The literature of the Middle Kingdom – Story of Sinuhe

September 7, 2019by admin2

The literature of the Middle Kingdom – Story of Sinuhe

The most important and complete literary work of all ancient Egyptian literature, and the middle kingdom “The story of Sinuhe”.

As I was able to write in previous articles, with the Middle Kingdom, and in particular with the 12th dynasty, Egypt experienced a remarkable cultural renaissance.

In architecture, as in art in general, we are witnessing the emergence of new executive conceptions, a new harmony in construction while the statuary has a delicacy in its features that denotes an extraordinary artistic maturation.

Among the most important architectural works of the Middle Kingdom we remember the pyramids of Sesostri II and of Amenemhet III, the statuary no longer represented the pharaoh as a solemn and impassive being but showed, in the features of the face, a more human and less divine image than a ruler who takes care of the welfare of his people.

Literature underwent considerable development as a means of promotion towards a more humane and generous pharaoh, leader of the people, no longer as an inaccessible god.

The sovereign was no longer considered to be the only one to have access to eternal life, a prerogative that was now extended even to socially lower levels.

In addition to the texts that have reached us in the numerous papyruses, the lamentations, the teachings, and other sapiential papyruses, the most important and complete literary work of all ancient Egyptian literature, “The story of Sinuhe“, has survived.

The story of Sinuhe

The work fits perfectly into the chronology of my articles as it develops in the 12th dynasty between the reigns of Amenemhet I and his son Sesostri I.

It is an autobiographical work where the author demonstrates an authentic interest in subtleties and a mastery of language which, while remaining in lyricism, does not disdain some digressions of picturesque humor.

The scribe expresses himself by alternating and varying syntactic constructions and coining new and sought-after expressions, such as: “giving way to the feet” instead of the trivial “going”.

The story had to be met with enormous success and its diffusion is demonstrated by the fact that it was repeatedly copied by the other scribes so much that it came to us on numerous papyrus and Ostraca in Hieratic writing.

The best-preserved papyrus is the “Berlin Papyrus 3.022” which consists of 311 lines but unfortunately is missing the initial part. This gap is replaced by the “Papyrus of Berlin 10.499”, dating back to the end of the Middle Kingdom containing 203 lines including the entire beginning.

The story had become so popular that it was used in the schools for the training of the scribes who used them for their exercises on ostraca and who came to us in large quantities.

The most famous is the Ostraca that today is found at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which contains 130 lines. This latter version has a much lower philological value since it was written much later than that in which the original work was composed, it dates back to the XIX dynasty of the New Kingdom.

The story of Sinuhe was defined by the English writer Rudyard Kipling as one of the greatest works of universal literature and, certainly, although not very vast, it is certainly the work of Egyptian literature, non-religious, more elaborate and presenting nuances more numerous.

This masterpiece transcends the other numerous literary texts of this type found in the tombs of Ancient Egypt. The protagonist looks like any real human being, with his fears, his weaknesses and uncertainties and not as a mythological warrior hero.

The literary elaboration of the entire story, confirmed and expanded by in-depth research, seems to show that the text is written in verse and not in prose, as such, rightly, was already considered by the ancient Egyptians as classic par excellence of their literature.

Sinuhe – The son of the sycamore

The name of Sinuhe was elaborated by modern philologists drawing it from a hieroglyphic meaning “The son of the sycamore“, or “The son of Hator“. The hieroglyph is composed of the representation of a goose preceding the sign of the tree of the goddess Hator to which is added the determinative sign that indicates that it refers to a man.

Sinuhe literature Middle Kingdom

The story ( literature Middle Kingdom )

ٍٍٍSinuhe begins the story with her presentation: << I was a companion who followed her lord, a servant of the royal harem and of the hereditary princess, the great favorite, the royal bride of Sesostris in the city of Khnumsut, the daughter of Amenemhat in city ​​of Qaneferu, Neferu, lady of benefit.

The year of reign XXX, in the third month of the season of the flood, on day seven, the god (the king) ascended to his horizon (he died) …… >>.

Suddenly the news arrives that King Amenemhat was murdered, << …… the King of Upper and Lower Egypt was raised to heaven and united with the solar disk ……. the divine body was absorbed in the one who had created him …… >>.

The entire residence is silent, the courtiers are desperate and the people are complaining. Sesostri had been sent by his father Amenemhat with an army to fight << …… foreign countries and punish those who were among the Tehenu ……. >>.

The news of the conspiracy reached Sesostris while he was returning with Libyan prisoners and a huge booty, without delay << …… the hawk flew ….. >> while still, the army knew nothing.

In the throes of fear, uncertainty, or at the mercy of an unexplained motivation, Sinhue fears for his life, fears that the plot in which the pharaoh was killed may lead to a civil war and above all he is terrified of being involved.

He decides to flee far towards Syria, crosses Lake Maaty and reaches the island of Snofru, the day after he reaches the city of Bove.

With a raft without a rudder he passes beyond the Lady of the Red Mountain and from here <<… .. said road to my feet towards the north …….. >>, he arrived up to the “Walls of the Prince”, (fortifications for keep the Asians away), and here he huddled in a bush until night. After walking all night << …….. when he whitened the earth I reached Peten ……. >>.

With his throat parched by thirst, he thought << …… this is the taste of death ……. >>, but he was heartened when he heard the “voice of the bellow of the herds” and he saw some Asians.

The tribal leader who had been in Egypt recognized him and fed him with water and cooked milk and treated him with great friendship << …….. it was beautiful what they did for me, the country gave me country .… …. >>.

Leaving the Asians, he resumed his journey until he reached Biblo and reached Qedem where he was welcomed by Amu-Nenesei, Prince of Retenu who reassured him after recognizing him from what was reported by the Egyptians who were there, << ….. and I passed there a year and a half …… >>.

Sinhue tells the prince about the vicissitudes that have taken him so far from his country, the fear of what would have happened, after learning of the murder of Pharaoh Amenemhet, while admitting that against him in Egypt there was nothing that had been reproached to him , he did not know why he had gone there, perhaps << ……. it was the advice of a god, like when a man of the Delta is seen in Elefantina, a man of the swamp in Nubia ……. . >>.

The prince of Retenu, stunned wondered how Egypt would have done now without that perfect god, (the pharaoh), << …….. whose fear was in foreign countries like (that of) Sekhmet in a year of pestilence ……. >>.

Sinhue says that his son Sesostri, who will succeed his father, will punish the guilty conspiracy and will firmly take the reins of the village.

He will be the new god << …….. he is a god, indeed, of whom there is no equal …… he is a lord of wisdom ……. he will protect us now that he has entered the palace and obtained the legacy of his father …… >>.

And here the scribe dwells in praising the new pharaoh, enhancing his qualities in battle << ……. there is no shelter for those who turn his back ……. his joy it is to make the barbarians prisoners ……. >>, praising his courage and his strength.

As always happens in history even our scribe spends his time in praise and adulation towards the reigning sovereign who is not only a warrior << …… but he is (also) a lord of love ….. … his city loves him more than his god …… >>.

Sinhue advises the Prince of Retenu to visit the new pharaoh << ……. go and find him, let him know your name ……. he will not fail to do good to a country that will be loyal to of him ……. >>.

Then the Prince of Retenu is pleased and invites Sinhue to stay with him where he will find a new home in peace and tranquility.

Sinhue is treated with honors << ……. put me ahead of his children and married me to his eldest daughter …… >>.

He was made to choose a rich estate, << …… Iaa is his name ….. >> were all sorts of delicacies abounded, << ……. there were figs, and grapes, abundant oil and honey and there was more wine than water ……. >>, and where there was a large number of livestock of all kinds.

He is assigned a tribe, one of the most chosen in his country to which he is put in charge. Many years passed and his sons grew strong each at the head of a tribe.

When the Bedouins of the desert rebelled, Sinuhe gave advice on how to conduct the war then Prince Amu-Nenesei put him at the head of the army and Sinuhe marched << …….. in the battle against the Bedouins of the desert … … >>.

Obviously the treatment reserved for him and the honors won in battle fueled the envy, << …… a Retenu fort came and challenged me in my tent ……. intended to fight with me and take me away from my cattle …… >>.

Sinhue confides in the prince wondering what he could want to whom he had never done anything, << ……. he is envy because he sees me carrying out your orders? ……. Is there perhaps a man of humble birth who is loved once he has become a leader? …… >>.

The literature of the Middle Kingdom

After having spent the night preparing his weapons, finally came the morning and with it his challenger with all his people.

Sinhue lets his opponent shoot his arrows and his javelins, dodging them all, and when the other launches himself at him he pierces him with an arrow in his neck and then finish him with his own ax, << …. … thanks to Montu while his people complained over him …… >>, then he destroys his camp and takes possession of his possessions.

Now the scribe describes the state of mind of Sinhue who, after all these years, feels, more than ever, the nostalgia for his country, now that he has everything he could wish for, his thought flies far, towards Egypt which he left.

<< …….. there was a (man) fled to another country: today my heart is joyful ……. a fugitive had fled in his time, now he refers to me to Residence …… >>, he knows that in Egypt they talk about him at the court of Sesostri. Dust off what was and what is today, << …… a vagabond wandered in hunger, now I give bread to my neighbor. A man left his country naked, now I shine in linen clothes. A man ran to have no one to send, now I am full of servants ……… >>.

He appreciates everything he has now, his house is beautiful and wide, and his seat is remembered at Pharaoh’s palace, but his heart cries and begs his god to return him to Egypt. << …….. O God, whoever you are, that you predestined this escape, be merciful! ……… >>.

Great is the desire to return, where will his body be buried? In a foreign country? He prays to his god, Sinhue, implores him to listen to the prayers of the one who is exiled today, << …….. his heart is moved by the one you had banished to live in a foreign country …. … >>.

Old age presses on and weakness has arisen << …….. my eyes are heavy, my arms weak, my legs refuse to serve, my heart is tired ……… >>.

Sinhue’s lamentations reach as far as Pharaoh Sesostris, to whom he is referred about his condition.

His Majesty of Upper and Lower Egypt Kheperkara, (justified), immediately sends gifts as to a king of foreign lands and even the sons of the sovereign make their messages heard. Pharaoh’s message is a question to Sinhue, << ……… what was it that you had done so that you had to act against you? …… >>.

Here the scribe reports the text of the order that the pharaoh Sesostris sends to Sinhue, << ……… the Horo that lives from birth, … ….. the king of Upper and Lower Egypt , Kheperkara, the son of Ra, Sesostris, may he live eternally and forever ……… this king’s order is brought to you to make you aware ……. Go back to Egypt, which you review the Residence where you grew up, that you kiss your land …….. >>.

The sovereign promises Sinhue that a tomb will be reserved for him, that he will proceed with embalming with oils and << ……… bandages (made) with Tait’s hands ……..> >.

His body will be buried in a sarcophagus, (anthropoid), golden with the head of lapis lazuli, a great procession will be made and his sarcophagus will be pulled by oxen and preceded by musicians and his tomb will be erected among those of the children of the king.

Sinhue must not die out of Egypt << ……… you will not die in a foreign country, the Asians will not take you, you will not be placed in a sheepskin, you will not be made a mound …. ….. >>.

As soon as the Sinhue message was read to him, he was incredulous that his sovereign and god could do something similar to his servant whose heart was led astray to the barbarian countries.

He responds to Sesostris’ message by invoking all the possible gods of Egypt to give life and strength to the sovereign and grant him eternal boundlessness. Now the scribe takes up a litany of praises to the sovereign who has had so much clemency, towards which Sinhue finds a thousand explanations for what he did, << ………. I don’t know what made me leave (the my) place, it was like a dream state ………. I was not afraid, I had not been persecuted ………. my limbs trembled, my legs started to run away and my heart to guide me ……… >>. Sinuhe stops one more day in the village of Iaa to pass all his possessions to his children, leaving the leadership of his tribe in the hands of the major.

The next day he left towards the south, stopping at the Streets of Horus, the officer of the watch sent a messenger to the king to inform him of the return of Sinuhe. Sesostri immediately sent a << ……… excellent inspector of peasants of the royal domain ……. >>, he brought with his ships laden with gifts from the sovereign for the Bedouins who had accompanied him since there.

After leaving the Sinuhe Bedouins, he set sail with full sail, during the journey each servant did his job, << ……… he stepped on and filtered (beer) in front of me until I reached the city of Itu .. ……. when the earth turned white, very early ……. >> ten men came and took him to the palace. Sinuhe, bent, with his forehead on the ground he crossed the avenue of sphinxes while the king’s sons waited for him at the entrance.

The courtiers led him into private rooms where the sovereign received personalities.

Sinuhe spreads her belly to the ground while in front of him, << ……. I found Her Majesty on a throne all gold. I was lying on my stomach and lost consciousness in front of him although this god greeted me affably …… but I was like a man caught in the twilight: my soul was missing, my body was shaking, my heart was no longer in my chest that I could distinguish life from death …… >>.

Sesostris orders the courtiers present to lift him << ……. raise him, that he can talk to me ……. then Sesostri turns to him << ……. behold, you have come. You have trodden foreign countries. Old age has fallen on you, you have reached old age. Don’t be silent anymore. You don’t speak when your name is pronounced! …… >>.

Sinuhe, always prey to the fear of being punished, responds with the “response of someone who is afraid”: << …… what does my Lord tell me? I would like to answer, but there is nothing I can do. Truly it is the hand of God, the fear is in my body like the one that caused the predestined escape …… >>.

The king’s sons and the queen were brought in, the sovereign turned to the royal bride: << ……. See, Sinuhe returned as an Asian born among the Bedouins ……. she launched a great cry and the King’s sons threw exclamations all together. They said to his Majesty: “He is not really my sovereign or my Lord!” But his Majesty said: “He really is!” ……… >>.

This is followed by the usual ceremonious listing of the king’s titles with the invocation of the “Golden” (Hathor) so that << ……. the current descends from the crown of the South and the current goes up the crown of the North, uniting and meeting according to the saying of Your Majesty ……… >>.

Exhausted the explanations Sinuhe is then led to the local ablutions to be prepared, he is taken to the apartment of one of the king’s sons where there was << ……. a cool room and images on the horizon … … >>.

For him, robes of royal linen, myrrh and fine oil of the king are prepared. All the servants are next to him, << …….. the years were erased from my body ……… they left to the desert the clothes of “those who run on the sand” .. …… >>.

Sesostri gives him a house with a garden that previously belonged to a courtier, the house is restored and many workers are used to renovating

it, the garden is enriched with new trees. The pharaoh ordered that a stone pyramid be built in the middle of the other real pyramids, he had him set up << ……. all the funerary furniture that is used to put inside the tomb …….> >.

Such was the affection that the pharaoh felt for Sinuhe that he ordered that a statue be carved for him and then covered with gold. Here the story closes << …….. There is not a little man for whom the same has been done. I remained under the king’s favor until the day of the passing came. It came (to completion) from beginning to end, as it was found in writing ……. >>.

The real-time of the story

For those who had read the novel “Sinuhe the Egyptian“, by Mika Waltari, written in 1950, I would like to point out that this is a definite novel of Phantasia science, despite the author’s acknowledgment of a brilliant imagination and a precise historical knowledge with which revives the fantastic world of the pharaohs.

It should be noted, however, that the novel, like the film that was made in 1954, masterfully played by talented actors, was set at the time of the pharaoh Akhenaton of the XVIII dynasty, (about 1330 BC).

The original story is placed at the time of the pharaohs Amenemhat I and Sesostri I of the 12th dynasty, (circa 1950 BC), six centuries earlier.


By : Piero Cargnino

Fonti e bibliografia:

Alan Gardiner, “La civiltà egizia”, Oxford University Press 1961, Einaudi, Torino 1997
Sergio Donadoni, “Storia della letteratura egiziana antica”, Milano, Nuova Accademia, 1957
Naguib Mahfouz, “Il ritorno di Sinuhe”, (tradotto da Robert Stock), Random House, 2003)
Le foto sono simboliche e tratte dal Web


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