The Story of Sinuhe (also known as Sanehat) is considered one of the finest works of ancient Egyptian literature. It is a narrative set in the aftermath of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th dynasty of Egypt, in the early 20th century BC. It was composed around 1875 BC, although the earliest extant manuscript is from the reign of Amenemhat III, c. 1800 BC. There is an ongoing debate among Egyptologists as to whether or not the tale is based on actual events involving an individual named Sinuhe (Egyptian: z3-nht "son of the sycamore"), with the consensus being that it is most likely a work of fiction. Due to the universal nature of the themes explored in Sinuhe, including divine providence and mercy, its anonymous author has been described as the "Egyptian Shakespeare" whose ideas have parallels in biblical texts. Sinuhe is considered to be a work written in verse and it may also have been performed. The great popularity of the work is witnessed by the numerous surviving fragments.
There are a number of sources telling the Story of Sinuhe. A limestone ostracon (a pottery or stone fragment) in the Egyptian Museum is over a yard long, and is possibly the largest ostracon in existence. It tells the beginning of the Story of Sinuhe, and is inscribed in Hieratic. The story dates from the XII dynasty, and the fragment was found in the tomb of Sennutem.
Sinuhe is an official who accompanies prince Senwosret I to Libya. He overhears a conversation connected with the death of King Amenemhet I and as a result flees to Upper Retjenu (Canaan), leaving Egypt behind. He becomes the son-in-law of Chief Ammunenshi and in time his sons grow to become chiefs in their own right. Sinuhe fights rebellious tribes on behalf of Ammunenshi. As an old man, in the aftermath of defeating a powerful opponent in single combat, he prays for a return to his homeland: "May god pity me...may he hearken to the prayer of one far away!...may the King have mercy on me...may I be conducted to the city of eternity!" He then receives an invitation from King Senwosret I of Egypt to return, which he accepts in highly moving terms. Living out the rest of his life in royal favour, he is finally laid to rest in the necropolis in a beautiful tomb.
The Story of Sinuhe has spawned a great deal of literature which explores the themes contained in the work from many perspectives. The scope and variety of this material has been likened to the analysis of Hamlet and other notable works of literature. Scholars debate the reason why Sinuhe flees Egypt, with the majority ascribing panic over a perceived threat. The tale is full of symbolic allusions. Sinuhe's name (="Son of the Sycamore") is seen as providing an important link in understanding the story. The sycamore is an ancient Egyptian Tree of Life, associated with Hathor (the Goddess of fertility and rebirth and patroness of foreign countries), who features throughout the work.
Sinuhe comes under the protective orbit of divine powers, in the form of the King, from whom he first tries to run away, and that of the Queen, a manifestation of Hathor. On fleeing Egypt, Sinuhe crosses a waterway associated with the Goddess Maat, the ancient Egyptian principle of truth, order and justice, in the vicinity of a sycamore tree.
The ancient Egyptians believed in free will, implicit in the code of Maat, but this still allowed divine grace to work in and through the individual, and an overarching divine providence is seen in Sinuhe's flight and return to his homeland. Unable to escape the orbit of the gods' power and mercy, Sinuhe exclaims: "Whether I am in the Residence, or whether I am in this place, it is you who cover this horizon".
Parallels have been made between the biblical narrative of Joseph and the Story of Sinuhe. In what is seen as divine providence, Sinuhe the Egyptian flees to Syro-Canaan and becomes a member of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Egyptian family. In what is seen as divine providence, the Syro-Canaanite Joseph is taken to Egypt where he becomes part of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Syro-Canaanite family. Parallels have also been drawn from other biblical texts: the Hebrew prophet Jonah's frustrated flight from the orbit of God's power is likened to Sinuhe's similar flight from the King. The battle between David and Goliath is compared to his fight with a mighty challenger, whom he slays with a single blow, and the parable of the Prodigal Son is likened to his return home.
Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer, published in 1941 a story entitled Awdat Sinuhi translated by Raymond Stock in 2003 as The Return of Sinuhe in the collection of Mahfouz's short stories entitled Voices from the Other World. The story is based directly on the Story of Sinuhe, although adding details of a lovers' triangle romance that does not appear in the original.
The story also formed part of the inspiration for the 1945 novel by Mika Waltari, and the 1954 Hollywood film epic, both titled The Egyptian, which although set during the reign of 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten, features a lead character named Sinuhe (played by Edmund Purdom) who flees Egypt in disgrace, to return after achieving material success and personal redemption in foreign lands.
Cuban songwriter and singer Silvio Rodriguez composed a song title "Sinuhe" (2003) included in his album A Date with the Angels (Cita con los Angeles original Spanish). The lyrics used the figure of Sinuhe as a metaphor of the past intellectual greatness of the Middle East and portrays a contrast with the contemporary conflicts and wars in the region.