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Posts Tagged ‘ancient egypt’

For a long time I was only familiar with The Story of Sinuhe from Mika Waltari’s historical novel The Egyptian (1945), which I read when I was 12 years old. Having now read the source material, the strangest part is that The Egyptian is historical fiction based on historical fiction. Like The Report of Wen-Amon, the events in The Story of Sinuhe are at least fictionalized if not outright imaginary. The supposed autobiographical account takes place in the early 20th century BCE, the earliest manuscript dates from about two hundred years later. Taking that as somewhere near the date of composition, it’s like a novelist today writing a story set in the Victorian era. Judging from the various copies floating around, it was extremely popular, an ancient Egyptian bestseller.

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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.

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