by Mika Waltari
‘A woman who combines malice with intelligence and beauty is dangerous indeed – more dangerous still when she can add to this the power of a royal consort.’
The Egyptian is a classic historical novel by Finnish writer Waltari and set in the Egypt of the 14th century BCE. The main protagonist and narrator is Sinuhe, priest-physician to the Pharaohs Amenhotep III and Akhenaten (called Akhnaton in the story), whose consort, Nefertiti, is the subject of the above quotation. What I found surprising in the story is that Nefertiti plays a much lesser role than history implies.
Whether Sinuhe was, or was based upon, a real historical person – is not clear. However, many of the other characters in the novel were real people and much of the background and many of the events chronicled are authentic. Other than Akhenaten and Nefertiti, we are introduced to Horemheb, Tut, the High priest – later Pharaoh – Eie (Ay), King Aziru of Amurru, Burnaburiash of Babylon and several others whose names and deeds are preserved in ancient texts.
Sinuhe learns his profession in the House of Life attached to the Egyptian court, where he must enrol as a trainee priest in order to obtain an education. He comes over as a rather naive person, easily tempted and corrupted by a pretty face. Before we are far into the novel, he has sold or transferred his property, including his inheritance from his foster parents, so that he can have sex with Nefernefernefer (yes, that’s right!). Egyptian scholars will of course appreciate right away that the name means ‘thrice beautiful’ or something like that!
Reduced to relative poverty, Sinuhe embarks on his travels with a one-eyed slave called Kaptah, who for a slave seems to do a lot of bossing around and is actually quite good at making money for his master. The pair travel round the Egypt-dominated kingdoms of Asia Minor, to Mitanni and among the Hittites, Sinuhe practising his profession, Kaptah drinking and getting into trouble. They have to flee from Babylon, taking with them the skilled bull dancer, the girl Minea. Sadly for Sinuhe, he does not have much luck with his women. He loves Minea but she is dedicated to virginity in the service of Minos. Eventually, the three come to Crete where Minea resumes her dancing and is chosen to ‘meet the god.’
Sinuhe and Kaptah return to Egypt where Sinuhe becomes royal physician to Pharaoh Akhenaten. Kaptah grows fat and wealthy making profits for Sinuhe by manipulating the grain market. The Pharaoh has forbidden worship of the old gods and is trying to introduce a Christianity-like monotheism having as its deity Aton, and proclaiming the equality of all men. He has built a new capital city, Akhetaton, on the Nile in Upper Egypt and is preaching world peace, much to the displeasure of Sinuhe’s friend, the military leader, Horemheb.
The old priests of Ammon are unwilling to subscribe to Pharaoh’s ‘madness’, nor do the people of Thebes want to change the old ways. Pharaoh’s edicts are opposed with unrest and violence, and much blood is spilled.
Meantime, Sinuhe has made a discovery about his true parentage (to explain would be a spoiler) and has formed yet another doomed liaison with Merit, a girl who keeps a tavern called The Crocodile’s Tail in Thebes. He refuses to listen to advice that he break with the mad Akhenaten before their association ends in tragedy for those he loves.
Sinuhe poisons the Pharoah, which leads to the accession of Tutenkhamen, the boy king who plays with toys. However, real power is in the hands of Eie and Horemheb. The latter goes to war against the Hittites, eventually defeats them and is raised to the throne himself.
‘So foolish is the heart of man that he ever puts his hope in the future, learning nothing from his past errors …’
Too late, Sinuhe realises his mistakes. Overcome by guilt and poisoned by his experience of war, he becomes a disciple of Akhenaten’s philosophy, speaks out against the natural order and pays the price of his foolishness in exile.
The Egyptian is a slow read. It is a very long novel and there is too much in it to include in a short review. There are a few episodes of high drama, though the narrative mainly just trundles along, incident after incident. Sinuhe comes over to me as a rather sad character – foolish, naive, stubborn and a victim of an inevitable fate. Yet I did not want him to be alone and kept hoping he would find someone to share his life.
The Egyptian is not a novel to read for great excitement or high romance. The strength and beauty of Waltari’s work lies rather in the wealth of historical information and in the interaction of the historical figures he introduces in novel format. Perhaps unusually for a novelist in the 1940s, his scenes of sex and violence are quite graphic and he depicts the realities of life and death in all their sordid and gory detail. The Egyptians are presented as a people stuck in a rich/poor society, dominated by a polytheistic priesthood and consanguinious monarchy yet, despite their hardships, resistant to change. The sort of equality striven for by Akhenaten and Sinuhe is an ideal – a fantasy of the disturbed mind.