might have been simply based on the fact that works (of any type, but in this case monumental architecture and their stellar alignments) attributed to that individual resemble or even replicate those found in a distinct and historically previous culture.

There are other aspects of this book that I would have preferred received more attention as well. No matter how precisely the GPS locations, orientations, and other geophysical aspects of the authors' excursus were delineated, little to no space is given to the interpretation of this data in terms of the religious import of such alignments. Why would the "lookout" provided by the Saqqara pyramid's serdab (an oddly-situated stone cubicle with holes in it on the north side of the pyramid) toward the northern constellations be desirable for the pharaoh or his descendants buried in the tomb? What function would aligning all of these structures in the precise ways that they were serve for those who built them and those who later used them? Not nearly enough information is given on these matters.