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Authors: Mika Waltari

The Egyptian

BOOK: The Egyptian
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

by Mika Waltari

Translated by Naomi Walford


The Egyptian
is the full-bodied recreation of an era hitherto untapped by fiction. As such it is rich with fresh veins of fascinating lore. Entirely authentic, it is written with a literary excellence of which few contemporary historical novels can boast.

The story of
The Egyptian
is rolled out on a tremendous canvas. Set in Egypt, more than a thousand years before Christ, it encompasses all of the then-known world. It is told by Sinuhe, physician to the Pharaoh, and is the story of his life. Through his eyes are seen innumerable characters, full drawn and covering the whole panorama of the ancient world. Events of war, intrigue, murder, passion, love, and religious strife are revealed as Sinuhe describes his often brilliant, often bitter, life.

There is real grandeur to
The Egyptian
. It has the broad sweep of truly major fiction, a powerful narrative pace coupled with intense human interest. It is the astonishing triumph of a great creative imagination.

The author, Mika Waltari, is probably the most famous living writer in his native Finland. His book has enjoyed enormous success around the world.

Copyright 1949, by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, must not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Printed in the United States of America

The Reed Boat

I, SINUHE, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this. I do not write it to the glory of the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor from any hope of the future but for myself alone. 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.

I begin this book in the third year of my exile on the shores of the Eastern Sea, whence ships put out for the land of Punt, near the desert, near those hills from which stone was quarried to build the statues of former kings. I write it because wine is bitter to my tongue, because I have lost my pleasure in women, and because neither gardens nor fish pools delight me any more. I have driven away the singers, and the sound of pipes and strings is torment to my ear. Therefore, I write this, I, Sinuhe, who make no use of my wealth, my golden cups, my ebony, ivory, and myrrh.

They have not been taken from me. Slaves still fear my rod; guards bow their heads and stretch out their hands at knee level before me. But bounds have been set to my walking, and no ships can put in through the surf of these shores; never again shall I smell the smell of black earth on a night in spring.

My name was once inscribed in Pharaoh’s golden book, and I dwelt at his right hand. My words outweighed those of the mighty in the land of Kem; nobles sent me gifts, and chains of gold were hung about my neck. I possessed all that a man can desire, but like a man I desired more—therefore, I am what I am. I was driven from Thebes in the sixth year of the reign of Pharaoh Horemheb, to be beaten to death like a cur if I returned—to be crushed like a frog between the stones if I took one step beyond the area prescribed for my dwelling place. This is by command of the King, of Pharaoh who was once my friend.

But before I begin my book I will let my heart cry out in lamentation, for so an exile’s heart must cry when it is black with sorrow.

He who has once drunk of Nile water will forever yearn to be by the Nile again; his thirst cannot be quenched by the waters of any other land.

I would exchange my cup for an earthenware mug if my feet might once more tread the soft dust in the land of Kem. I would give my linen clothes for the skins of a slave if once more I might hear the reeds of the river rustling in the spring wind.

Clear were the waters of my youth; sweet was my folly. Bitter is the wine of age, and not the choicest honeycomb can equal the coarse bread of my poverty. Turn, O you years—roll again, you vanished years—sail, Ammon, from west to east across the heavens and bring again my youth! Not one word of it will I alter, not my least action will I amend. O brittle pen, smooth papyrus, give me back my folly and my youth!


Senmut, whom I called my father, was physician to the poor of Thebes, and Kipa was his wife. They had no children, and they were old when I came to them. In their simplicity they said I was a gift from the gods, little guessing what evil the gift would bring them. Kipa named me Sinuhe after someone in a story, for she loved stories, and it seemed to her that I had come fleeing from danger like my namesake of the legend, who by chance overheard a frightful secret in Pharaoh’s tent and fled, to live for many adventurous years in foreign lands.

This was but a childish notion of hers; she hoped that I, too, would always run from danger and avoid misfortune. But the priests of Ammon hold that a name is an omen, and it may be that mine brought me peril and adventure and sent me into foreign lands. It made me a sharer in dreadful secrets—secrets of kings and their wives—secrets that may be the bearers of death. And at the last my name made me a fugitive and an exile.

Yet I should be as childish as poor Kipa to fancy that a name can influence one’s destiny; would it not have been the same if I had been called Kepru or Kafran or Moses? So I believe—yet Sinuhe was indeed exiled whereas Heb, the son of the Falcon, was crowned as Horemheb with the red and white crown, to be king over the Upper and Lower Kingdoms. As to the significance of names, therefore, each must judge for himself; each in his own faith will find solace against the evils and reverses of this life.

I was born in the reign of the great King Amenhotep III and in the same year as that one who desired to live by truth and whose name may no longer be named because it is accursed—though at the time nothing of this was known. There was great rejoicing at the palace when he was born, and the King brought many sacrifices to the great temple of Ammon that he had built; the people also were glad, not knowing what was to come. The royal consort Taia had until then hoped vainly for a son, though she had been consort for twenty-two years and her name was written beside that of the King in the temples and upon the statues. Therefore, he whose name may no longer be named was proclaimed heir with elaborate ceremonial as soon as the priests had performed the circumcision.

He was not born until the spring in the sowing season, whereas I had come the previous autumn when the floods stood at their highest. The day of my birth is unknown, for I came drifting down the Nile in a little reed boat daubed with pitch, and my mother Kipa found me among the reeds on the shore close by her own doorstep. The swallows had just returned and were twittering above me, but I lay so still that she believed me dead. She brought me to her house and warmed me by the charcoal fire and blew into my mouth until I whimpered.

My father Senmut came back from visiting his patients, carrying two ducks and a bushel of flour. When he heard me crying, he thought Kipa had adopted a kitten and was about to rebuke her, but my mother said, “It is not a cat—I have a son! Rejoice, Senmut my husband, for a son has been born to us!”

My father called her an idiot and was angry until she showed me to him, and then he was moved by my helplessness. So they adopted me as their own child and even put it about among the neighbors that Kipa had borne me. This was foolish, and I do not know how many believed her. But Kipa kept the reed boat that brought me and hung it up in the roof above my bed. My father took his best copper bowl to the temple and had me registered in the book of births as his own son born of Kipa, but the circumcision he did himself, for he was a doctor and feared the priests’ knives because they left infected wounds. He did not let the priests touch me. Also he may have wanted to save money, for a poor people’s doctor is not a wealthy man.

I cannot, of course, recall these things, but my parents have told me of them so often and in such unvarying phrases that I must believe them and have no reason to suppose they lied. Throughout my childhood I never doubted that they were my parents, and no sadness darkened those years. They did not tell me the truth until my boy’s locks were shorn and I became a youth. They told me then because they feared and honored the gods, and my father did not want me to live a lie my whole life through.

But who I was, whence I came, and who my parents were I never learned, though—for reasons I shall speak of later—I believe I know.

One thing is certain: I was not the only one to be carried down the river in a pitched-reed boat. Thebes with its palaces and its temples was a big city, and the mud hovels of the poor clustered thickly about the statelier buildings. In the time of the great Pharaohs Egypt had brought many nations under its sway, and with power and wealth came altered customs. Foreigners came to Thebes: merchants and craftsmen built temples there to their own gods. Great was the splendor and wealth of the temples and the palaces, great also the poverty outside the walls. Many poor people put their children out; many a rich wife, whose husband was away on his travels, abandoned the proof of her adultery to the river. Perhaps I was the son of a seaman’s wife who had deceived her husband with some Syrian merchant. Perhaps—as I had not been circumcised—I was some foreigner’s child. When my hair was cut and my mother had put it away in a little wooden box with my first sandals, I looked long at the reed boat she showed me. The struts were yellowed and broken and sooty with smoke from the brazier. It was tied with fowler’s knots, but that was all it could tell me of my parentage. It was then that my heart felt its first wound.


With the approach of age the soul flies like a bird back to the days of childhood. Now those days shine bright and clear in my memory until it seems as if everything then must have been better, lovelier than in the world of today. In this rich and poor do not differ, for there is surely none so destitute but his childhood shows some glint of happiness when he remembers it in age.

My father Senmut lived upstream from the temple walls, in a squalid, noisy quarter. Near his house lay the big stone wharves where the Nile boats discharged their cargoes, and in the narrow alley ways were the seamen’s and merchants’ taverns and the brothels to which the wealthy also came, borne on chairs from the inner city. Our neighbors were tax collectors, barge masters, noncommissioned officers, and a few priests of the fifth grade. Like my father, they belonged to the more respected part of the population, rising above it as a wall rises above the surface of the water.

Our house, therefore, was spacious in comparison with the mud huts of the very poor that huddled sadly along the narrow alleys. We had even a garden a few paces long with a sycamore in it that my father had planted. The garden was fenced from the street by acacia bushes, and for a pool we had a stone trough that contained water only at floodtime. There were four rooms to the house, and in one of them my mother prepared our food, which we ate on a veranda opening out of my father’s surgery. Twice a week a woman came to help my mother clean the house—for Kipa was very cleanly—and once a week a washerwoman fetched our linen to her wash place on the river bank.

In this rowdy quarter, where there were many foreigners—a quarter whose degradation was revealed to me only as I grew out of childhood—my father and his neighbors upheld tradition and all venerable customs. At a time when among even the aristocrats of the city these customs lapsed, he and his class continued rigidly to represent the Egypt of the past in their reverence for the gods, their purity of heart, and selflessness. It seemed as if they desired to dissociate themselves by their behavior from those with whom they were obliged to live and work.

But why speak now of what I only later understood? Why not rather remember the gnarled trunk of the sycamore, and the soughing of the leaves when I sought shelter at its foot from the scorching sun, and my favorite toy, the wooden crocodile that snapped its jaws and showed its red gullet when I pulled it along the paved street on a string? The neighbors’ children would gather to stare at it in wonder. I won many a honey sweetmeat, many a shiny stone and snippet of copper wire by letting others drag it along and play with it. Only children of high rank had such toys as a rule, but my father was given it by the palace carpenter, whom he had cured of a boil that prevented him from sitting down.

In the morning my mother would take me with her to the vegetable market. She never had many purchases to make, yet she could spend a water measure’s time choosing a bunch of onions and the whole of every morning for a week if it were a matter of choosing new shoes. By the way she talked one might have judged her to be rich and concerned merely with having the best; if she did not buy all that took her fancy—why, then it was because she wished to bring me up in thrifty ways. She would declare, “It is not the man with silver and gold who is rich, but the man who is content with little.” So she would assure me, while her poor old eyes dwelt longingly upon the brightly colored woolen stuffs from Sidon and Byblos, as fine and light as down. Her brown, work-hardened hands caressed the ostrich feathers and the ornaments of ivory. It was all vanity, she told me-and herself. But the child’s mind rebelled against these precepts; I longed to own a monkey that put its arm about its master’s neck or a brilliant-feathered bird that shrieked Syrian and Egyptian words. And I should have had nothing against gold chains and gilded sandals. It was not until much later that I realized how dearly poor old Kipa longed to be rich.

BOOK: The Egyptian
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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