Story of Sinuhe

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Story of Sinuhe


Epic Tale . The Story of Sinuhe, an epic poem that was popular for more than eight hundred years (Dynasties 12 to 20, circa 1909-1074 b.c.e.), was composed between circa 1909 and 1875 b.c.e. It 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. News of Amenemhet I’s assassination reaches the army and Sinuhe panicks. He fears that Egypt will fall into turmoil and that his own life will be threatened. Thus, he leaves the army camp and travels across Egypt to the eastern border. After crossing into Syria-Palestine, Sinuhe travels to different countries and then settles with a bedouin named Amunenshi, who gives Sinuhe his daughter in marriage and land in a place called Yaa. Sinuhe prospers and has children, as well as more adventures, and reaches the end of life. He determines then that he wants to return to Egypt for burial. Sinuhe sends a letter to the king, and the benevolent Senwosret I welcomes

him back to Egypt with full honors. On Sinuhe’s return, Senwosret I arranges for Sinuhe’s burial in Egypt. The final verses describe Sinuhe’s tomb and his last contented days in Egypt as he waits for death.

Themes . John L. Foster has analyzed Sinuhe’s development from his loss of status when he fled from Egypt to his eventual restoration to his rightful place in Egyptian society. Foster has demonstrated that the real interest of the story for modern readers is in Sinuhe’s personal development. When Sinuhe heard that Amenemhet was dead and that Senwosret had returned to the capital to claim the throne, Sinuhe panicked. He had reason to believe that there would be political turmoil and that his close relationship to Queen Neferu would doom him if Senwosret were not proclaimed legitimate king. He was so ill prepared for the trip to Syria-Palestine that he nearly starved and died of thirst while traveling through the desert. A bedouin chief, a man whom Sinuhe would never have recognized as an equal in his earlier life, saved him. Sinuhe then wandered northward to Byblos (in modern Lebanon) and finally settled in Upper Retenu (modern Syria). Here


The Story of Sinube is the great epic poem of ancient Egypt. Here the author describes Sinuhe’s panic attack and escape from Egypt, after Amenemhet I’s assassination.

The hereditary noble, mayor,
Seal-bearer of the goddess of Lower Egypt, Sole Friend,
Provincial governor,
Viceroy in the lands of the Asiatics,
Trusted adviser to the king, whom he esteems,
The courtier, Sinuhe, who speaks:
I was a follower who followed his lord,
A servant in the royal harem
[Of] the hereditary noblewoman, greatly esteemed,
The royal wife of Senwosret
In union with the Throne,
Royal daughter of Amenemhet
In the city of Qa-nefer, Neferu,
Possessor of blessedness.
Regnal Year Thirty,
Third month, of the inundation, day seven:
The god mounts up toward his horizon,
King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Sehetepibre,
That he might fly up to heaven, one joined with the sundisk,
The divine flesh mingling with the One who made him.
The royal city is silent, hearts are mourning,
The great double gates are sealed,
Attendants [sitting] with head on knee,
The nobles in grief.
Now then, his Majesty had passed on,
With the army over in the land of the Libyans,
His eldest son in commandthereof
The good god, Senwosret.
Now, he was sent to strike the foreign regions
In order to destroy those among the Tchehenu-Libyans.
Now, he was returning with what he had taken—
Those captured alive of the Tchehenu
And all sorts of cattle without end.
The Friends of the Palace,
They sent word to the western border
In order to cause that the king’s son know
The events which had occurred in the audience chamber.
The messengers discovered him upon the road.
Once they had reached him at time of darkness.
Not a moment at all did he wait;
The Falcon, he flew with his followers
Without causing that his army know it.
Not, [there was] sent word to the royal princes,
Who were accompanying him on this expedition
And someone summoned one of the—
While I, indeed, I was, standing there!
I heard his voice as he spoke evil,
While I was on a distant rise [of ground].
Distraught was my heart, paralyzed my arms,
A shuddering fell upon each of my limbs.
I removed myself by leaping away
In order to search out for myself a place of hiding,
…I made a travelling upstream—
I did not intend to approach this Resideneer—
I expected that turmoil would occur,
Nor did I think to live on after this one— ‘”
This splendid god.

Source: John L. Foster, Thought Couplets in the Tale of Sinube (Frankfort, Germany New York: Peter Lang, 1993), pp; 39–41.

he met a local ruler, Amunenshi, who recognized Sinuhe as an Egyptian nobleman. When asked why he had traveled away from Egypt, Sinuhe claimed ignorance of his own reasons. He told Amunenshi that it was the act of a god. Amunenshi then offered him land and his eldest daughter as a wife. From this point onward Sinuhe prospered. He raised a family and successfully led Amunenshi’s army against other tribes. The real turning point in Sinuhe’s life came when an unnamed “hero” challenged him to single combat. Though Sinuhe was smaller, he successfully overcame the hero through physical courage. This scene witnessed Sinuhe’s transformation from the coward who abandoned Senwosret to an effective agent himself. Sinuhe recognized the change himself in the poem he recited after his victory over the hero.

A fugitive flees from his neighborhood;
But my fame will be in the Residence.
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.
(Lines 321-330, translated by John L. Foster, p. 116)

Here Sinuhe remembered the story of his life and contrasted his cowardly escape from Egypt with his current situation as a conqueror. Sinuhe now attempted to return to Egypt. He wrote to the king asking for forgiveness and for permission to return to Egypt and reestablish his relationship with the king, queen, and royal children. Most of all, he hoped to be buried in Egypt in a nobleman’s tomb. The king’s reply asked Sinuhe to return and be restored to his rightful place. Most commentators have seen the moment of the king forgiving 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 of Sinuhe is political propaganda raised to the level of art and depicts Sinuhe’s development starting with his removal from his own society to full restoration as a nobleman. Sinuhe moved from disgrace, to renewal, to forgiveness. In the course of this development he also passed from ignorance of his own motives to self-awareness and acknowledgment of his own responsibilities. Not only did he learn to take responsibility for his actions but he also pondered man’s proper relationship to the temporal powers of the world.


John L. Foster, “The Tale of Sinuhe as Literature,” in Thought Couplets in the Tale of Sinuhe (Frankfurt, Germany & New York: Peter Lang, 1993), pp. 112–129.

William Kelly Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry, translations by R. O. Faulkner, Edward F. Wente Jr., and William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972).