As an undergrad in history, I was often warned about reading modern attitudes into people of the past. Yet still I come across those unlikely texts that feel intimately familiar despite being composed in a world so distant in worldview and knowledge than our own. Notably, there’s The Report of Wen-Amon, a papyrus manuscript composed some three thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. Wen-Amon was a priest at the temple of Amon in Karnak, ordered by the high priest Herihor to travel to Phoenicia and obtain cedar wood for a holy barge at the beginning of the eleventh century BCE. The Report is Wen-Amon’s first-person account of his misadventures on the way to Byblos and back, which feels in equal parts Kafkaesque and Douglas Adams-y. He sets out with the gifts required to gain passage through the various kingdoms in Phoenicia, but when he lands at his first port of call, one of his crewmates steals most of the treasures and jumps ship. Wen-Amon tries to get compensation from the King of Dor since the theft took place in his harbour, but the king insists that Wen-Amon is mistaken–since the thief wasn’t one of the king’s citizens, he’s not responsible for repayment. The best he can do is let Wen-Amon stick around while the guardsmen try to find the thief. After nine days pass without any luck, Wen-Amon gets fed up and sails away. Swap out the ship for a plane and the king for a customs official and you have a pretty common story of international travel and theft.
And so it goes. Wen-Amon comes to Byblos penniless and, it turns out, sans his letter of passage (his passport, if you will), which he left with the rulers of the Nile delta. His constant attempts to throw around his authority as an Egyptian and a priest of Amon constantly fail. Phoenicia is no longer under Egyptian administration and no one there respects him. The king of Byblos just tells him to go away, and when Wen-Amon’s about to give up 19 days later, suddenly summons him. Wen-Amon thinks the king was going to just give him the cedars as a token of goodwill; the king pretty much laughs in Wen-Amon’s face, and the priest has to take the humiliating step of sending for cash from Egypt. And then, when he’s finally ready to leave with the logs, a fleet of ships from Dor comes seeking to arrest him for an earlier incident involving some silver.
Here, Wen-Amon understandably breaks into tears.
Unfortunately, the narrative breaks off after a storm blows Wen-Amon off-course to Cyprus where he somehow incites a riot. You can read the whole thing here.
These kinds of traveller’s tales of bureaucratic entanglements are common now. Coming across one this old is surprising, but in retrospect, shouldn’t be. It takes place at the tale end of a period when Egypt, Babylonia and the Hittite Empire had settled into a stable “world system” playing host to many institutions we’d recognize today, including regular diplomatic missions, money exchange, fixed trade tariffs and routes, taxation and labour services, and the like. We also happen to know a great deal more about this time period than those that follow it since diplomatic exchanges and other records were kept on cuneiform tablets and written in the then lingua franca, Akkadian–even in Egypt, where a cache of tablets found near Amarna gives a thirty-year snapshot of ordinary administrative documents.
The Record of Wen-Amon isn’t one of those, but it takes place within that context. Poor, whiny Wen-Amon seems so akin to a British civil servant because his position essentially served the same function; we can still sympathise with this traveller from c. 1070 BCE because he’s recognizable as just another office worker. Even more interesting is that The Report of Wen-Amon probably isn’t a true account at all, but rather a piece of “historical fiction” written some time later adapting an earlier record into a humorous piece that mocked low-level and self-important officials like Wen-Amon–in which case we really do have an ancient Egyptian Douglas Adams on our hands.