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Literature / The Egyptian

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"During my life I have seen, known, and lost too much to be the prey of vain dread; and, as for the hope of immortality, I am as weary of that as I am of gods and kings. For my own sake only I write this; and herein I differ from all other writers, past and to come."

The Egyptian (or Sinuhe the Egyptian) is a historical novel by Mika Waltari first published in Finland in 1945. It details the life-story of an Egyptian doctor named Sinuhe, and his interactions with others during the turbulent reign of Akhenaten during the 18th dynasty.

The story is told via the Framing Device of Sinuhe writing down his memoirs; as this clever device allows for plenty of room for doubts as to his reliability, the novel is an impressive example of combining both Shown Their Work and Science Marches On: much of what Waltari writes was considered the best historical knowledge of his day, although much has also been reevaluated by modern historians. The main character of the book is named for the protagonist of a story called The Story of Sinuhe who overhears a secret and has to leave Egypt. The parallels to the protagonist of the novel is noted by characters inside the story.

Sinuhe's story begins when he is found as a baby floating down the Nile in a reed boat; he grows up to become a doctor, and in the process, he meets and befriends Pharaoh Akhenaten, as well as General Horemheb. After losing all his possessions to a woman, he escapes into exile, where he spends his time spying and learning in various foreign lands. In Babylon, he meets and sets free a woman named Minea destined for human sacrifice on Crete; after her death, Sinuhe returns to Egypt and becomes embroiled in the conflict between the king with his new god Aten and the old priesthood of Amun. Eventually, Sinuhe poisons Pharaoh, and Horemheb becomes ruler of Egypt, although first under a succession of puppet-rulers. Finally, Sinuhe confronts Horemheb over his various misdeeds and is sent into exile again, where he writes down his life's story.

Sadly, the only English language version available of the novel is an abridged version, which cuts the original 900+ page novel down to 500+ pages. The complete novel has been translated unabridged to several other languages though.

The novel was made into a 1954 20th Century Fox film starring Edmund Purdom as Sinuhe, Michael Wilding as Akenaten, Bella Darvi as Nefer, Jean Simmons as Merit, Victor Mature as Horemheb, and Peter Ustinov (doing his usual scene-stealing) as Kapteh. It is hard to believe that this rather ponderous movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, the director of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Casablanca. Nevertheless, it has a memorable score by Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman. Marilyn Monroe apparently auditioned for the role of Nefer. The movie has some substantial differences from the novel.

The book was also adapted into a radio series in the 80's by the Finnish group Radioteatterinote . While only available in Finnish, it can be listened for free in YLE Areena.

This work provides examples of the following tropes:

  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Burraburiash, the king of Babylon, is a young boy.
  • Adapted Out: The film version cuts out all the pharaohs who reigned between Akhenaten and Horemheb, which includes the famous Tutankhamun.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Extreme example. Nefer's allure on Sinuhe is so strong (or young Sinuhe is so dumbass, if not both) that he gives her everything he has, his family house and even his parents' future graves only to get laid with her. Which, to top matters, she then refuses to do.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Sinuhe is a genius of medicine and can be very smart in other fields too, but he has pretty much No Social Skills, is surprisingly naîve even later in his life, and often makes not only impulsive, but also irrational decisions. One can finish the book with the impression that there is something up with him.
  • Ancient Egypt: Duh
  • Anti-Hero: Sinuhe, at best.
  • Arc Words: The phrase "so there has ever been and ever will be" (adapted from Ecclesiastes) makes numerous appearances throughout the novel.
  • Artistic License – Biology: As it is trapped on its cave, the Cretan god is said to eat only the human sacrifices they send to him, which amount to one person every month. A carnivorous beast of enough size to leave man-sized dung piles, as Sinuhe finds, could not possibly sustain itself by eating so little (and it is explicitly said it is trapped in the cave, meaning it cannot leave it to feed in open sea). Either the islanders feed it aside from the sacrifices, or the creature is actually supernatural.
  • Artistic License – History: Sinuhe informs that he got circumcised as a baby by his physician father. In real life, ancient Egyptians got circumcised during their teenage years, as a rite of passage to adulthood, and historians are additionally unsure of whether everybody or only certain people were supposed to get the procedure. Furthermore, the novel makes no mention at all of female circumcision, which was also practiced in ancient Egypt. Unlike examples that can be chalked up to Dated History, those notes are reflected in ancient sources.
  • Beware the Honest Ones: Akhenaton.
    "The Pharaoh claims to live of the truth, not realizing that the truth is a knife in the hands of a small child."
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Horemheb and Eie to an extent. Though initially rivals, they realise that one could not rule Egypt without the other as Eie has the priesthood and administarion while Horemheb has the military and the people's adoration.
  • Broken Angel: The Cretan god. When Sinuhe gets to see it, it is just the floating corpse of what used to be a magnificent sea creature which people worshipped like a god.
  • Cartwright Curse: Sinuhe, again.
  • Charm Person:
    • It is noted that Akhenaton can make people see the world the way he does. Horemheb notes that, if it were possible just to bring everyone in the world to the Pharaoh so that he could talk to them personally, the world might be changed. We later hear that he'd actually made calculations for trying to achieve this.
    • Nefernefernefer could probably teach Akhenaton some lessons, or rather her boobs could.
  • Crushing the Populace:
    • After a period of religious unrest in Thebes, a mercenary army is dispatched by Horemheb and Eie to quell the new religion, and the results are NOT pretty.
    • This is pretty much the modus operandi for Hittites.
  • Composite Character: Horemheb is combined with Seti as the father of Ramesses I. The historical Horemheb died childless and Ramesses I had been his grand vizier who had children and grandchildren, as well as being a competent administrator.
  • Corrupt Church: The church of Ammon, in marked contrast to the Saintly Church of Aten. Though the latter is actually far from being completely pure, as some of her priests are described to be too zealous to debate, and Akhenaton and his court orders to do some nasty things in the name of Aten.
  • Crapsack World:
    • The Aesop of the story ends on the somewhat existentialist note that you really can't change anything but your own attitude, that people are corrupt and weak, and that the only person who really wished everyone well is completely incapable of grasping this fact, which just ends up making things worse.
    • Another great theme seems to be human naivety, partly personalised in Sinuhe who only later has realisations of his the folly of his actions.
  • Dated History: Understandable, considering the book was published in 1945. and with over 70 years of development, our knowledge of ancient Egypt and other cultures had progressed quite substantially. Though at the time of publishing it was praised for its accuracy, and a lot of the book's contents still hold up.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance AND Values Resonance: Waltari has a lot of fun with this.
  • Demythification: "Minotaur" is portrayed as the name of Crete's high priest, who wears a bull mask a majority of the time, resulting in people mistaking him for an actual human-bull hyrbid when they first meet him in the dim light.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Sinuhe of all people! Horemheb sends him on a sort of multi-year spy mission across the known world (Syria, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Crete), ostensibly to sharpen his medical skill, but really to get a good idea about the military strength of other nations in comparison to Egypt's.
  • Desert Warfare: Most of the conflicts happen in the desert, which is understandable for the setting.
  • Devoted to You: Horemheb to princess Baketamon, though completely not vice versa.
  • Doorstopper: The book has over 900 pages and it is often published in two volumes.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Horemheb claims to have once seen an apparition or a vision that gave him strength and courage. It took the form of a burning bush...
  • Downer Ending: At the conclusion, all of Sinuhe's actions end up crushing his dreams, leaving him in bitter exile.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: While the novel is tame by today's standards, a colleague of Waltari was shocked by the high amount of erotic content in it and tried to prevent the book's release.
  • Femme Fatale: Nefer.
  • Framing Device: The setting, while accurate for its time and quite enjoyable for itself alone, is a stage on which the true theme of the book - human nature, is presented.
  • General Failure: Pepitamon, as he cares infinitely more for his garden cats than any warfare matter.
  • God Is Dead: The Minoan god is rumoured to have died sometime before Sinuhe, Kaptah, and Minea reach Crete. It turns out to be true, as their "god" is some sort of a sea beast that is dead by the event's time.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: Very few of the characters can be considered truly or mostly good, same goes for truly evil.
  • Happily Married:
    • Akhenaten and Nefertiti. This is Truth in Television from everything we know of the royal couple; also that they were Good Parents as you see in the film. Numerous shrine carvings depict them playing with their kids and including them in religious ceremonies.
    • Sinuhe and Minea, for the short while it lasted.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Kaptah is often nostalgic for the days when he was Sinuhe's slave, although he notes that in part this was because, being a slave, he could move around without being noticed, and because Sinuhe was a relatively good master and usually left him to his own devices anyway.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Horemheb.
  • Heroic BSoD: Sinuhe has a really bad one, when Minea dies. It hit him so hard, that he actually sank into an alcoholic, self-harming, nearly suicidal depression for several months, before Kaptah gives him some Epiphany Therapy.
    Overall I was deeply bored with Kaptah during these days, because he served me food constantly even if I wasn't hungry and all I would have wanted was wine. You see, I had a constant thirst, a thirst that only wine could ease — I tried to explain this to Kaptah, but he didn't listen to me at all, and ordered me to rest and keep my eyes closed so I could relax. However, I was completely calm in my mind and cold-blooded like a dead fish in a barrel of oil — That's why I didn't want to close my eyes at all and I tried to take my cane so I could hit him, but my arm was so weak, that he only wrenched it out of my hand — He also hid my excellent knife - the one that I had got as a gift from the Hethic dockhand - so I couldn't find it when I would've gladly seen the blood flowing from my veins.
    • He has another one when his son dies.
  • Historical Fiction: Set in the 18th dynasty Egypt.
  • Human Sacrifice:
    • At the onset of the war against the Hittites, captured Syrian and Hittite soldiers are sacrificed by the positively gleeful priests of Sekhmet, she being the goddess of war. It goes without saying however that even Horemheb was unnerved and slightly disgusted by this, to say nothing of Sinuhe.
    • In Crete, a person is sacrificied to the Minoan god every month. How is another story...
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Kaptah was worth less on the slave market for being half-blind, but turns out to be extremely useful.
  • Ironic Name: Aside from "beautiful," "Nefer" can mean "good." Oh dear...
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: Or rather Ironic Nursery Fairytale. During their "dating," Nefer tells Sinuhe a story of a man who sacrifices everything to his loved one, including killing his wife and children, and as a punishment he gets thrown into a red-hot, steaming oven. Later on, Sinuhe gives Nefer everything he has when trying to win her love. This also includes his family's house and later his parent's tomb when they die in the streets as beggars. And the red-hot, steaming oven is his own guilt when he realizes what he has done
  • Irony: After defeating a mountain people in Syria, the Egyptian army cuts down the wooden statue of their god and burns it in honor of theirs, which are thus proven more powerful. The "defeated" god's name? Yahweh.
  • Karma Houdini: Two people end up making it in the book: one is a rapist, the other a ruthless "Greed Is Good" kind of capitalist. Everyone else is either dead or in exile. Nefernefernefer also qualifies, as while Sinuhe has her imprisoned in the House of the Dead, she charms her captors, turns them against each other, and escapes with greater riches than she had before.
  • Light Is Not Good: In a twist, both Aten and Ammon are explained using light-imagery, as they both were solar deities in the Egyptian Mythology canon.
  • Love Makes You Dumb. Sinuhe with Nefernefernefer is a glaring example of this (or possibly of Lust Makes You Dumb).
  • Love Makes You Evil: Or eviler in Horemhotep's case.
  • Loveable Rogue: Kaptah - by the end of the book he could arguably be called the only "loveable" character.
  • Love Freak: Akhenaton is a deconstructed example, although in a more subdued manner than most.
  • Love Martyr: Nefer uses Sinuhe, Baketamon abuses Horemheb.
  • Magic Realism: While it's mostly a straight historical drama, there are elements like the blood stancher, whose mere presence can stop a wound from flowing, the Cretan god and the cures that Ammon's priests perform for Sinuhe that qualify as this.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Many — e.g., Ay, Horemheb, Kaptah, Nefer...
  • Modern Major General: Pepitamon, one of Ankhenaton's generals, who is an excellent breeder of cats.
  • Necessarily Evil: Everything Horemhotep does, except for his marital rape of Baketamon, is done to preserve Egypt from the external threat of its enemies and/or the internal threat of his deluded Stupid Good Pharoah.
  • Never Mess with Granny: In the film, Judith Evelyn as Queen Mother Taia.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The Cretan god is described as a massive bull-headed serpent.
  • Police State: The land of Hatti. Not in the modern sense, but it is militarised, movement of foreigners is restricted with special permits, criminals are punished severely (for instance, illegal "sorcerers" are impaled on the side of roads), the Hittite king has somewhat dictatorial overtones and its capital Hatussha is mostly closed-off to outsiders.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Kaptah.
  • Rightful King Returns: Averted; the heir to the throne ends up in exile, and the commoner Horemheb becomes pharaoh.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized
  • Saintly Church: The church of Aten. A deconstruction in that the novel asks the question of which one is worse.
  • Say My Name: She is usually referred to as Nefernefernefer because "No man can resist, saying my name just once." It doesn't help that the world Nefer can mean "beautiful."
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Beautiful!: Nefer never misses a chance to take advantage of men's lust for her.
  • Shout-Out: The Cretan god seems to be an ophiotaurus, a monster created by Ovid in his Fasti.
  • Side Kick: Kaptah
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Mostly averted. It is seen as unpleasant but necessary fact of life, that is until Akhenaton comes along...
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: FAR, far on the cynical end of the scale.
  • That Poor Cat: Nefer's, in the film. A Persian with a huge heavy coat. In Egypt. When Sinuhe is advancing on Nefer to kill her, the cat yowls and leaps from her arms.
  • Tower of Babel: In Babylon of course. It is used for astronomical and astrological observations though.
  • Tragic Hero: By the book's end, Sinuhe had sold off his parents' grave for sex, killed Akhenaton, ostensibly to save Egypt but also causing Eie and Horemheb's unlawful ascendancy to the throne, lost two women he loved and his son Thoth, had his home burned, killed a Hittite noble who accepted him courteously, and is finally exiled to never return to Egypt under pain of death because he knows too much by then.
  • Undying Loyalty: Kaptah for Sinuhe, Sinuhe for Pharaoh, and Pharaoh for Aten, most prominently. Unfortunately it really only goes well for Kaptah.
  • The Vamp: Nefer. Kind of a subversion, because she actually warns Sinuhe that if he falls for her, she will eventually demolish everything he holds dear. But, being young and stupid, Sinuhe ignores the warnings, and being wily and indifferent, Nefer capitalizes on it.
  • Villains Never Lie: Nefer is perfectly honest about her intent to use Sinuhe and then discard him... which is perhaps one of the more obvious points where it becomes clear that we're dealing with an Unreliable Narrator.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: In a play on the story of The Minotaur Minea is to be sacrificed to the Cretan God... only God Is Dead now and rather than being sacrificed, she is killed to keep this a secret. Yeah, it's that kind of story.