THE STORY OF SINUHE
The Memoirs of Sinuhe
(1) The Prince, Commander, Governor of the domains of the Sovereign in the lands of the Syrians (Setiu), true and beloved Friend of the King, the Retainer Sinuhe* says: *(S3nht)
(2) I was a retainer who followed his lord, a servant of the Royal Harem and of the Princess, the highly honoured Royal Wife of King Sen-Wesret (Sesostris I) of Khnumsut*, and daughter of King Amenemhet (Ammenemes I) of Kanofru*, the revered lady Nofru. *(the names of the pyramids of the two pharaohs)
The Death of King Amenemhet I
(3) Year 30 (of his reign), third month of the Inundation season, day 7: the god ascended to his horizon; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Sehetepibrey (Amenemhet I), flew up to heaven and united with the sun-disk Aton, the body of the god uniting with its maker. The city of royal residence was hushed; all hearts were grieving; the great palace portals were closed; the courtiers sat with heads bowed down over their knees*; the people were in mourning. *cp. the gods in the Ba‘al myth, 2.1
(4) Now His Majesty had despatched a great army to the land of the Tjemeh (in Libya), with his eldest son in command, the good god Sen-Wesret (Sesostris). He had been sent to smite the foreign lands and to strike down the Tjehenu people (in Libya). He was now returning, bringing back Tjehenu prisoners and all kinds of cattle beyond number.
(5) The officers of the palace sent a message to the western border to inform the King's son of what had occurred at court. The messengers met him on the road, reaching him at night. Without a moment's delay the Falcon* flew off with his attendants, not letting his army know about it. *The king was an incarnation of the falcon-god Horus
The Flight of Sinuhe into Palestine
(6) However, the royal sons who were with him on this expedition had also been sent for. One of them was called aside when I was standing nearby, and I heard his voice as he spoke. My heart was dismayed and my arms spread out, while my limbs were overcome with trembling. I sped off in leaps and bounds in search of somewhere to hide. I placed myself between two bushes so as to conceal myself from passers-by.
(7) Then I headed south. I had no intention of making for the Residence, since I thought it would be in turmoil and I might lose my life there. I crossed Ma‘aty near Nehet ('Sycamore') and reached Snofru Island. I spent the day there at the edge of the fields. Departing at dawn I encountered a man standing on the road, who greeted me respectfully though he was afraid. At dinner-time I arrived at the wharf of Negau ('Cattle-Quay'). With the aid of a westerly wind I crossed over on a rudderless barge. I passed to the east of the quarry at the hill named Lady of the Red Mountain.
(8) Here I directed my feet northwards and reached the fortress named Walls of the Ruler, built to repel Syrians and to crush sand-farers. I crouched down under a bush for fear of being spotted by the guards on duty up on the wall.
(9) I moved on at nightfall, and by sunrise I had reached Peten. I halted at Kem-Wer Island. An attack of thirst overcame me, making my throat parched and burning, so that I said to myself: This must be the taste of death. However, I raised my spirits and pulled myself together when I heard the sound of cattle lowing, and saw some Syrians. One of their leaders, who had been in Egypt (Kmt), recognized me. He gave me water and he boiled milk for me. I went with him to his tribe, and they treated me well.
(10) I passed from land to land, travelling as far as Byblos, and then turning to Qedem, where I stayed for a year and a half. Then Ammunenshi, the ruler of Upper Retenu took me to himself, promising that I would be happy with him, for I would hear the language of Egypt spoken. He said this because he knew about me, having heard of my capacities from the Egyptians who were there with him to offer testimonials for me.
(11) He then said to me: Why have you come here? Has something happened at the Residence?
(12) Speaking evasively I replied: King Sehetepibrey has departed to the Horizon, and no one can tell what will happen. When I returned from the expedition to the land of the Tjemeh, it was reported to me and my heart took fright, dragging me off to the desert roads. And yet I had not been accused of anything; no one had spat in my face; I had not heard any reproach; and my name had not been heard in the mouth of the prosecutor. I really do not know what has brought me to this land. It is as if it were the plan of some god, as when a man from the Delta finds himself in Abydos, or a marsh-dweller in Nubia.
(13) He then asked me: How will that country of yours be without him, outstanding god that he was, who sent fear throughout the lands like Sekhmet in a year of plague?
(14) In reply I said: Well, his son has entered the Palace and taken up his father's inheritance.
Poem in Praise of Sesostris I(15) He is a god without peer, no one else surpasses him.
He is a master of wisdom, an excellent planner,
a skilled commander; coming and going are by his will.
He it was who subdued the foreign lands while his father was in the Palace;
he reported to him when orders were carried out.
He is a champion who acts with his strong arm, a fighter who is without equal,
when he is seen shooting with the bow and entering into the fray.
He bends back horns and makes hands turn weak,
so that his enemies cannot close their ranks.
Vengefully he smashes skulls, and no one can stand against him.
Striding widely he smites the man who flees;
there is no way out for one who shows his back to him.
He is stout of heart at the time of attack;
he keeps coming and does not turn his back.
He is stalwart of heart when he sees the hosts;
he does not let slackness come over him.
He is eager at the sight of combat, and joyful when he wields his bow.
He takes up his shield and smites, not needing to strike twice to kill;
no one can deflect his arrow, or turn aside his bow.
Bowmen retreat before him as before the might of the great goddess (Sekhmet?).
As he fights he plans the outcome, with no concern for anything else.
Yet he is a gracious lord, and very kindly; he has conquered through love.
His city loves him more than itself, and rejoices in him more than in its god;
men and women together hail him, and rejoice with him now he is King.
He was a conqueror while still in the egg,
and his face was turned towards conquest at birth.
He enriches those born with him; he is unique, a gift from the gods.
Happy the land that he rules; he is the one to extend the frontiers;
he will conquer the southern lands,
and the northern lands without even thinking,
for he was made to smite Syrians and crush Sand-farers.
(16) Send to him, then, and let him know your name, as an inquirer who lives far away from His Majesty. He will not fail to do good to a foreign land that will be loyal to him.
he said to me: Egypt is indeed happy in the knowledge that he is flourishing.
But now that you are here, you shall stay with me, and what I will do for you
will also be good.
The Sojourn of Sinuhe
(18) He set me at the head of his children. He married me to his eldest daughter. He let me choose some of his land for myself, from the best he had, on his border with another territory. It was a goodly land called Yaa. There were figs in it, and grapes. It had more wine than water. Its honey was abundant; its olive oil was plentiful. All kinds of fruit were on its trees. It had barley and emmer wheat, and no end of every kind of cattle.
(19) Much else came to me as a result of his love for me. He had made me chief of a tribe in the best part of his land, and provisions were assigned to me daily, and wine for each day's requirements, with cooked meat, roast fowl, and desert game besides; for they used to hunt and present the catch to me, in addition to what my own hounds caught. Many sweets were also made for me, and milk dishes of all kinds.
(20) Thus I spent many years. My children became strong men, everyone in control of a tribe of his own. Any envoy either travelling north or going south to the Residence would stop over with me. Indeed, I welcomed all comers, giving water to the thirsty, showing the way to anyone who was lost, and rescuing those who had been robbed. When the Syrians took to attacking foreign chiefs I gave advice on how to proceed. Over the years this ruler of Retenu had me carry out numerous missions as commander of his army. Every foreign tribe that I marched against suffered defeat and was driven away from its pasturage and its wells. I plundered its cattle, carried off its people, seized their food, slaying some of them with my strong arm and my bow. By my strategies and by my excellent devices I won the ruler's heart; he loved me, for he recognized my valour. He ranked me ahead of his own children, since he saw the strength of my arms.
The Contest Between Sinuhe and a Syrian Chief
(21) There came a powerful man of Retenu to challenge me in my tent. He was a champion without equal and had defeated all his opponents in Retenu. He declared that he would fight me, with the intention of despoiling me. Urged on by his tribe he planned to plunder my cattle.
(22) My ruler conferred with me, and I said: I do not know him; and I am no friend of his to be able to go walking about in his camp. So, have I ever opened his doors or gone over his fence? It is simply jealousy, because he sees me looking after your affairs. I am just like a stray bull in a strange herd, who is attacked by the long-horned bull of the herd. Is an inferior loved when he enters into a superior position? A Syrian does not associate with a Delta-man. What can make a papyrus plant cleave to a rock? If a bull wishes to fight, then should a champion bull turn tail for fear of being equaled? If his heart is intent on fighting, let him speak his mind. Does a god not know what is ordained for him? Do people know how the matter stands?
(23) During the night I strung my bow and tested my arrows; I took out my dagger and polished my weapons. When day broke, Retenu arrived, having stirred up its tribes and gathered the peoples together, keen to see this contest.
(24) He came out to me as I waited to get myself near him. Every heart burned for me; men and women alike were groaning. Every heart ached for me thinking: Is there any other champion who could fight him?
(25) He took up his battle-ax and shield, and his armful of missiles fell around me; I let him attack me with his weapons and allowed his arrows to pass by me without effect, one after another. Then he charged at me and so I shot him; my arrow stuck in his neck. He screamed and fell on his nose. I slew him with his own ax, raising my war cry over his back while every Syrian roared. I gave praise to the god Montu, while his people mourned for him. The ruler Ammunenshi embraced me.
(26) What my opponent had intended to do to me, I did to him: I carried off his possessions, plundered his cattle, took what was in his tent, and stripped his camp. Thus I became great, having a wealth of goods and an abundance of cattle. It was the doing of the god, showing mercy to one who had angered him and whom he had caused to stray into another land. And today his heart is appeased.
Sinuhe's Longing to Return to Egypt
fugitive who fled his surroundings; now my renown is in the Residence.
(28) Whichever god decreed this flight, I pray you, have mercy and return me to the Residence! Please grant that I may see the place where my heart dwells. What is more important than having my body buried in the land of my birth? O come to my aid. What has occurred is a fortunate event: the god has shown pity. May he act now to bring a happy ending to one whom he afflicted. May his heart ache for one whom he forced to live in a foreign land. If it is true that he is appeased today, may he hearken to the prayer of one who is far off. May he return one whom he made to roam the earth to the place from which he brought him out.
(29) May the King of Egypt have mercy on me, that I may live by his mercy. May I greet the Lady of the Land who is in his Palace, and attend to the words of his children. Then my body might be young again, for old age has come upon me, and feebleness has overtaken me. My eyes are heavy; my arms are weak; my legs have slackened. The heart is weary; departure time is near. May I be conducted to the City of Eternity. May I serve the Lady of All so that she may speak well of me to her children. May she spend eternity over me*. *(as the sky-goddess Nut)
(30) When the Majesty of King Kheperkarey (Senwesret I) was told of the condition in which I was, His Majesty sent word to me with gifts of royal bounty, to gladden the heart of his servant as he would do with the ruler of a foreign land. And the King's children, who were in the Palace, let me hear word of them.
The Decree of the
Pharaoh to Sinuhe
(31) Copy of the decree brought to this servant concerning his return to Egypt:
(32) Horus, Living in Births; the Two Ladies, Living in Births; King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Kheperkarey; Son of Rey, Senwesret, who lives forever.
(33) Royal decree to the Retainer Sinuhe:
This decree of the King is brought to you to remind you as follows: it was by the counsel of your own heart that you wandered about in foreign lands, passing from Qedem to Retenu and going from land to land. What have you done that one should act against you? You have not cursed, so that your utterances should be reproved. You have not spoken against the counsel of the nobles, so that your words should be opposed. This thing has simply carried away your heart, for there was nothing in my heart against you. Your own Heaven (the Queen), in the Palace, prospers and flourishes today. Her head is adorned with the kingship of the land. Her children are in the Residence. You shall heap up treasures they give you and you shall live on their bounty.
(34) Come back to Egypt and see the Residence in which you lived. Then you can kiss the ground at the great portals and join the courtiers.
have now begun to grow old and are losing your manly strength. You must think
about the day of burial and passing into an honoured state. A night is
appointed for you with ointments and wrappings from the hand of the goddess
Tait*. A funeral procession will be made for you on the day of burial: a mummy
case of gold with a headpiece of lapis lazuli; a sky canopy above you, as you
lie in the hearse; oxen drawing you; musicians going before you; mortuary
dances performed at the door of your tomb; the offering-list read out to you;
sacrifices made beside your offering-stone; your tomb-pillars made of white
stone, as with royal children. *(goddess of weaving)
(36) You must not die in a foreign country. You must not be escorted to burial by Syrians. You must not be wrapped in a ram's skin instead of a coffin. For too long you have been roaming the earth. Take thought for your body and come back.
Sinuhe's Response to the Decree
(37) When this decree reached me I was standing in the midst of my tribe. After it was read out to me, I threw myself on my belly. I touched the ground and spread it over my chest. I walked around my camp shouting: How can such good be done to a servant whose heart led him to stray into alien lands? The kindness that saves me from death is indeed good, and your soul (ka) grants that I reach my end with my body in the Residence.
(38) Copy of the reply to this decree:
(39) The servant of the Palace, Sinuhe, says: In peace, in very peace. Regarding this matter of the flight your servant undertook in his ignorance, it is known to your soul (ka), O Good God, Lord of the Two Lands, whom Rey loves and to whom Montu the Lord of Thebes shows favour. And Amon the Lord of the thrones of the Two Lands, and Sobek-Rey the Lord of Sumenu, Horus, Hathor, Atum with his Ennead, Sopedu-Neferbau-Semseru the Eastern Horus, the Lady of Yemet (the serpent-goddess), may she enfold your head, the Council over the flood waters (of the Nile), Min-Horus of the hill-countries, Wereret the Lady of Punt, Nut, Haroeris-Rey, and all the gods of the Beloved Land (Egypt) and the Islands of the Sea may they give life and joy to your nostrils, may they endue you with their bounty, may they give you eternity without end and everlastingness without limit. May the fear of you resound in the lowlands and the highlands, for you have subdued all that Aton the sun-disk encircles. Such is the prayer of this servant for his lord who saves him from the West.
(40) The lord of knowledge who knows people will know in the majesty of the Palace that this servant was afraid to speak. It is a grave thing to repeat. The Great God, the equal of Rey, knows the heart of one who has served willingly, and this servant is in the hands of one who takes thought for him and has placed him under his guidance. Your Majesty is the conquering Horus; your arms prevail over all lands. May Your Majesty now command to have brought to you the prince of Meki from Qedem, the mountain chiefs from Keshu, and the prince of Menus from the lands of the Fenkhu. They are worthy rulers of renown who have grown in love for you. And I hardly need to mention that Retenu belongs to you like your hounds.
for this flight which your servant made, it was not premeditated; it was not in
my heart; I did not plan it. I do not know what it was that removed me from my
proper place. It was like the guidance of a dream: as when a man of the Delta
sees himself in Yebu*, or a marshes person sees himself in Nubia. I had no
cause for fear. No one was pursuing me. I had not heard any words of reproach;
my name had not been heard in the mouth of the prosecutor. Yet my body
quivered, my feet hastened, my heart drove me off, and the god who ordained
this flight dragged me away. But I had not been haughty. A person who knows his
land should stand in awe, for Rey has set the fear of you throughout the land
and the dread of you in every foreign country. Whether I am in the Residence or
in this place, it is you who covers the horizon. The sun (disk) rises at your
bidding; the water in the river is drunk at your pleasure; the air of heaven is
breathed by your leave. And now that this servant has been sent for, he will
hand over to the progeny that he begot in this place. May Your Majesty act as
he wishes, for one lives by the breath you bestow. Rey, Horus, and Hathor love
your noble nose, while Montu the Lord of Thebes desires that it will live for
*Yebu is Elephantine island on the Nile, Aswan, in the far south
The Return of Sinuhe to Egypt
(42) I was allowed to spend one more day in Yaa to hand over my possessions to my children, my eldest son taking charge of my tribe; all my property passed into his hands, my serfs and all my cattle, my stores of fruit and every pleasant tree of mine.
Then this servant departed to the south. I stopped at Horus Ways (on the border
of Egypt) and the commander in charge of the garrison there sent a message to
the Residence to make it known. This His Majesty sent a trustworthy overseer of
the royal estates to take ships laden with gifts from the King to the Syrians
who had come escorting me to Horus Ways. I called each one by name, and then
embarked. As we set sail every servant was at his task, and they were kneading
and straining (making fresh bread and beer) before me until I reached the city
of Itj-tawy*. *the royal city of the 12th Dynasty, the Middle Kingdom
(44) And at the very break of day they came to summon me, ten men coming and ten men going, to conduct me to the Palace. I touched my forehead to the ground between the sphinxes, and there stood the royal children in the gateway waiting to meet me. The courtiers who usher through the forecourt directed me to the audience-hall. I found His Majesty on the great throne in a golden enclosure.
(45) Stretched out on my belly, I did not know what to say before him. This god greeted me in a friendly manner, but I was like a man caught by darkness. My spirit (ba) was gone, my limbs trembled; my heart was not in my body, so that I did not know life from death.
(46) His Majesty said to one of the courtiers: Raise him up and let him speak to me.
(47) Then His Majesty said: So here you are, returned from roaming around foreign lands. Exile has left its mark on you; you have aged; infirmity has taken hold of you. And it is most important that your body be buried (properly), and not be escorted by Bowmen. Come then do not behave thus, not speaking when your name is pronounced.
(48) But I still feared punishment, and I gave the reply of a frightened man: What has my lord said to me? I should answer, but I cannot. This is not disrespect to the god. It is the terror in my body, like that which brought about my fated flight. Here I am in your presence. Life is yours. May Your Majesty do as he wills.
(49) Thereupon the King's daughters were brought in, and His Majesty said to the Queen: Here is Sinuhe, returned as a Syrian, as if brought up by nomads.
(50) She uttered a loud shriek, and the royal daughters all cried out together, asking His Majesty: Is it really him, O King, My Lord?
(51) It is really him, His Majesty said.
(52) Now they had brought with them their necklaces, their rattles, and their sistra of Hathor, and they held them out to His Majesty.
The Plea of the Princesses for Sinuhe
(53) Put your hands on these lovely things, eternal King,
the adornments of the Lady of Heaven.
The Golden One* gives life to your nostrils, * (Hathor)
the Lady of the stars enfolds you.
The South Crown went north, the North Crown south,
joined and united by Your Majesty's word.
With the Cobra Goddess* set upon your brow, *(Wadjet, Uto)
you deliver your subjects from evil.
Peace to you from Rey, Lord of the Lands.
Hail to you and to the Lady of All*. *(the Queen)
Slacken your bow, set aside your arrow,
give breath to him who is gasping.
Give us this good gift on this good day,
grant us this Son of the North wind, this Bowman born in Egypt.
He took flight through fear of you;
he left the land through dread of you;
may the face of him who has seen you not turn pale;
may the eyes that have seen you have no fear.
(54) His Majesty declared: Let him have no fear, let him have no dread. He shall be a companion among the nobles; he shall be among the courtiers. Proceed to the robing-room to wait upon him.
The Reinstatement of Sinuhe
(55) As I went forth from the audience-hall, the royal daughters gave me their hands, and we passed through the great portals. I was placed in a prince's house, which had fine things in it: a cool room (bathroom) and horizon images (pictures?). There were riches from the treasury in it, and in every room was clothing of royal linen, myrrh, and the choice perfume of the King and of the courtiers whom he loves. Every servant was at his task.
(56) Years were taken off my body. I was shaved and my hair was combed out. Loads of dirt were given back to the desert, and clothes to the Sand-farers. Then I was dressed in fine linen and anointed with fine oil. I slept on a bed. I had left the sand to those who live in it, and the tree oil to those who rub themselves with it.
(57) The house and garden I was given had belonged to a courtier. Many craftsman restored it, and all its trees were made to flourish anew. Meals were brought to me from the palace three and four times a day, apart from what the royal children were continually giving me.
(58) A stone pyramid-tomb was built for me among the pyramids. The chief pyramid mason marked out its ground plan; a master draughtsman designed in it; a master sculptor carved in it; the overseers of works in the necropolis gave it their attention. All the equipment that is placed in a tomb chamber was supplied.
(59) Mortuary priests were assigned to me, and a funerary domain was made for me, with fields and a garden in the proper place, as is done for a companion of the first rank. My statue was overlaid with gold, and its kilt with electrum. It was His Majesty who had it done. There is no commoner who has had the like done for him. I remained in the favour of the King until the day of mooring* came. *(at death)
(60) It is done, from beginning to end, as it was found in writing.
The colophon at the end of the story (60) is added by the scribe. Where had he found it in writing? A likely place would be in the tomb described by Sinuhe in the last paragraph, assuming that Sinuhe was a real person in history. Archaeology has not brought such a tomb to light; nor is there any other record that supports the existence of this Sinuhe. Whatever the truth is, the numerous copies of the story attest to its ancient popularity, and for us today it certainly provides a vivid picture of life in Egypt and Syria-Palestine some four thousand years ago.
The story is set in the 20th century B.C.E. The hero is returning from Libya with a victorious Egyptian army under the leadership of the royal prince and heir-apparent, when news arrives of the death of the Pharaoh in Egypt. This was Sehetepibre Amenemhet I, founder of the Twelfth Dynasty (1990-1785), who was succeeded by his son Kheperkarey Senusret I (or Sen-Wesret, or Sesostris). Fearing that he might be under suspicion and in danger of being purged by the new ruler, Sinuhe flees into Palestine, where he settles with nomads for many years. One is reminded of Moses in this respect. Eventually he returns home to Egypt at the invitation of the Pharaoh.
The Egyptian hope for an after-life comes through strongly towards the end of the tale; it is not a religious text, but it certainly permits us to know what went on in the heart and mind of an ancient Egyptian.
Editions and Translations
M.G. Maspéro, Les Mémoires de Sinouhit (Cairo 1908).
Ronald Bullock, Story of Sinuhe (London 1978), text, transliteration, translation.
Alan H. Gardiner, Notes on the Story of Sinuhe (Paris 1916)
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, I (1973), 222-235.
Joseph Kaster, The Literature and Mythology of Ancient Egypt (1968), 288-302.
William Kelly Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt (1972), 57-74.
J.A. Wilson, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 18-22.