Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 December 2004
Issue No. 719
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fiction is knowledge

The famous Story of Sinuhe is regarded as the most accomplished piece of prose literature to have survived from Ancient Egypt. Jill Kamil talks to a Czech scholar who has brought its male protagonist to life

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Osirid statue of Amenemhet I's son Senwosret I; Depiction of a typical Asiatic (Palace of Ramses II Tell Al-Yehudieh); Ancient harbour town of Tyre in Upper Retjenu (Lebanon); Miroslav Barta

Egyptologist and associate professor at Charles University in Prague, Miroslav Barta has been excavating in Egypt since 199l. "One of my professors, Leopold Pospisil, once said that if you cannot explain scientific facts simply, then you are not a good scientist," Barta tells me when we meet.

This search for a way to share the results of his many years of study directly with the general reader led Barta to the idea for his latest book. "The idea of using a piece of ancient fiction first came to me when I realised how remarkably close to reality so many of the details embedded in the Story of Sinuhe were." The text is not only historically sound and archaeologically correct, it also fits very closely with what modern scholars now know about the Ancient Egyptian state, its philosophy and its physical environment, as well as with our understanding of the way of life of the nomads in Sinai and the Levant. Reviewing the story, Barta soon realised that it could be used to cast a bright light on the history of Egypt and the region of Syria-Palestine in the 19th and 20th centuries BC -- the time of the Patriarchs and the earliest period covered by the Old Testament.

The Sinuhe that Barta chose to study should not be confused with his namesake who was made famous by the Finnish writer Mika Waltari in his fictional account, first published in 1945, entitled Sinuhe the Egyptian. Waltari's Sinuhe is a pure figment of the novelist's imagination -- a physician who lived in the time of Akhenaten at the beginning of the 20th century BC. Barta's newly- published study, Sinuhe, the Bible, and the Patriarchs, on the other hand, is a serious archaeological study, based not on modern fantasies, but on an ancient piece of fiction.

Generations of scholars have studied the Story of Sinuhe, which was written by author or authors unknown. The text recounts the life of a fictitious character who lived during the 19th and 20th centuries BC. "It's a long and fascinating story," says Barta, "over 300 lines." Its hero is a court official who flees Egypt and takes up residence in the Levant -- two areas where Barta himself has carried out extensive archaeological research. It was this confluence of factors which inspired the Czech scholar to use a story that is almost 4000 years old to give modern readers an insight into life under one of the vanished states of antiquity.

What Barta has achieved in his three years of research is something that is all too rare these days: a scholarly work written in an easily comprehensible form, that allows us to penetrate the thinking, culture and times of a specific period of ancient history in depth.

While his professional interests lie in history and archaeology, as Barta pursued his search for the realities behind the Story of Sinuhe in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel between 1999 and 2001, he found himself drawn ever deeper into trying to understand how the societies around him functioned. He travelled to the areas described in the story to observe the nomadic way of life still practised there, particularly around the Egyptian settlements in Southern Palestine, and traced possible references to the history of the Levant during the period in which the story of Sinuhe was written. This led him to try and untangle a complex web of social values, political loyalties, religious beliefs, and concepts concerning life after death.

"I cannot escape the feeling that these days we Egyptologists tend to lock ourselves up in ivory towers of scholarship, and neglect the world of which we are an integral part," Barta muses. This sense of a larger world outside the narrow alleys of erudition led him to reconsider the purpose of his discipline. "Is this field of scholarship the exclusive domain of several hundred privileged individuals? Or should we be communicating our knowledge and our passion to the general public?"

If you examine the mass of literature on Ancient Egyptian civilisation that has been published over the last five years, you will see that most of these texts have been written by scholars, for scholars. They aim to satisfy the interests of the professional, rather than the common reader. Barta, however, wanted to get through to people outside his discipline. That was where Sinuhe came in, providing him with a way to write about Middle Kingdom society through a narrative of intrigue, adventure, loyalty and redemption.

The hero of one of the earliest short stories in human history, Sinuhe appears to have been a well-to-do administrator. He was allegedly an official of the harem of Pharaoh Amenemhet I (1991-1976 BC), whose rule witnessed the expansion of the Egyptian sphere of influence in the Sinai and the area of Syria-Palestine, and heralded a time of great building activity, as well as a literary and artistic revival.

Sinuhe overheard royal envoys plotting to assassinate the Pharaoh while his son Senwosret I was leading a military campaign against tribes in the Western desert. Fearing that he would be considered among those responsible for the crime ("My heart grew confused, my arms spread out, trembling befell all my limbs" ), he rapidly made his escape, taking a circuitous route through the Nile valley and Delta, and then across Sinai towards Syria: " I set out southward ... I travelled over the Lake of Maat in the vicinity of the Sycamore, and reached the Island of Sneferu... I set out on the road again, going northwards, I reached the Walls of the Ruler which were built to ward off Asiatics and trample the Bedouin. I crouched behind a bush out of fear that the watch of the day standing on the battlements would see me."

Barta sought to determine Sinuhe's most likely itinerary using existing records. These included Ahmed Fakhri's 1940 studies of the Darb Al-Hagg Al- Mararbe, an ancient pilgrim route between Giza and Wadi Natrun, which he claimed was started in the reign of Amenemhet I; and an ancient text known as the Prophecy of Nerferti, which explicitly states that the Walls of the Ruler (a set of fortress walls in the Eastern Delta) were built to prevent an influx of Asiatics via the Delta. He then traced Sinuhe's journey across northern Sinai along the Ways of Horus, and was even able to establish the time of the year at which he travelled.

"I became more and more surprised at how much of the ancient tale fitted with the physical and historic evidence on hand," Barta recalls. "I found the details in the narrative to be so correct, the events so closely corresponding to contemporary archaeological and written evidence of Ancient Egypt, Sinai, and Syria-Palestine during the period, as to be truly remarkable. This accuracy even extended to the social customs of the different peoples."

The Story of Sinuhe has survived in numerous fragmentary copies. The principal manuscripts are in Berlin and in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The rambling text has been translated, studied, and commented on by generations of scholars, including Barns, Blackman, Edel, Erman, Gardiner, Grapow and Posener. The first scholars to delve into the ancient story regarded it as the work of Amenemhet I himself, composed after he had escaped an attempt on his life. The currently prevailing view, however, is that the Pharaoh did not escape, but was in fact assassinated, and that the text was composed by a royal scribe at the behest of the new king, his son Senwosret I, who enjoyed a long and prosperous reign from 1971 to 1928 BC.

Sinuhe crosses the border into Syria-Palestine. Later, when Amenemhet's son Senwosret I has ascended the throne of Egypt, he is summoned by the ruler of Upper Retjenu (often identified with the area around Tyre in today's Lebanon on the basis of later parallels). Perhaps the local chieftain, Amunenshi, who had been to Egypt, was uncertain of the new Pharaoh's attitude towards his Asiatic neighbours and thought that Sinuhe could inform him. Be that as it may, he soon received assurances that friendly relations between the two countries would continue, and invited Sinuhe to stay with his tribe. Amunenshi soon developed a real affection for Sinuhe: he married his daughter to him and assigned him part of his tribe and territory: " He placed me at the head of his children, and married to me his eldest daughter. He let me choose... from the choicest of his possession, at the border with another country. This country was good... there were figs there and grapes, it had more wine than water, a lot of honey and oil beyond measure. All kinds of fruit were growing on its trees; there was barley and wheat, and all kinds of cattle without limit."

Sinuhe was successful in the foreign missions with which Amunenshi entrusted him, and he prospered. His children grew up. He faithfully defended his adopted tribe, and was highly respected. "I let everyone stay with me. I gave water to the thirsty, placed the one who went astray on the road, I rescued the robbed one... When the Asiatics had to mobilise to oppose the rulers of the hill-countries, I gave them advice in their proceeding."

There came a day when Sinuhe's life and that of his family were put in danger by the arrival of a giant of a man: "Came the strongman of Retjenu and challenged me in my tent. He was a hero without equal, he had subdued the entire land... He said he would fight with me. He thought he could defeat me, and planned to seize my cattle for the benefit of his tribe."

Barta divides Sinuhe's duel into six stages: the challenge; his counsel with the ruler Amunenshi; preparing his weapons; the verbal clash with his opponent; the duel proper; and Sinuhe's victory and his seizure of the possessions of his opponent.

"I spent the night stretching my bow and preparing my arrows. I sharpened my dagger and polished my weapons," states the text. With these traditional Egyptian weapons, Sinuhe sets out to defend his position and his tribal land by fighting an almost hopeless dual. "I avoided his weapons and let his arrows pass me by, one after the other, until none of them remained. When he attacked me, I shot him; my arrow stuck in his neck. He screamed and fell on his nose (and) I slew him with his own axe. I raised a war cry on his back, while all the Asiatics were shouting with pleasure." A ccording to some scholars, this story is one of the origins of the biblical tale of David and Goliath, which dates from almost a century later.

Eventually old age descended upon Sinuhe: " eyes are heavy, my arms feeble, my legs are unable to follow. The heart is weary, I am close to death." He yearns for his homeland, and prays to the god Montu of Thebes, who had aided him in battle against the powerful enemy, to "let me see the place where my heart dwells". In the end, encouraged by "His Majesty, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Kheperkare, the justified," the aged Sinuhe returns to Egypt where he is welcomed, and a tomb is built for him on the necropolis, thus ensuring his existence in the afterlife.

The Story of Sinuhe provided Barta with unique material from which he could construct for the modern lay reader something very close to direct communication with the past. Nor does the author impose his own interpretation and conclusions. With a copy of Sinuhe, the Bible, and the Patriarchs in hand , the reader has all the tools on which to base an independent theory of how the Story of Sinuhe was conceived by its author(s). For the motivation behind the narrative is by no means certain. Some scholars see it as a political statement -- the legitimisation of the reign of Amenemhet I's son Senwosret I after the violent death of his father. But, as Barta points out, the narrative may equally have been written as an instructional text, to provide a detailed model of the right relationship between a ruler and his officials.

"The relationship between the ruling Pharaoh and his officials was particularly fragile in the first half of the 20th Dynasty," Barta explains. "So this story may have been written to be read aloud for entertainment and, at the same time, to gradually condition the listeners to comprehend and accept the ideal setup of the Egyptian state: with loyalty being rewarded by a patron of the afterlife."

Barta himself is of the opinion that there may have been no single reason for writing the work. For him, Sinuhe's story was conceived above all as a political composition intended to clear Amenemhet's son and successor of all possible charges of involvement in the assassination of his father. The key passages then would be those in which Senwosret declares himself innocent and the chieftain of Retjenu accepts his claim. Barta also points out that a large part of the value of the story today lies in the valuable information it contains concerning the relationship between Ancient Egypt and her Near Eastern neighbours. At approximately the time of Sinuhe's stay in Syria- Palestine, Abraham (still known as Abram, prior to his covenant with God) was leading his people on their migration to Egypt.

The book begins with a full translation of the Story of Sinuhe based on the hieroglyphic translations of two papyri in Berlin, which were acquired in Egypt by Karl Lepsuis in 1842-45. This is followed by a commentary on the story. The next two chapters explain the political history of Egypt and Syria-Palestine so as to elucidate the background to Sinuhe's flight. Further chapters set out the latest developments in archaeological exploration in these regions -- including contemporary epigraphic sources -- and their interpretation by various scholarly disciplines, including Egyptology, cuneiform studies, the archaeology of the Ancient Near East, and the anthropology of nomadic populations.

Sinuhe's story, although a work of fiction, is nevertheless a major contribution to our knowledge of his time, the beginning of the second millennium BC -- a period that has left a lasting imprint on the modern world. Barta's book is worthy of its subject: it is written in a lively and engaging manner, and is full of fascinating details.

Sinuhe, the Bible, and the Patriarchs , by Miroslav Barta, translated into English by Renata Landgrafova: forthcoming from American University in Cairo Press. First published in Czech in Prague, 2003.

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