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The Egyptian (Sinuhe egyptiläinen, Sinuhe the Egyptian) is a historical novel by Mika Waltari. It was first published in Finnish in 1945, and in an abridged English translation by Naomi Walford in 1949, from Swedish rather than Finnish.[1][2] So far, it is the only Finnish novel to be adapted into a Hollywood film, which happened in 1954.

The Egyptian
The egyptian finnish.jpg
First edition cover (Finnish)
Author Mika Waltari
Original title Sinuhe Egyptiläinen
Country Finland
Language Finnish
Genre Historical novel
Publisher WSOY
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 785 pp (hardcover edition)
ISBN 1-55652-441-2 (English translation by Naomi Walford)
OCLC 49531238
894/.54133 21
LC Class PH355.W3 S513 2002

The Egyptian is the first and the most successful, of Waltari's great historical novels, and which gained him international fame. It is set in Ancient Egypt, mostly during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten of the 18th Dynasty, whom some have claimed to be the first monotheistic ruler in the world.[3]

The novel is known for its high-level historical accuracy of the life and culture of the period depicted. At the same time, it also carries a pessimistic message of the essential sameness of human nature throughout the ages.



The protagonist of the novel is the fictional character Sinuhe, the royal physician, who tells the story in exile after Akhenaten's fall and death. Apart from incidents in Egypt, the novel charts Sinuhe's travels in then Egyptian-dominated Syria (Levant), in Mitanni, Babylon, Minoan Crete, and among the Hittites.

The main character of the novel is named after a character in an ancient Egyptian text commonly known as the Story of Sinuhe. The original story dates to a time long before that of Akhenaten: texts are known from as early as the 12th dynasty.

Supporting historical characters include the old Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his conniving favorite wife, Tiy; the wife of Akhenaten, Nefertiti; the listless young Tutankhamun (King Tut), who succeeded as Pharaoh after Akhenaten's downfall; and the two common-born successors who were, according to this author, integral parts of the rise and fall of the Amarna heresy of Akhenaten: the priest and later Pharaoh Ay and the warrior-general and then finally Pharaoh, Horemheb. Though never appearing onstage, throughout the book the Hittite King Suppiluliuma I appears as a brooding threatening figure of a completely ruthless conqueror and tyrannical ruler. Other historical figures with whom the protagonist has direct dealings are: Aziru (ruler of Amurru kingdom), Thutmose (sculptor), Burna-Buriash II (Babylonian king), and, under a different name, Zannanza, son of Suppiluliuma I. Zannanza's bride is a collage of at least three historical figures: herself, first wife of Horemheb and, by him, mother of Ramesses I. Historical Horemheb died childless.


Sinuhe recounts, in his old age at his location of forced exile by the Red Sea coast, the events of his life. His tone expresses cynicism, bitterness and disappointment, and he says he's writing down his story for therapeutic reasons alone and for something to do in the rugged and desolate desert landscape.

Sinuhe begins his life as a foundling and grows up in the poor part of Thebes. His adoptive father Senmut is a doctor, and Sinuhe decides to walk in his footsteps. As an assistant to a royal doctor who knows his adoptive father, Sinuhe is allowed, during a trepanation on the dying Amenhotep III, to visit the court and the young crown prince Akhenaten for the first time. Well educated, he sets up a clinic and acquires the sly and eloquent slave Kaptah, who will be his companion and close friend throughout his life.

One day he gets acquainted with the gorgeous woman Nefernefernefer and is bewitched by her. Nefernefernefer gets Sinuhe to give her everything he owns and even to sell his adoptive parents' house and grave. When the woman has realised that Sinuhe has run out of possessions, she gets rid of him. Ashamed and dishonored, Sinuhe arranges his adoptive parents to be embalmed and buries them in the Valley of the Kings (they had taken their lives before eviction), after which he decides to go to exile in the company of Kaptah to Levant, which was under Egyptian rule at the time.

In Syria, he achieves fame and wealth because of his medical skill. One day, during an Egyptian military operation in Syria, he encounters childhood friend Horemheb, serving as a military commander. From this, Sinuhe is commissioned to travel at his expense in the known world to determine what military potential the established nations have.

Sinuhe, in company of Kaptah, travels first to Babylon where he engages in science and socializes with the city's scholars. One day he is summoned to the sick king Burraburiash, whom he manages to cure. In connection with this event, Sinuhe meets a young Cretan woman named Minea, recently acquired to the king's harem. Sinuhe falls in love with her and during a Babylonian feast he succeeds in smuggling Minea from the palace and fleeing with her and Kaptah to the neighboring country Mitanni. From there they proceed to Anatolia and to the fast-growing Hittite empire. Sinuhe and his companions feel unhappy about the militarism and tough rule of law that characterize the kingdom of the Hittites, and they decide to leave Anatolia and sail to Crete, Minea's homeland.

Minea has grown up with the mission to sacrifice herself as a virgin to the local bull god who lives in a mountain cave at the sea. Sinuhe is horrified by this and fears that he will not see Minea again. In the evening before Minea should enter the mountain cave, they marry each other unofficially. A while after Minea has been escorted into the mountain cave, Sinuhe enters the cave to search for Minea. He finds her dead body and the remains of the Cretan god (described as a bull-headed sea serpent), and realises that she has been killed by the god's high priest Minotaurus to prevent Minea from returning and tell the god is dead. Sinuhe loses his mind from grief, but Kaptah finally succeeds in calming him down and convinces him to realize that it's best to move on and return to Syria.

In Syria, Sinuhe returns to medical profession and he is able to regain his previous status. He notices, however, that the Egyptian sovereignty in the area has now begun to be questioned and threatened. This rebellious mood is triggered not in the least by the Syrian, Hittite-friendly Prince Aziru, whom Sinuhe still befriends, among other things, through a medical assignment.

Pharaoh Akhenaten with his family worshiping the solar disc Aten. In the novel, Akhenaten seeks to bring about an utopia with his new religion.

One day Sinuhe decides to return to Egypt. He sails to Thebes and opens a clinic for the poor in the same neighborhood in which he grew up. He does not get rich in this, but instead is driven by ideological motives. His slave Kaptah (now released by Sinuhe) instead becomes a businessman and buys a pub called "Crocodile's Tail". There Sinuhe meets a woman named Merit, who becomes Sinuhe's life partner.

In Egypt, a new king, Akhenaten, has begun to convey a monotheistic teaching centered around the sun god Aten. According to Akhenaten's doctrine, all people are equal, and in the new world order there no longer would be slaves and masters. Aspects of Akhenaten prove to be unpopular: his pacifism, among Horemheb and others concerned with the threat of Syrian and Hittite invasion; his attempts at redistributing property to the poor; and his worhsip of Aten at the exclusion of the old gods, among the clergy of the mighty state god Amon. Sinuhe is attracted to the teachings that the new king proclaims and, as he feels, focuses on light, equality and justice, and joins Akhenaten's court.

After a particularly violent public incident, Akhenaten, fed up with opposition, leaves Thebes with Sinuhe to middle Egypt where a new capital, Akhetaten, dedicated to Aten, is built. However, the conflicts between Amon and Aten continue, and it all develops into a civil war. Aten's kingdom on Earth begins to fall, and the courtiers, one after another, abandon Akhenaten and Akhetaten in favor of Amon and Thebes. It's also in Thebes where the final battle takes place. Sinuhe fights for the sake of Aten and Pharaoh to the end, but ultimately the side of Amon priesthood is victorious. During the chaos, Merit and her son Thot are killed - the latter would turn out to be Sinuhe's offspring. When defeat has become reality, Akhenaten dies after having drunk a cup of poison mixed by the embittered Sinuhe. Queen Nefertite's father, Ay, takes the throne, after the boy king Tutankhamun's short reign, despite Sinuhe realising from Tiy that he himself is of royal blood and must be the son of Amenhotep III and his Mitannic consort, and thus closer to the throne.

Both before and after the fall of the Aten Empire, Horemheb conducts a war against the Hittite kingdom - Egypt's premier rival at this time. Both Sinuhe and Kaptah participate in this battle, as Sinuhe wanted to know what war is like. A peace treaty is ultimately established, and king Aziru and his royal family are captured and publicly executed. Sinuhe later succeeds with Horemheb's and Ay's mission to assassinate the Hittite prince Shubattu, secretly invited by Baketamon to marry her, preventing him from reaching Egypt and seizing the throne.

Sinuhe now goes back, afflicted by all the losses, to a simple dwelling in Thebes, bitter and disillusioned in the heart. Every now and then he is visited by his former servant Kaptah, who only becomes richer and richer, and is now Sinuhe's patron. Sinuhe begins to criticise the new regime led by his old friend Horemheb, and as a punishment for this he is exiled to the Red Sea coast.

Writing processEdit

Mika Waltari, author of The Egyptian

Although Waltari employed some poetic license in combining the biographies of Sinuhe and Akhenaten, he was otherwise much concerned about the historical accuracy of his detailed description of ancient Egyptian life and carried out considerable research into the subject. By the end of the 1930s, he had read such a vast amount of egyptological literature and familiarised himself with Egyptian art that he had no need to make any notes.[4] The result has been praised not only by readers but also by Egyptologists.[5][4][2]

Waltari had long been interested in Akhenaten and wrote a play about him, Akhnaton, auringosta syntynyt (Akhnaton, Born of the Sun), which was published in 1936. In it, Waltari explored the disastrous consequences of Akhenaten's well-intentioned implementation of unconditional idealism in a society,[4] and references the tensions at the borders of the Egyptian empire which resemble those on the Soviet-Finnish frontier.[6] Waltari would later revisit these themes, which only had a minor role in the play, in greater depth in The Egyptian. The character of Sinuhe makes no appearance in this play.[6]

With the advent of World War II, Waltari's idealism crumbled and was replaced with cynicism; this was in no small part due to him serving as a propagandist during the Winter War and Continuation War at the State Information Bureau, causing him to realise how much historical information is actually relative or made of half-truths.[7] Waltari also witnessed Finland's sudden, perfidious change of policy towards the USSR from "enemy" to "friend" upon the signing of the armistice on 4 September 1944, another ideal shattered.[8] The war provided the final impulse for exploring the subjects of Akhenaten and Egypt in a novel which, although depicting events that took place over 3,300 years ago, in fact reflects the contemporary feelings of disillusionment and war-weariness and pessimistically illustrates how little the essence of humanity has changed since then. The political and battle depictions of ancient Egypt and surrounding nations contain many parallels with World War II.[4][5] The threatening King Suppiluliuma has many of the overtones of Hitler.[9]

In spring 1945 Waltari travelled to his mother-in-law's mansion in Hartola, where he began writing in the attic. The novel was written within a three and a half month period of great inspiration, with Waltari producing as many as between 15 and 27 sheets per day. So intense was his state of inspiration and immersion that, in a fictionalised account called A Nail Merchant at Nightfall he would write later, he claimed to have been visited by visions of egyptians and to have simply transcribed the story as dictated by Sinuhe himself. His mother died during this; his wife managed the funeral arrangements, Waltari attended the funeral, and on the next morning he resumed writing where he left off.[4]

The completed manuscript, totaling almost one thousand pages, was delivered by Waltari to WSOY in the first half of August 1945. Little to no corrections or deletions were required by the publisher - it went on to be printed as it was on the same month.[2][10]


Central to the novel's themes is the conviction of the unchanging nature of mankind, exemplified by the reoccurring phrase "so there has ever been and ever will be". Waltari has gone on to state: "Although the basic characteristics of a human being can not change due to the fact that they have 10000, 100000, 200000 years old inherited instincts as their basis, people's relationships can be altered and must be altered, so that the world can be saved from destruction."[4]

Idealistic and materialistic worldviews are at clash in the novel, the former represented by the pacifist pharaoh Akhenaten and latter by the cold-bloodedly realist warlord Horemheb[4] - idealism and realism are similarly represented also by Sinuhe and Kaptah, respectively.[11] This tension is played out in a world concerned chiefly with worldly matters and rampant with prejudiced attitudes and lust for material possessions, wealth and power.[4]

The portrayal of atenism, as a doctrine advocating peace and equality, can be seen as an allegory of the attempted rise of an early form of christianity - the description of Amon as "the God of fear and darkness who rules mankind because of their ignorance", whereas Aton "is the only god, for he lives in us, and there are no other gods outside" resembles the Christian creed.[12]


The messages of the novel evoked a wide response in readers in the aftermath of the World War, and the book became an international bestseller. The Egyptian has been translated into 41 languages.[13]

Initially knowledge of the novel spread through word of mouth in Finland; WSOY hadn't advertised it due to concerns over erotic content. Reviews were positive: Huugo Jalkanen of Uusi Suomi and Lauri Viljanen of Helsingin Sanomat said that the novel was no mere colourful retelling of history, but was relevant to the current attitude shaped by the events of recent years. A common element among the more negative or lukewarm reviews was the scolding of Waltari's previous work, but many saw it as a turning point for his career.[2]

French egyptologist Pierre Chaumell read The Egyptian in Finnish and, in a letter featured in a Helsingin Sanomat article in 13. 8. 1946, wrote of his impressions: "I shall with utmost sincerity attest that I haven't read anything as remarkable in a long time. The book is indeed a work of art, its language and effects fit splendidly with the French language, it contains not a single tasteless nor crude spot nor archaeological error. Its word order, language, closely resembles the language of Egypt, and it would be a crime to translate it with less care than what it has been written with."[2][14] Readers had been concerned that artistic license might have been taken regarding historical events, but this article dispelled these doubts and laid ground to the novel's reputation of almost mythical accuracy. This lack of errors would later be also confirmed by the egyptological congress of Cairo and egyptologist Rostislav Holthoer.[2]

The novel saw an English release in August 1949. It was translated competently by Naomi Walford, not directly from Finnish but rather Swedish, and in abridged form: aside from the excision of repetitions, the philosophical content suffered[2] and key facts were omitted.[5] Kirkus Reviews wrote: "He [Sinuhe] observes- and remembers- and in his old age writes it down, -- the world as he knew it. It's a rich book, a bawdy book, a book that carries one to distant shores and makes one feel an onlooker as was Sinuhe. The plot is tenuous, a slender thread never wholly resolved. But the book opens one's eyes to an ancient world, nearer to ours than we think."[15] Soon after its release in the USA, it was selected book of the month in September 1949, and then topped the bestseller lists in October 1949, where it remained the unparalleled two years - 550 000 copies were sold in that time.[4] It remained the most sold foreign novel in the US before its place was taken over by The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Overall the reception was highly positive and some predicted Waltari as being a Nobel prize candidate.[2]

In Finnish academic literary circles, critics had generally regarded Waltari as an author of popular fiction. Despite its popularity and acclaim, the novel was denied the state award, largely due to the efforts of vocal Waltari critic Raoul Palmgren. Even the overseas success was denounced in Finland as a popular novel's success. Waltari finally gained appreciation in Finland in the 1980s, after his historical novels had made appearances in French bestseller lists one after another. He is regarded in foreign countries not as a specifically Finnish author but as a master of historical fiction in world literature.[4] Waltari was invited multiple times to lecture in U.S. universities and literary clubs, but turned down these for his inadequate English[16] and as he felt "the author shouldn't cause to his readers the disappointment caused by meeting him in person".[2]

Among Czechs, The Egyptian and Waltari's oeuvre enjoy immense, "cult-like" popularity.[17][18] The Egyptian came out in Czechoslovakia in 1965, at a time when the country's isolation from the rest of the world was starting to ease.[17] A reader wrote in Lidové noviny: "I can say that it [The Egyptian] helped me survive through the darkness of the communist era sane! I am immensely grateful to Mr. Waltari."[18]


  • ISBN 978-3-404-17009-8, German translation by Andreas Ludden. Bastei Lübbe Verlag, Cologne 2014.
  • ISBN 978-86-6157-008-7, Serbian translation by Veljko Nikitović and Kosta Lozanić, NNK Internacional, Belgrade, 2011
  • ISBN 978-9985-3-1983-3, Estonian translation by Piret Saluri, Varrak 2009
  • ISBN 87-00-19188-4, Danish translation by Inger Husted Kvan, Gyldendal 2007
  • ISBN 1-55652-441-2, English translation by Naomi Walford, Independent Pub Group 2002
  • ISBN 85-319-0057-3, Portuguese translation by José Geraldo Vieira, Belo Horizonte 2002
  • ISBN 978-84-9759-665-7, Spanish translation by Manuel Bosch Barret. Plaza & Janés y Mondadori-Grijalbo (year?).
  • ISBN 9986-16-069-3, Lithuanian translation by Aida Krilavičienė, Tyto alba 1997
  • ISBN 80-85637-00-6, Czech translation by Marta Hellmuthová, Šimon & Šimon 1993 (7th ed.)
  • ISBN 91-46-16279-8, Swedish translation by Ole Torvalds, Wahlström & Widstrand 1993
  • ISBN 5-450-01801-0 Estonian translation by Johannes Aavik, Eesti Raamat 1991 (2nd ed.)
  • ISBN _________________, Hebrew translation By Aharon Amir. Zmora Bitan Publishing, 1988.
  • ISBN 964-407-174-3, Persian translation by Zabihollah Mansuri, Zarrin 1985[=1364]
  • ISBN _________________, Greek translation by Yiannis Lampsas. Kaktos, 1984.
  • ISBN 963-07-1301-2, Hungarian translation by Endre Gombár, Európa Könyvkiadó, Budapest 1978
  • ISBN 83-07-01108-6, Polish translation by Zygmunt Łanowski, Czytelnik 1962 (ISBN is for the 1987 edition)
  • OCLC 492858623, Estonian translation by Johannes Aavik, Orto Publishing House 1954

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Swedish Book Review, A Translator's Look at Flowering Nettle, Harry Martinson's Nässlorna blomma, by Ann-Marie Vinde, 2004:1 issue.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Rajala, Panu (7 January 2006). "Sinuhe lähti maailmalle onnella ja yrityksellä". Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish). Retrieved 6 May 2018. (Subscription required (help)).
  3. ^ Wilson, Colin (2000). The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved. Carroll & Graf. p. 98. ISBN 0786707933.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Vuorenpää, Eeva (director) (1995). Niin on ollut ja niin on aina oleva [So Has It Been and Will Always Be] (TV documentary) (in Finnish). Finland. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Pöyhönen, Sofia (October 29, 2008). "Seminar on Mika Waltari's novel Sinuhe, The Egyptian in London". Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. Retrieved April 10, 2017.
  6. ^ a b Hejkalova 2008, p. 73.
  7. ^ Hejkalova 2008, p. 85.
  8. ^ Hejkalova 2008, p. 93-95.
  9. ^ Abe Brown,"Hitler's fictional avatars", p. 53
  10. ^ Rajala 2008, pp. 471-472.
  11. ^ Hejkalova 2008, p. 135.
  12. ^ Matilainen, Jarmo (12 November 1995). "Kautta aikain neljänneksi ostetuin suomalainen romaani ilmestyi tasan 50 vuotta sitten - Sinuhen pitkä voitonmarssi". Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish). Retrieved 7 May 2018. (Subscription required (help)).
  13. ^ Rajala 2008, p. 499.
  14. ^ Rajala 2008, p. 483.
  15. ^ "The Egyptian". Kirkus Reviews. 22 August 1949. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  16. ^ Hejkalova 2008, p. 164.
  17. ^ a b Hejkalova 2008, pp. 146-148.
  18. ^ a b Jyrkinen, Kari (17 May 2007). "Mika Waltarin Sinuhe auttoi selviytymään kommunistiajasta täysjärkisenä, lukija muistelee". Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish). Retrieved 16 October 2018. (Subscription required (help)).


  • Hejkalova, Markéta (2008) [2007 (Czech)]. Mika Waltari: The Finn. Translated by Turner, Gerald. Helsinki: WSOY. ISBN 978-951-0-34335-7.
  • Rajala, Panu (2008). Unio mystica: Mika Waltarin elämä ja teokset (in Finnish). Helsinki: WSOY. ISBN 978-951-0-31137-0.