The Tale of Sinuhe is set at the time of the death of king Amenemhat I (Sehotepibre), 1908BC, but written about 100 years later, and was popular in ancient Egypt for at least 750 years. It bears comparison with other ancient near East literature such as the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis in the bible. The royal courtier, Sinuhe, is on expedition in Libya to the west, when he hears of his king's untimely demise. He panics and runs for his life, only too aware that he could also be crushed in the manoeuvres of the power politics to come. He flees north to the region of Lebanon and southern Syria to live with the 'Sand-farers'. It is a great culture shock and a come-down for a man of his standing, used to good living in the most sophisticated society of that time.
But he flourishes; being an educated Egyptian stands him in good stead. He is co-opted into the family of a sheik of good standing. He raises a family, grows rich, fights like a hero, and establishes himself securely in that land. Yet he longs for home. He has success - riches, power, prestige - all of these. Up to this, the halfway point, the story is retrospective and in the past tense. The drama increases as he moves in the present tense. His heart is in Egypt, he waxes lyrical in praise of his homeland: 'No barbarian can ever ally with a Delta man; what can establish the papyrus on the mountain?' Why did he run away? Will the current king take him back? His heart's desire is that he die in Egypt and be buried there. The king graciously grants this wish, restoring him (with decorous if patronising humour) to favour in Egypt.
Structurally the story bears some similarity to Hemingway's 'Old Man and the Sea', which is concise and compact, and has a male hero around whom the story is built. Hemingway's structure is home-on-land/sea adventure/home-on-land. Sinuhe's narrative is home-in-Egypt/barbarian lands adventures/home-in-Egypt. I am not wishing to push the analogy, but the natural psychological shape of the story, and the type of adventure it carries are clearly as deeply appealing to the ancient storyteller and his audience as the modern man nearly four thousand years on. Of course Hemingway is telling a story of the common man for the common man, whereas the anonymous Egyptian makes Sinuhe tell his story to the royal court - a loyal Egyptian courtier comes home.
R. B. Parkinson is Assistant Keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, specialising in hieratic papyri and epigraphy. His 1995 translation and notes are excellent.
The review of this Book prepared by Michael JR Jose