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CONTEXT

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.

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 Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt (2000 BCE – 1700 BCE) saw the start of more formal writing
which included religious scripts, administrative notes, and more in-depth fictional writing. One of
the most iconic pieces of writing to come out of the Middle Kingdom was The Tale of Sinuhe.
Sinuhe was a courier and assistant to the King of Egypt, Amenhotep I. He fled Egypt and joined a
Bedouin tribe to the east and started a new life near Syria. Once he reached old age he returned
and finished out his life in Egypt. The importance of this story goes beyond the structure and
writing techniques of the text as it provides insight into the cultural differences between Egypt
and the Near East. Philologists are still analyzing the text and acquiring new insight to the text
today. This 4,000 year old tale provides insight into the world and mind of an Egyptian, and is just
another example of Egyptian brilliance.

BERLIN 3022 & 10499 PAPYRI

The best known copies of Sinuhe were from the 12th and 13th dynasty (1900 – 1700 BCE), and
these manuscripts are labelled Berlin 3022 and 10499. The Berlin 10499 (Also known as
Ramesseum papyrus 10499) has The Tale of Sinuhe and another story called The Tale of the
Eloquent Peasant on the reverse side of the papyrus. Berlin 3022 is the most well-preserved and
the best account for translation. The Berlin 3022 is missing the beginning of the tale with 311 total
lines, and Berlin 10499 has the beginning, but only has 203 lines. Egyptologists today discuss the
strategy of the scribe who created these papyri. They have created a modern replica of the papyrus
role which is five meters long and cut into fourteen sections. When we closely analyze the script
we can observe the scribes attempt to clean off the papyri from previous writing and debris. The
total word count in most English translations is 4,500 words.

The text on the papyrus is known as Heiratic. This form of writing is like cursive for Middle Egyptian
hieroglyphs. This is not to say that Middle Egyptian Hieroglyph versions do not exist. Heiratic was
a simpler and faster method to writing larger works of literature, administrative, and religious
texts. Schools for scribes used this story as a model for practice, which created many incomplete
copies of the story. The Berlin examples are of papyri, but the copies created by students who
were training to be scribes used ostraca or limestone flakes. The story is one of the first forms of
autobiographical storytelling and, although the author of the story is unknown, he is considered
to be the Shakespeare of Middle Egypt. Egyptologists find this tale to be one of the finest pieces
of literature to survive from Ancient Egypt. We see many examples in museums like the Berlin
Museum, British Museum, and the Ashmolean Museum.

Today, scholars are still not sure whether or not Sinuhe is a real individual. The tale was to
represent the adventures of the courier Sinuhe copied from the inscriptions from his tomb. The
rulers and locations described were authentic and the cultural differences described were also
accurate. Regardless, the tale is one of the oldest forms of fictional storytelling. The story was
written nearly 4,000 years ago, and interpretations are still created in the modern day. A 20th
century CE Finnish writer Mika Waltari wrote a novel called Sinuhe Egyptiläinen which has been
translated by Naomi Walford.