Story of Sinuhe

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Light gray stone surface with carved and painted images of two woman, a falcon-headed god, a black-haired man with a long goatee, a jackal-headed god, and Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed along the top
A raised-relief depiction of Amenemhat I accompanied by deities; the death of Amenemhat I is reported by his son Senusret I in the Story of Sinuhe.
Sinuhe in hieroglyphs
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The Story of Sinuhe (also known as Sanehat)[2] is considered one of the finest works of ancient Egyptian literature. It is a narrative set in the aftermath of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th Dynasty of Egypt, in the early 20th century BC. It was composed around 1875 BC, although the earliest extant manuscript is from the reign of Amenemhat III, c. 1800 BC.[3] There is an ongoing debate among Egyptologists as to whether or not the tale is based on actual events involving an individual named Sinuhe (Egyptian: Za-Nehet "son of the sycamore"),[4] with the consensus being that it is most likely a work of fiction.[5][6] Due to the universal nature of the themes explored in Sinuhe, including divine providence and mercy, its anonymous author has been described as the "Egyptian Shakespeare" whose ideas have parallels in biblical texts. Sinuhe is considered to be a work written in verse and it may also have been performed.[7] The great popularity of the work is witnessed by the numerous surviving fragments.[8]


There are a number of sources telling the Story of Sinuhe. A limestone ostracon (a pottery or stone fragment) in the Egyptian Museum is over a yard long, and is possibly the largest ostracon in existence. It tells the beginning of the Story of Sinuhe, and is inscribed in Hieratic. The story dates from the 12th Dynasty and the fragment was found in the tomb of Sennutem.[9]

Story of Sinuhe[edit]

Sinuhe is an official who accompanies prince Senwosret I to Libya. He overhears a conversation relaying the death of King Amenemhet I and as a result flees to Upper Retjenu (Canaan), leaving Egypt behind. He becomes the son-in-law of Chief Ammunenshi and in time his sons grow to become chiefs in their own right. Sinuhe fights rebellious tribes on behalf of Ammunenshi. As an old man, in the aftermath of defeating a powerful opponent in single combat, he prays for a return to his homeland:[7] "May God pity me...may he hearken to the prayer of one far away!...may the King have mercy on me...may I be conducted to the city of eternity!"[8] He then receives an invitation from King Senwosret I of Egypt to return, which he accepts in highly moving terms. Living out the rest of his life in royal favour, he is finally laid to rest in the necropolis in a beautiful tomb.[7]


The Story of Sinuhe has spawned a great deal of literature which explores the themes contained in the work from many perspectives. The scope and variety of this material has been likened to the analysis of Hamlet and other notable works of literature.[7] Scholars debate the reason why Sinuhe flees Egypt, with the majority ascribing panic over a perceived threat.[7] The tale is full of symbolic allusions. Sinuhe's name (="Son of the Sycamore") is seen as providing an important link in understanding the story. The sycamore is an ancient Egyptian Tree of Life,[10] associated with Hathor (the Goddess of fertility and rebirth and patroness of foreign countries), who features throughout the work.[7]

Sinuhe comes under the protective orbit of divine powers, in the form of the King, from whom he first tries to run away, and that of the Queen, a manifestation of Hathor. On fleeing Egypt, Sinuhe crosses a waterway associated with the Goddess Maat, the ancient Egyptian principle of truth, order and justice, in the vicinity of a sycamore tree.[7]

The ancient Egyptians believed in free will, implicit in the code of Maat, but this still allowed divine grace to work in and through the individual, and an overarching divine providence is seen in Sinuhe's flight and return to his homeland. Unable to escape the orbit of the gods' power and mercy, Sinuhe exclaims: "Whether I am in the Residence, or whether I am in this place, it is you who cover this horizon".[7]

Parallels have been made between the biblical narrative of Joseph and the Story of Sinuhe. In what is seen as divine providence, Sinuhe the Egyptian flees to Syro-Canaan and becomes a member of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Egyptian family. In what is seen as divine providence, the Syro-Canaanite Joseph is taken to Egypt where he becomes part of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Syro-Canaanite family.[7] Parallels have also been drawn from other biblical texts: the Hebrew prophet Jonah's frustrated flight from the orbit of God's power is likened to Sinuhe's similar flight from the King.[11] The battle between David and Goliath is compared to his fight with a mighty challenger, whom he slays with a single blow, and the parable of the Prodigal Son is likened to his return home.[12]


  1. ^ Allen, James P. (June 21, 2000). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521774833 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ "Tale of Sanehat". Translated by Koch, Roland. University College London. 2000. Retrieved November 6, 2018.
  3. ^ R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems. Oxford World's Classics, 1999, p. 21
  4. ^ James Karl Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel In Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition, Oxford University Press 2005, p.256
  5. ^ James Peter Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, Cambridge University Press 2000, p.281
  6. ^ The best tale begins with the death of King Amenemhat, who was the first king of the 12th dynasty. In the Instructions of Amenemhat the king describes, from beyond the grave, how he was the victim of an assassination.("Religion in ancient Egypt" Byron Esely Shafer, John b., Leonard H. Lesko, David P. Silverman, p160, Taylor & Francis, 1991 ISBN 0-415-07030-9)
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Edmund S. Meltzer, In search of Sinuhe: "What's in a Name?" Paper presented at The 58th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt, Wyndham Toledo Hotel, Toledo, Ohio, Apr 20, 2007
  8. ^ a b M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, 1973, p.222, ISBN 0520028996
  9. ^ A Guide to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Egyptian Museum, and al- Mathaf al-Misri. A Brief Description of the Principal Monuments = A Guide to the Egyptian Museum Cairo. 1968. Revised, enlarged by the General Egyptian Book Organization, 1982. Pages 93-94.
  10. ^ "Death and salvation in ancient Egypt", Jan Assmann, David Lorton, Translated by David Lorton, p171, Cornell University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-8014-4241-9
  11. ^ "God's Word for Our World: Theological and cultural studies in honor of Simon John De Vries", Simon John De Vries, Edmund S. Meltzer, J. Harold Ellens, Deborah L. Ellens, Rolf P. Knierim, Isaac Kalimi, p79, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004 ISBN 0-8264-6975-2
  12. ^ "Tales From Ancient Egypt", Joyce Tyldesley, p88, Rutherford, 2004, ISBN 0-9547622-0-7


  • Barta, M. 2003 Sinuhe, the Bible and the Patriarchs, Czech Institute of Egyptology/David Brown Book Company.
  • Greig, G. S. 1990. "The sDm=f and sDm=n=f in the Story of Sinuhe and the Theory of the Nominal (Emphatic) Verbs", in: Israelit-Groll, I. (ed.), Studies in Egyptology. Presented to Miriam Lichtheim, Vol. I. Jerusalem: Magnes Press/Hebrew U., 264–348.
  • Kitchen, K. A. 1996. “Sinuhe: Scholarly Method versus Trendy Fashion” BACE 7, 55–63.
  • Mahfouz, Naguib. "The Return of Sinuhe" in Voices from the Other World (translated by Robert Stock), Random House, 2003
  • Meltzer, E. S. 2004. "Sinuhe, Jonah and Joseph: Ancient ‘Far Travellers' and the Power of God", in: Ellens, J. H. et al. (eds.), God's Word for Our World, vol. II. Theological and Cultural Studies in Honor of Simon John De Vries (London-New York: Clark/Continuum), 77–81.
  • Morschauser, S. 2000. "What Made Sinuhe Run: Sinuhe's Reasoned Flight" JARCE 37, 187–98
  • Parkinson, R. B. 1997. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 BC (Oxford World Classics). Oxford: Oxford U. Press.
  • Quirke, Stephen. 2004. Egyptian Literature 1800BC: Questions and Readings, London, 58–70 ISBN 0-9547218-6-1 (translation and transcription)
  • Tobin, V. A. 1995. "The Secret of Sinuhe" JARCE 32, 161–78.

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