By Ed Rizkalla
“And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” Acts7. 22
The ancient Egyptians were keen observers of their environs and times. They reflected upon and recorded their observations, thus creating, preserving and expanding a body of knowledge to help educate future generations. They esteemed writers, and valued the elegance of fine words. Miriam Lichtheim (1914-2004), an American Egyptologist, wrote “Ancient Egyptian Literature” (1), a three volume treatise, which were published from 1973 to 1980. She notes that ancient Egyptian literary creations include prose, poetry, and another intermediate style, which is called “symmetrically structured speech” or “orational" style. Lichtheim further notes that ancient Egyptian writers liked to mix literary styles in the same composition. For example mixing of styles is evident in the tale of “Sinuhe”, where the narration is interspersed with three poems and an exchange of correspondence. The tradition for mixing different literary styles survived in the last stage of the Egyptian language, written in Coptic script, e.g. the Coptic hymn “Shashef encop” or “Seven times” includes prose, poetry and orational style.
The ancient Egyptian literary creations include several common themes, which reflect the development their civilization, wisdom, psyche, norms, values and culture. Some of these major themes include love of the “black land” of Egypt (Kemt or Chimie), “order” and “chaos”, and “justice” (Maat) and “injustice”. One of the most interesting examples is the “Eloquent Peasant”. Its main theme is the respect for justice (Maat), and equality of all people before the law regardless of social status, wealth, or rank. The “Eloquent Peasant” has other themes, such as the esteem for eloquence and literary creations. Thus, among other things, it helps shed some light on the Coptic cultural attribute for the respect for education, knowledge and wisdom.
Many Egyptologists have contributed to establish our present knowledge about the tale of “Sinuhe”. Interest in the tale of “Sinuhe” started in the early days of Egyptology. Maspero (2) notes that Goodwin was the first to publish an English translation for it from Hieratic in Frazer’s magazine in 1865.
The tale of “Sinuhe” shares a common theme with many other ancient Egyptian literary works, namely order versus chaos. The ancient Egyptians had an aversion for divisiveness in the Egyptian polity. Divisiveness, at times, led to civil unrest, strife, and tempted foreign invaders waiting for the opportunity to plunder the riches of the “black land”, Chimie. This aversion was, not altogether, unfounded. For example, the Asiatic shepherd kings, the Hyksos, have taken advantage of the chaos occurring late in the Middle Kingdom time, and invaded northern Egypt. The tale of “Sinuhe” has other themes, e.g. their love for the “black land of Egypt, and norms and values.
By way of a brief introduction for the tale of “Sinuhe”, he was a courtier in the royal court, serving princess Nefru. Nefru was the wife of king Senusert I, a.k.a. Sesostris I, who reigned at the time of 12th dynasty. Sesostris was appointed as a co-regent by his father, king Amenemhet I. The aging king, Amenemhet, sent his eldest son and co-regent on a military expedition against the Tjemeh and Tjehenu, two Libyan tribes. The king died while his son was away in that military campaign, so the court sent a secret message to inform him. Prior to the Middle Kingdom era, Egypt was divided during the 1st Intermediate Period, and memories of internal unrest/ strife and chaos were fresh in the minds of the Egyptians. The king’s eldest son rushed back to the capital secretly, perhaps to assure a smooth transition of power and avoid alerting potential adversaries. Sinuhe, however, overheard a discussion by some potential adversaries to the co-regent. Sinuhe feared for his life from ensuing infighting and chaos, so he fled to western Asia. On his flight, Sinuhe almost died from thirst in the desert. He was saved by “Ammunenshi”, a chieftain of a local tribe at “Upper Retenu”. Sinuhe travelled for some time in western Asia. As Ammunenshi was aware of Sinuhe’s knowledge, skill, and abilities, he offered him to stay with him and marry his daughter. Sinuhe accepted Ammunenshi’s offer. The following are excerpts from the tale of Sinuhe describing his life at western Asia:
“He set me at the head of his children. He married me to his eldest daughter… I passed many years, my children becoming strong men, each a master of his tribe. The envoy who came north or went south to the residence stayed with me. I let everyone stay with me. I gave water to the thirsty; I showed the way to him who had strayed; I rescued him who had been robbed. When the Asiatics conspired to attack the rulers of the hill countries, I opposed their movements. For the ruler of Retenu made me carry out numerous missions as commander of his troops. Every hill tribe against which I marched I vanquished,…by my strong arm, by my bow, by my movements and my skillful plans. I won his heart and he loved me, for he recognized my valor. He set me at the head of his children, for he saw the strength of my arms”.
Another strong chieftain, who coveted Sinhue’s wealth, challenged him for a duel. Sinuhe fought the challenger and prevailed against him. As Sinuhe got older, he longed for the” black land”. He corresponded with king Sesostris, who asked him to return back to Egypt, where he would be cared for by the queen and the royal children. Sinuhe returned back to Egypt, and was given a warm welcome by the king, the queen, and royal children. He resided at the royal court and ultimately plans for proper tomb and Egyptian burial are made for him.
To a great extent, Sinuhe, very much like contemporary Copts who left Egypt, was a man of great courage, knowledge, and skill. He assimilated in his new adopted country and became successful and well-off. However, his love for Egypt, and willingness to assist Egyptians, very much like contemporary Copts who left Egypt, did not diminish. Furthermore, the excerpts cited above, show how he acted as a marshal for Ammunenshi’s troops. He fought the Asiatics with his strong arm and his bow, as well as his movements and skillful plans. Ammunenshi loved him as he recognized his valor. The tale of “Sinuhe” provides another example from extant ancient Egyptian literature, which helps shed more light on several Coptic cultural attributes, namely 1) the respect for education, knowledge, and love of wisdom, 2) taking initiative and a "can-do" approach to life, and 3) flexibility, adaptability and innovation.
The tale of “Sinuhe” provides us with a rich vein to mine in studying ancient Egyptian literature. It includes several themes, commonly used in other ancient Egyptian literary works. It further helps illustrate some of the ancient Egyptian norms, values, and culture
The peace of the Lord be with you all. Irene Passe.
- Ancient Egyptian Literature, The Old and Middle Kingdoms, by Meriam Lichtheim, with a new foreword by Antonio Loprieno, volume I, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, CA, 2006.
- Popular Stories of Ancient Egypt, by Gaston Maspero, translated by A.S. Johns, “Les Contes populaires de l’Egypte ancient” 4th edition, and revised by Gaston Maspero in 1915, with a new foreword by Aziz S. Atiya, University Books, New Hyde Park, NY, 1967.
Acknowledgement: The writer would like to acknowledge and thank the staff of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, for their assistance with research for background material for this article.
Ed Rizkalla is a management consultant and a freelance writer. He is the founder of Pharos on the Potomac Group (POPG), a non-profit organization at Annandale, VA. http://mysite.verizon.net/vzes76jv/pharosonthepotomacgroup