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Story of Sinuhe - IMPORTANCE., CONTEXT., THE STORY., TRANSFORMATION., THE GOODNESS OF THE KING., SINUHE:A MAN WHO CHANGED

sinuhe’s egypt life senwosret

The Story of Sinuhe survives in many manuscripts, suggesting that the Egyptians considered it among their most important literary works. The oldest manuscripts date to the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 B.C.E. ), also the time of the story’s setting. There are also more than twenty New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E. ) copies and even a Late Period copy (664–332 B.C.E. ). This large number of copies surviving in all major periods is due to the fact that scribe schools required scribes to copy this text as part of scribal training. Yet, the fact that so many scribes worked on copying Sinuhe suggests that it was also studied in all time periods. It is thus a work of literature that connected the Egyptian literate class for 2,000 years. The text also includes variations on many literary genres. Overall, it is structured to resemble an autobiography and is narrated in the first person. Unlike a tomb autobiography, however, Sinuhe’s life goes astray rather than meeting the ideal as in the standard biography. It also includes songs, monologues, and even a letter.

CONTEXT.

Though Sinuhe was an important point of reference for all literate Egyptians, it also provides an important window into the Twelfth Dynasty, the time when it was written. The story deals briefly with the assassination of King Amenemhet I (1938–1909 B.C.E. ) and the accession of his son King Senwosret I who had co-ruled with him since 1919 B.C.E. The story emphasizes Senwosret’s mercy to Sinuhe. This has led scholars to believe that the story provided propagandistic support for this king. The story also reveals Egyptian attitudes toward foreigners in the period directly preceding an actual foreign domination of Egypt by the Hyksos. Thus it has great importance for helping scholars understand Egyptian attitudes toward foreigners before the Hyksos. More recent study has emphasized the high literary quality found in the text. All of these elements combine to make Sinuhe important both in its own time and to scholars today.

THE STORY.

The Story of Sinuhe narrates the adventures of a nobleman who served Queen Neferu, daughter of Amenemhet I (1938–1909 B.C.E. ) and wife of Senwosret I (1919–1875 B.C.E. ). When the story opens, Sinuhe is on a military campaign in Libya with Senwosret I, son of the reigning king Amenemhet I. The news of Amenemhet I’s assassination reaches the army and Sinuhe panics, fearing that Egypt will fall into turmoil. He is particularly worried that his close connections to the royal family will jeopardize his own life should Senwosret I be denied his legitimate claim to the throne. He decides to flee Egypt, traveling across Egypt’s eastern border into the lands beyond. In his haste to leave, however, he does not pack sufficient provisions and nearly dies of thirst in the desert. A bedouin chief rescues him, and Sinuhe is able to reach the town of Byblos in modern Lebanon, eventually settling in Upper Retenu in modern Syria. There he meets a local ruler named Amunenshi, who gives him his daughter in marriage and land in a place called Yaa. Sinuhe prospers in Yaa, has children, and successfully leads Amunenshi’s army against other tribes. Near the end of his life, however, he decides he wants to return to Egypt for burial. He sends a letter to the king, and the benevolent Senwosret I welcomes him back to Egypt with full honors despite his cowardly flight years before. Senwosret I arranges for Sinuhe’s burial in Egypt, and the final verses describe Sinuhe’s tomb and his final contented days in Egypt waiting for death.

TRANSFORMATION.

John L. Foster, the American Egyptologist, analyzed Sinuhe’s personal development from his loss of status when he fled from Egypt to his eventual restoration to his rightful place in Egyptian society. Foster demonstrated that the real interest of the story for modern readers is in Sinuhe’s personal development. It is one suggestion that perhaps helps modern readers understand the story’s appeal to ancient readers. At the start of the story Sinuhe is a coward who deserts his king out of fear of losing his own life. His action nearly costs him his life, but he is rescued by a bedouin chief, a man whom Sinuhe would never have recognized as an equal earlier in his life. When Sinuhe meets Amunenshi, he feigns ignorance of his reasons for leaving Egypt, claiming that it was the act of a god. The real turning point in Sinuhe’s life comes when an unnamed “hero” challenges him to single combat. Though Sinuhe is smaller, he successfully overcomes the hero through physical courage. This scene witnesses Sinuhe’s transformation from the coward who abandoned Senwosret to an effective agent himself. Sinuhe recognizes the change himself in the poem he recites after his victory over the hero. In the poem, Sinuhe remembers the story of his life and contrasts his cowardly escape from Egypt with his current situation as a conqueror. With his transformation from cowardly nobleman to victorious hero now complete, Sinuhe is ready to return to his homeland.

THE GOODNESS OF THE KING.

Senwosret’s response to Sinuhe’s request to return to Egypt indicates that this story served a political purpose. The king readily forgives Sinuhe for his disloyalty and welcomes him with open arms, restoring him completely to his former status. Most commentators have seen the king’s forgiveness of Sinuhe as the central purpose of the story. As propaganda, the story established Senwosret’s goodness and loyalty to those who remained loyal to him. But Foster’s analysis, which stresses Sinuhe’s development, demonstrates that this epic was also a close look at individual psychology. The story depicts Sinuhe’s development, starting with his removal from his own society to full restoration as a nobleman. Sinuhe moves from disgrace, to renewal, to forgiveness. In the course of this development he also passes from ignorance of his own motives to self-awareness and acknowledgement of his own responsibilities. Not only does he learn to take responsibility for his actions but he also ponders man’s proper relationship to the temporal powers of the world.

 

SINUHE:A MAN WHO CHANGED

INTRODUCTION : The Story of Sinuhe begins with an act of cowardice when the protagonist flees the scene upon learning of the death of King Amenemhet. Sinuhe’s situation changes when he summons the courage to fight a local hero in his new home in the East. The following extract is the poem he recites after his victory in which he recognizes the changes that he has experienced.

A fugitive flees from his neighborhood,
But my fame will be in the Residence [i.e., Senwosret’s palace].
One who should guard creeps off in hunger, But I, I give bread to my neighbor;
A man leaves his own land in nakedness, I am one bright in fine linen;
A man runs (himself) for lack of his messenger, I am one rich in servants.
Good is my home, and wide my domain, [But] what I remember is in the palace.

SOURCE : John L. Foster, Thought Couplets in “The Tale of Sinuhe” (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1993): 50–51.

SOURCES

John L. Foster, Thought Couplets in the Tale of Sinuhe (Frankfurt am Main & New York: Peter Lang, 1993).

Alan Gardiner, Notes on the Story of Sinuhe (Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1916).

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