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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

R. B. Parkinson


The Story of Sinuhe is preserved in five Middle Kingdom manuscripts, including two from Thebes, and more than twenty New Kingdom copies, including scribal exercises, which present slightly different versions of the text. The text is complete; the number of surviving manuscripts is high for a fictional narrative, suggesting that Sinuhe was highly regarded. The earliest manuscript is the Theban Papyrus Berlin 3022, from the second half of the twelfth dynasty. The story's setting and eulogistic elements may suggest that it was composed shortly after the end of the reign of Senwosret I. It is approximately 570 metrical lines of verse long.

The narrative is introduced as the funerary autobiography of Sinuhe, a courtier whose service began under Amenemhet I:

The Patrician and Count,

Governor of the Sovereign's Domains in the Lands of the Asiatics [Near East]

the True Acquaintance of the King, whom he loves,

the Follower Sinuhe, says …

The following first-person narrative includes a particularly wide range of other genres, including ritual songs and dramatic monologues. It is written in verse, with high-flown diction, and in a self-consciously fine style which is consistently varied, subtle, and resonant. The forty stanzas can be divided into five thematic sections.

In the first section of the tale, the expected pattern of a courtier's ideal life is shattered when Sinuhe overhears of the sudden death of Amenemhet I, and he flees abroad, where he eventually establishes himself in the Palestinian kingdom of Retjenu. The second section is occupied by his conversation with the ruler of Retjenu, Amunenshi, in which he affirms and extols the glory of the new king, Senwosret I. In the central section he tells how success abroad under Amunenshi's favor failed to bring him happiness, and the fourth section comprises an exchange of letters between Senwosret I and Sinuhe, in which the latter is exonerated from blame for his flight and is summoned back to Egypt. The final section recounts his homecoming with a lyrical ritual in the royal court, in which he is reestablished and reborn as a true Egyptian. The mock-inscription concludes as he is buried in the royal necropolis.

There are touches of local color in Sinuhe's experiences abroad, and the tale presents the conflict between Egyptian and foreign values, which is articulated in the structurally central duel between Sinuhe and a Palestinian rival. With an emphasis on personal reflection, the tale offers an introspective assessment of Egyptian cultural values. Much of it centers on the question of Sinuhe's motivation, in particular what led him to flee—a question that is continually left unresolved and is developed with a theodic aspect.

Sinuhe has frequently been discussed in connection with propaganda, but the propagandistic elements are integrated into a complex and multivalent whole. The tale has been much anthologized and analyzed; originally regarded as a copy of a historical inscription, it is now widely valued as the masterpiece of Middle Kingdom fictional literature. It is the subject of an article that marked a turning point in the Egyptological analysis of literary texts: John Baines's “Interpreting Sinuhe” (1982).


Baines, John. Interpreting Sinuhe. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 68 (1982), 31–44. A landmark in the study of Egyptian literature.Find this resource:

    Barns, John W. B. The Ashmolean Ostracon of Sinuhe. London, 1952. Edition of one manuscript with philological commentary.Find this resource:

      Blumenthal, Elke. Die Erzählung des Sinuhe. In Mythen und Epen, vol. 3, edited by Elke Blumenthal et al., pp. 884–911. (Texte aus der Umwelt des Alten Testament, III.5.) Gütersloh, 1995. Translation with full bibliography.Find this resource:

        Gardiner, Alan H. Notes on the Story of Sinuhe. Paris, 1916. Early philological commentary, still of value.Find this resource:

          Koch, Roland. Die Erzählung des Sinuhe. (Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca, 17.) Brussels, 1990. Standard edition of the text.Find this resource:

            Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 bc. Oxford, 1997. Recent translation, pp. 21–53.Find this resource:

              Simpson, William K. Sinuhe. In Lexicon der Ägyptologie 5: 950–55.Find this resource:

                R. B. Parkinson