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The Story of Sinuhe

The Story of Sinuhe

"The Story of Sinuhe" is considered one of the finest works of Ancient Egyptian literature. It is a narrative set in the aftermath of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th dynasty of Egypt, in the early 20th century BC. It is likely that it was composed only shortly after this date, albeit the earliest extant manuscript is from the reign of Amenemhat III, ca. 1800 BC. There is an ongoing debate among Egyptologists as to whether or not the tale is based on actual events involving an individual named Sinuhe, with the consensus being that it is most likely a work of fiction. Due to the universal nature of the themes explored in "Sinuhe", including divine providence and mercy, its anonymous author has been described as the "Egyptian Shakespeare" whose ideas have parallels in biblical texts. "Sinuhe" is considered to be a work written in verse and it may also have been performed. The great popularity of the work is witnessed by the numerous surviving fragments.

Synopsis

Ostracon sinuhe

Ostracon from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el Medina. Inscribed with the Story of Sinuhe.

Sinuhe is an official who accompanies prince Senwosret I to Libya. He overhears a conversation connected with the death of King Amenemhet  as a result flees to Upper Retjenu (Canaan), leaving Egypt behind. He becomes the son-in-law of Chief Ammunenshi and in time his sons grow to become chiefs in their own right. Sinuhe fights rebellious tribes on behalf of Ammunenshi. As an old man, in the aftermath of defeating a powerful opponent in single combat, he prays for a return to his homeland: "May god pity me..may he hearken to the prayer of one far away!..may the King have mercy on me..may I be conducted to the city of eternity!". He then receives an invitation from King Senwosret I of Egypt to return, which he accepts in highly moving terms. Living out the rest of his life in royal favour he is finally laid to rest in the necropolis in a beautiful tomb.

Interpretations

The story of Sinuhe has spawned a great deal of literature which explores the themes contained in the work from many
Sycamore

Thutmose III suckled by the Sycamore Goddess (Isis)

perspectives. The scope and variety of this material has been likened to the analysis of Hamlet and other notable works of literature. Scholars debate the reason why Sinuhe flees Egypt, with the majority seeing a panic response to a perceived fear. The tale is full of symbolic allusions. Sinuhe's name (“Son of the Sycamore”) is seen as providing an important link in understanding the story. The sycamore is an ancient Egyptian Tree of Life, associated with Hathor, (the Goddess of fertility, rebirth and patroness of foreign countries), who features throughout the work. 

Sinuhe comes under the protective orbit of divine powers, in the form of the King, from whom he first tries to run away, and that of the Queen, a manifestation of Hathor. On fleeing Egypt, Sinuhe crosses a waterway associated with the Goddess Maat, the Ancient Egyptian principle of truth, order and justice, in the vicinity of a sycamore tree.  The Ancient Egyptians believed in free-will, implicit in the code of Maat, but this still allowed divine grace to work in and through the individual, and an overarching divine providence is seen in Sinuhe's flight and return to his homeland. Unable to escape the orbit of God's power and mercy, Sinuhe exclaims: “Whether I am in the Residence, or whether I am in this place, it is you who cover this horizon”.  Parallels have been made with the biblical narrative of Joseph. In what is seen as divine providence, the Syro-Canaanite Joseph is taken to Egypt where he becomes part of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Syro-Canaanite family. In what as seen as divine providence, Sinuhe the Egyptian flees to Syro-Canaan and 

Sinuhe papyrus

The Sinuhe Papyrus

becomes a member of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Egyptian family. Parallels have also been drawn with other biblical texts: Sinuhe's frustrated flight from the orbit of god's power (King) is likened to the Hebrew prophet Jonah's similar attempt, his fight with a mighty challenger, whom he slays with a single blow, is compared to the battle between David and Goliath and his return home likened to the parable of the Prodigal Son.

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