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Writing historical fiction in New Kingdom Egypt

By Colleen Manassa


The origins of Egyptian literary fiction can be found in the rollicking adventure tales and sober instructional texts of the early second millennium BCE. Tales such as the Story of Sinuhe, one of the classics of Egyptian literature, enjoyed a robust readership throughout the second millennium BCE as Egypt transitioned politically from the strongly centralized state of the Middle Kingdom and through the political changes, population movements, and strife of the Second Intermediate Period into the imperial glories of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE). During the New Kingdom, particularly the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, the “Ramesside Period,” another literary efflorescence occurred. Among the genres of this new corpus of literary productions are stories that can be most properly described as works of “historical fiction.” Set in the past with attested historical characters, these works of historical fiction are an ancient Egyptian counterpart, albeit ultimately unrelated, to the mammoth corpus of modern historical fiction from Sir Walter Scott, Patrick O’Brien, and George McDonald Frasier to Ken Follett and Philippa Gregory.

Historical fiction in New Kingdom Egypt has never been identified as its own genre, but in identifying it as such, stories that represent this period in history are brought to life. Ancient evidence used to resurrect the plots and characters range from straightforward archaeological excavation to a diverse array of historical texts to an actual royal mummy, whose violent death portends the ending of one tale.

The sarcophagus lid of Queen Sitdjehuti in the Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst. (Munich, Germany) Sitdjehuti was the wife of pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II from Egypt's 17th dynasty.

The sarcophagus lid of Queen Sitdjehuti, wife of pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II from Egypt’s 17th dynasty.

Imagine a kingdom divided — a native Egyptian ruler, Seqenenre, has control of the southern portion of Egypt, while his rival, a foreign Hyksos king, Apepi, dominates the north. Called by its modern title The Quarrel of Apepi and Seqenenere, the tale begins with just such a politically treacherous time around 1560 BCE that is a known historical setting. However, the tale as it survives was composed from the comfort of the early Nineteenth Dynasty, three hundred years later, when Egypt possessed an empire that stretched from ancient Syria all the way to southern Nubia.

The drama begins when the Hyksos king, Apepi, requests that Seqenenre “expel the hippopotami” from a canal east of Thebes (the southern capital), since their roars are keeping him awake in his own capital hundreds of kilometers to the north. Ancient and modern audiences alike should laugh at such a ridiculous claim, but for the Egyptians, the hippopotami represent the deity that Apepi worships as a foreigner: Seth, a god of chaos and the deserts, a god who is in a sense the patron deity of foreigners like Apepi himself. By asking for actions to be taken against the hippopotami, Apepi betrays his own deity, casting himself into the role of the ultimate evil in Egyptian religion, the serpent Apep. In Egyptian religious texts, Seth fights Apep, the necessary evil of the ordered world turned against the unbridled chaos of the outer darkness. By betraying his own patron, Apepi becomes Apep, the ultimate foe of the order and disorder of the created world.

Apep being warded off by a deity.

Apep being warded off by a deity.

The end of the tale does not survive on the one copy we have, as the scribe stopped writing the story and changed to an instruction of letter writing, so the conclusion of Apepi and Seqenenre’s quarrel over the hippopotami will remain an unsolved riddle until another copy of the tale in found. Historically, though, we know Seqenenre’s fate: death by a Hyksos battle axe.

The second story, known by its modern title The Capture of Joppa, opens with an Egyptian army besieging ancient Joppa, located near modern Jaffa. The beginning of the story is lost, but the preserved portion describes a group of drunken individuals and chariot horses being safely put away lest they be stolen by the Apiru, a group of local brigands. The Egyptian general Djehuty — another attested historical individual — is holding a conference with the enemy rebel of Joppa, apparently in a neutral space outside of the city walls. The enemy ruler of Joppa, who remains unnamed, is obsessed with seeing the staff of pharaoh, and in a moment of slap-stick humor, Djehuty obliges by smiting the ruler with the staff.

With the ruler of Joppa incapacitated, but not dead, Djehuty puts into motion one of the first attested ruses in ancient military history: he pretends to surrender to the city of Joppa, presenting hundreds of baskets as the “tribute” of his capitulation. Unknown to the citizens of Joppa, Egyptian soldiers are hidden within the baskets, and they promptly capture the city in what can only be described as a Trojan-horse style story. While the basket stratagem is in the realm of fiction, the setting of the story, Joppa, and its protagonist, Djehuty, are known through archaeological and textual sources — The Capture of Joppa truly is one of the world’s first examples of historical fiction.

Colleen Manassa, the William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale University, is an award winning author and Egyptologist. She is a frequent contributor to the History Channel and National Geographic Channel. Her most recent books include the catalog to the critically acclaimed exhibition at the Yale Peabody Museum – Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs, and, newly released with Oxford University Press, Imagining the Past: Historical Fiction in Ancient Egypt.

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Image credit: Queen Sitdjehuti’s sarcophagus in Munich by Hans Ollermann [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Common. Apep, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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