Skip to content

In Our Time: The Tale of Sinuhe

  • by

On Sunday we listened to the most recent In Our Time episode – jumping ahead from where we’re caught up to because the subject of this weeks one was something J had been looking forward to hearing. The programme was about one of the surviving pieces of Middle Kingdom literature, called The Tale of Sinuhe. The three experts discussing it were Richard Parkinson (University of Oxford), Roland Enmarch (University of Liverpool) and Aidan Dodson (University of Bristol).

They started off by putting it into historical context. The oldest version of The Tale of Sinuhe that’s been found was written around 1800BC (and was discovered approximately 4000 years later). This is during the Middle Kingdom era of Egyptian history, and the story is set about a hundred years earlier, still within the Middle Kingdom, near the start of the 12th Dynasty. The Middle Kingdom is the second period of stability in Egypt (the first was the Old Kingdom, which is the era of the pyramid builders). At the end of the Old Kingdom the country fragmented and there was no strong central authority. The Middle Kingdom starts with the reunification of Egypt under the late 11th Dynasty Pharaohs, Dodson said that this can be thought of as Egypt’s feudal period. Although there was once again a strong central government the various provinces had more power than previously and there was some degree of local government. Amenemhat I was the first Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty (perhaps taking the throne by force) and the Tale of Sinuhe starts at the end of his reign and the start of his son Senusret I’s reign.

Enmarch gave us an overview of the plot of the poem. It opens with Sinuhe as an official in the employ of Senusret and they are away from the palace when Senusret is informed of his father’s death. Senusret immediately leaves to return to the palace, without informing the rest of the group – Sinuhe only finds out the news when he accidentally overhears one of Amenemhat’s other children being informed. Sinuhe is immediately overtaken by fear, and flees – first across Egypt, then into the desert across to the Arabian peninsula. He almost dies in the desert (through his lack of preparedness & running out of water) but is rescued by Bedouin nomads. He eventually finds his way across the desert to the court of a Chieftan in Canaan, where he becomes an important official. He marries, he gains wealth and power, and is put in charge of defense of a border town of his new lord’s lands. The central sequence of the story is a duel between himself and a foreigner, which he wins. But in that very moment of victory he realises that it’s all meaningless because he’s not in Egypt where he belongs. He petitions to return to Egypt, and there he is welcomed by Senusret and forgiven for his flight. In due course he dies and is buried with all the proper rites (an important part of his reasons for wanting to return home).

Whilst this is one of the earliest pieces of Egyptian literature that we know of, it displays a level of sophistication that implies it isn’t one of the first attempts at this sort of thing. What does change in the Middle Kingdom is an expansion of the uses to which writing is put – no longer just for formal funerary texts and official purposes it is also used for literature and more mundane things. Probably before this poetry and story telling existed as spoken art forms, just not written ones. This era of Egyptian history was thought of by later Egyptians as a golden age – and the literature of the era was held up as classics to be studied and enjoyed centuries later (a bit like the way we regard Shakespeare today).

The poem is about 600 lines long, and it is apparently in very dense language which is rich in meaning and references. It also encompasses several styles of Egyptian writing – for instance there are formal letters between Sinuhe and Senusret when he’s petitioning to return home, as well as action sequences like the duel. And the whole thing is framed as being one of those autobiographical texts you find on officials’ tomb walls – the ones that tell you what a glittering career he had, and how he did everything that a good man should do. But this framing is subverted as it’s at first the story of a career gone awry. Parkinson read out a couplet from it, from the moment when Sinuhe returns to court – both in the Egyptian and in translation – which is quite a dramatic scene, with the Queen asking “is it really Sinuhe?!” and the royal children shrieking as one.

They mentioned Shakespeare as a comparison in the programme, and there are a few parallels. Not just the one I mentioned above, but also the position of both poets as writing for a literary court culture where the poems or plays would be performed in front of the monarch but also for other members of the elite (and in Shakespeare’s case more ordinary people too, but we don’t know about that in Middle Kingdom Egypt). And something that’s come up a few times in the Shakespeare MOOC I’m currently doing is that part of the lasting appeal of his plays is that he doesn’t give you all the answers – there’s always something to discuss, or both sides to an issue – which lets later audiences make it meaningful in their own context. And there is some of this same ambiguity and timelessness to the Tale of Sinuhe. For instance on the programme they talked about the central question of why does Sinuhe flee? It’s never answered explicitly in the story – Sinuhe gives different answers and explanations at different times. It could be understood historically (we think Amenemhat I was assassinated, so quite possibly Egyptian audiences when the poem was written would’ve understood that Sinuhe was worried about civil war, disorder and chaos). It is also suggested that his heart lead him astray. Or that a god made him do it. You can imagine ancient Egyptians sitting and discussing the philosophical implications of these explanations and arguing about them (and others sitting there and complaining about all that arty-farty nonsense and the best bit is when he wins the duel!). My flights of fancy aside, the point is that there’s a lot of meaning below the surface of the poem, and this again is a demonstration of its sophistication as a piece of literature.

There is some debate as to whether it is fiction or not. By that the experts meant that we don’t know if there was an actual person called Sinuhe who did these things. Obviously Amenemhat I and Senusret I were real. I think the consensus is on the side of it being fiction rather than fictionalised history. Although, as Bragg pointed out, the lines are pretty blurred even with modern works – are Hilary Mantel’s books about Cromwell fiction? Yes, they are, even though the people are real.

The poem was very popular among the ancient Egyptians. Even much later in the New Kingdom period we still find copies of it, and also find it being used as a teaching tool. As I said above it covers a variety of styles of literature & writing, so the experts were suggesting that it might be useful to have learnt if you wanted, say, a form for an elegant letter of petition to the Pharaoh. Since re-discovery it has also inspired works of “art”. I put that in scare quotes because Parkinson described a couple of the modern adaptations as awful or terrible. There is one modern re-telling that he approved of, tho, by an Egyptian author – who inserts a romantic plotline which isn’t in the original, but keeps the spirit of the piece alive.