A (non-Western) history of versatility

Historian article

By Waqās Ahmed, published 4th December 2020

The Rise of Civilisations

Waqās Ahmed broadens our perspective on where in history we might find polymaths, those who embody versatility of thought and action. While Western scholars might identify the likes of Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin as the archetype of the polymath, they have in reality existed throughout history and across civilizations.

The high cultures of Greco-Roman antiquity are most familiar when we speak of ancient civilization. Yet civilisations in India, Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia and Africa not only pre-date these, but also influenced them greatly. Human versatility was integral to their artistic and scientific accomplishments. There is no better example than the case of Imhotep, the architect of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and the first recorded polymath. A contemporary of the legendary King Djoser (probably the best-known pharaoh of Egypt’s Third Dynasty), Imhotep was the architect of the Saqqara step pyramid, an astronomer and a philosopher as well as a practicing physician, priest and administrator who made significant contributions to each of the fields he pursued...

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