Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Tale of Sinuhe

Copyright © Egypt, Cradel of Civilization

The Tale of Sinuhe (pronounced as "sA-nht") is considered a supreme achievement of Ancient Egyptian literature. It was probably written during the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom in the aftermath of the death of Pharaoh Amen-em-hat I, in the early 20th century BC. Historically it is debated as to whether or not the tale is based on actual events involving an individual named Sinuhe, although the more probable consensus being that it is most likely a work of fiction.

The story is told in the first person by Sinuhe himself, and written in the form of a poem, combining in a single narrative an extraordinary range of literary styles. The poem continually examines the reasons for Sinuhe's flight and his possible culpability for it, without reaching a conclusion.This biography yields information about political and social conditions of the time. The poem also explores the nature of what it is to be an Egyptian, without ultimately undermining the Egyptian assumption that life outside Egypt is meaningless, by placing an Egyptian character in a non-Egyptian (i.e. Asiatic) society.

His tomb has not been found, but the account of his adventures was a favorite tale in Ancient Egypt and was written many times on papyrus and read for hundreds of years after his death. Specifically, it has been recorded on 6 papyri and 26 ostraca (singular for ostracon and is a piece of pottery or stone, usually broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel), making it one of the most popular literary works, and one of the oldest.

The tale starts with Sinuhe speaking from his tomb. He begins his story while on an expedition to Libya with the eldest son of the King Amen-em-hat Ι. He overhears a messenger speaking of the assassination of the Pharaoh. He decides to flee in a panic, either from fright or because of his complicity it is not clear. He intends to travel southwards but was blown north while crossing the Nile, and continues into the Desert of Sinai and onto Palestine and Lebanon. There he almost dies, and as he gives up all hope for life he hears the low of cattle. He is found and tended to by a Bedouin who recognizes him as an Egyptian of importance.

After this, Sinuhe goes on to the ancient city of Byblos in Syria and further still to the city of Retenu east of the great valley beyond the Lebanon. There he was welcomed by King Ammi-enshi, who adopted him and married him to his eldest daughter. At the height of his power he is challenged to a duel by a Syrian champion. Sinuhe kills his opponent and gains even more power and prestige. But as he approaches old age, he yearns to return to his homeland and to be buried back there, so he sends a letter to the reigning Pharaoh Sen-Usert, begging for forgiveness. He is invited back to Egypt and returns to the palace he once left.

Sinuhe becomes a great man in Egypt and a close friend of the Pharaoh, who lavishes him with land and riches. King Sen-Usert is said to have commissioned an extravagant tomb for Sinuhe to be buried in, where the story of his adventures are carved and decorated on the tomb walls.