The Egyptian by Mika Waltari: A review

I had long wanted to read The Egyptian and in September, 2009, I finally got around to it. It was an interesting read and, once again, I reviewed it on Goodreads.


The EgyptianThe Egyptian by Mika Waltari
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have long had an interest in the history of ancient Egypt, particularly the Amarna period when the heretic pharaoh Akhnaton attempted to overthrow the ancient gods of the land and replace them with the One God, Aton.  It was a turbulent time when blood often flowed in the streets, a time that was rich in drama on many levels.

"The Egyptian" is set in that period.  It is presented as the "autobiography" of the mysterious Sinuhe, a man of uncertain origins who rose from poverty to be the physician to the king.

Before he attained that high position, he traveled throughout the Mediterranean area, to Syria, Mitanni, Babylonia, and Crete.  During his travels, he treats the sick and learns form other physicians and his renown grows.  He also gathers information for his friend, Horemheb, a commander of Egyptian forces who is preparing them for war even as the pacifist pharaoh decrees peace.

On returning to his city of Thebes, Sinuhe finds the city much changed and a restless spirit among the people.  Soon Pharaoh Akhnaton determines to abandon the city which he sees as irredeemably evil and to build his own city of Akhetaton in a new place.  This he does and from then on it seems that there is no going back.  A tragic sequence of events is set in motion.

This book was published in 1949 and some of the events described are at odds with later archeological findings and interpretations of the history of the period, but it seems very faithful in spirit to the story of Akhnaton.  The device that Waltari uses of having Sinuhe narrate the story in somewhat awkward words that might have been taken directly from an ancient papyrus is an effective one.  The reader has the sense that she is reading an authentic ancient manuscript.

When the book was first published here, it was branded as obscene.  I presume that charge referred to the sex, although more obscene to me were the scenes of violence and the terrible injuries humans inflict on other humans.

Sinuhe's story is a fascinating one.  One empathizes with him as a fellow human and feels his pain over the terrible tragedies that he suffers.  Always, he is the one who walks alone and stands apart.  He is a participant/observer and a faithful chronicler of the period.  Waltari creates and brings him to life most vividly.

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