As present-day Egypt goes through the daily agony of fighting off Jihadi terrorism which strives to rob her of her time-honoured identity and force upon her another culture, it would do well to dig into the origins of the Egyptian culture rooted so tightly in the land, sun, Nile and, ultimately, the Egyptian himself. This is the story of Sinuhe, the ancient Egyptian whose soul has lurked in the souls of Egyptians throughout the ages
The story of Sinuhe, the Egyptian who left Egypt without setting a purpose for his flight or choosing a destination, is one of the finest works in ancient Egyptian literature. This story, recounted in several papyri and displayed in museums around the world, is regarded by Egyptologists as the first account in Egypt of the desolation of living in a strange land and the first known biography. It recounts Sinuhe’s departure from Egypt and his life in a strange land then, many years later, his yearning to return home, die in his homeland and be given a decent burial in its soil.
The story of Sinuhe held an important place in ancient Egyptian literature. Ancient Egyptians were so keen on it that they recounted it orally and engraved it on the walls of tombs to entertain the deceased in the afterlife. It was taught in ancient Egypt for at least 800 years; scribe students used to copy segments of it as training for calligraphy. The story of Sinuhe was also considered one of the masterpieces of literature by great writers such as Rudyard Kipling and by Egyptologists such as Sir Alan Gardiner. It was transmitted to Western literature among other literary texts from ancient Egypt and is one of the rare ancient works that has survived to modern times (James H. Breasted, History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, 1905, translated by Hassan Kamal, Family Library 1999, p 199)
The story of Sinuhe begins in the wake of the death of King Amenemhat I (1991BC – 1962BC), founder of the Twelfth Dynasty. His son, Senusert was then with his army fighting the Tehenu (Libyans) in the north. Sinuhe, one of his generals, overhears a conversation between Senusert’s brothers that fills him with fear. The content of this conversation is unknown: some Egyptologists suggest that they were conspiring against the new king. Sinuhe’s fear is so great that he decides to flee to a foreign land.
Longing for home
Years of wandering take Sinuhe to the land of Retenu, somewhere between present-day northern Palestine and southern Syria. The king of Retenu welcomes him with open arms, appoints him head of his army and marries him to his eldest daughter. Sinuhe fights for Retenu against its fiercest enemies and becomes the king’s most trusted companion. Yet despite his comfortable and prosperous life, he is tormented with a fervent yearning to return home. His feelings pour out in a moving supplication:
“Whichever god ordained this flight
Be at peace, give me back to the Residence
Have mercy on me and let me see the place where my heart resides
See how great it is to wrap my corpse in the land in which I was born”
He sends a plea to King Senusert I asking for his permission to return. Senusert, however, does not understand why Sinuhe went into voluntary exile.
“What was it you had done, or had been done to you?
You did not say wrong that your words be punished
You did not speak in the council of officials that your statements be bound
This matter, it carried off your heart — there was nothing in my heart against you”
The king understands Sinuhe’s longing for home; he not only allows him to come back but also sends a ship to bring him home and reappoint him to a position at the palace:
“Prepare your return to Egypt,
That you may see the Residence where you were born
That you may kiss the ground at the Great Double Gate, and join the courtiers…
You will not die upon the hill-land, the Asiatics will not inter you
You are not to be placed in a sheepskin as your enclosure is made
It is too long for wandering the land, think of the corpse and return.”
Senusert rewards Sinuhe with riches for the years he spent in loyal service to his late father Amenemhat I, and promises to give him a lavish funeral when the time comes. Sinuhe receives the king’s letter and is very moved and grateful by his generosity:
“I placed myself on my belly
I touched the ground
And put it strewn over my chest
I went around my camp shouting aloud
How is this done for a servant whose heart led him astray to foreign lands
This is utter good, the mercy that rescues me from death
Your spirit will let me spend the end of my bodily days in the Residence” When Sinuhe returns to Egypt he is greeted by the king himself, who instructs his courtiers:
“He shall not fear, nor be given over to terror
He is to be a courtier among the officials,
He may be placed in the midst of the court”
Sinuhe is finally relieved and thanks the Pharaoh for his generosity:
“Years were made to fall from my body…
I was given the house of a lord of an estate, as a gift from a courtier…
My image was adorned with gold, its kilt in electrum,
It is His Majesty who had it done.
No poor mortal ever received such treatment
I am in the favour of the king
Until the coming of the day to moor.”
Egyptologist Claire Lalouette, who translated the story of Sinuhe, had many questions regarding the reason for Sinuhe’s flight. He was a courtier who lived in the palace and attended the royal princesses. This explains the jubilation of the king and his entourage at Sinuhe’s return.
But was Sinuhe a real or fictional character? Lalouette wondered. What made him force himself into voluntary exile? Was it a sudden fear? Had he overheard information about a conspiracy, the disclosure of which would put his life in danger? All this makes little sense because the ascent of Senusert to the throne would have eliminated any danger, Lalouette says. Some believe that he might have been a secret envoy to the Asians, especially that during this era Egypt was constantly threatened by foreign invaders. Is it possible that Sinuhe was sent on purpose to tighten the bonds with the leaders of the desert and the Phoenician cities, and investigate their loyalty to the king of Egypt? His status as a fugitive or political refugee (in the modern sense of the word) would make him easily test their political stance. In fact, in his letter to the king he mentions that some of the Asian princes are loyal and can be trusted. Is it possible that this entire tale was a cover for a secret political context?
The all-powerful shows kindness
The story also provides important information about how Egyptians viewed their king and lays the foundation for a new royal system in which a human dimension is added to the image of the king. The Egyptian king has always been the symbol of sovereignty and power, but here he also longs for wisdom and knowledge and knows how to show kindness and mercy. The text of Sinuhe, Lalouette says, is written in a beautiful classical style and is a reflection of the old and new literary traditions. Sinuhe’s hymns to the king appear in poetic form, a literary genre that emerged at that time and subsequently developed. The story also discusses general themes such as the supremacy of the intelligent and skilled man who does not brag about his power, a subject discussed in human writings since the dawn of time. This all marks the story of Sinuhe as the high point of ancient Egyptian literature.
Death as new birth
For her part, Egyptology researcher Mervat Abdel-Nasser considers the story of Sinuhe a poem consisting of a mixture of dreams and half-truths. She asks: If he found a safe and prosperous haven elsewhere, why did he long so much to return to Egypt? What does his return really mean? What exactly is this mysterious relationship between man and place? Is there a peculiar connection between the locations of birth and death?
Why, in the first place, did Sinuhe leave home? Could it be a persistent urge to venture into the unknown? Is it possible that Sinuhe’s flight from his homeland is a voyage of self-discovery and self-fulfilment?
This interpretation makes Sinuhe’s dilemma an existential one. Exile could be a place where Sinuhe (the human being) seeks to achieve the harmony that the mind establishes over the earthly chaos resulting from the absence of an ultimate authority. The human soul then attempts to reestablish the order of existence. It is worth noting that the story begins in the grave where Sinuhe is in a state of “imaginary death” that confirms the relation between death and beginnings. Death is buried in the beginning; in other words, death is considered a birth certificate. Sinuhe speaks as if his soul is waiting for a better birth, as if the grave is the womb of pardon and forgiveness; he willingly enters into a grave in order to find the true meaning of his previous life. Burying oneself is like wandering in the afterlife; Sinuhe takes us on a journey that resembles Dante’s trip in his Divine Comedy where the soul suffers in the beginning and burns with desire, ambition and earthly struggles in the ‘Inferno’. The soul is gradually elevated until it reaches the stage of perfection in the paradise of pure souls, ‘Paradiso’.
Conflict of identity
In the poem the word Asian is used repeatedly to symbolise danger, exile and alienation. Sinuhe’s real conflict is therefore one of identity in which he tries to confirm his ‘Egyptianness’; he even goes on to use the term “land of joy” as an allusion for Egypt and tries to Egyptianise the exile in his dreams. He describes a conflict between the greenery and the desert, the rural and the urban, between living in one’s stable and secure homeland and living in the vast arid desert full on shifting sand. Sinuhe therefore sees himself as a runaway bull:
“Well, I am like a bull of the strikers amid another herd of cattle
The bull of the herd smites him, the horned bull assails him
Does a lowly man become loved when fate makes him a master?
Whichever god ordained this flight
Be at peace, give me back to the Residence
Have mercy on me and let me see the place where my heart resides…
May I follow the Lady of All that she may tell me what is good for her children
May she draw eternity over me.”
The poem ends with a new birth, Sinuhe’s symbolic rebirth that also gives him a new name, Son of the North Wind, which refers to his exile but nevertheless confirms his ‘Egyptianness’.
Was Sinuhe’s story real or symbolic? Was it psychological or mental? This controversy has led to many literary interpretations of the story of Sinuhe. Among these is the adaptation Awdat Sinuhe (The Return of Sinuhe) by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. However, the most renowned adaptation is The Egyptian by Finnish writer Mika Waltari. The novel was written in 1945, was translated into several languages and was adapted into a Hollywood film with the same name in 1954.
11 February 2015