The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, translated by Naomi Walford, was an international best seller in the 1940s. The novel immerses the reader in the life and times of ancient Egypt during the reign of the rebel pharaoh Akhnaton. The story unfolds in the first-person narrative of Sinuhe, the personal physician to Akhnaton.
Born under mysterious circumstances, Sinuhe is adopted by a couple who shower him with love and support. His success as a student enables him to work his way up through the many layers of hierarchy until he becomes the personal physician to the pharaoh. As an intimate of the court and one who is privy to its secrets, he describes in vivid detail the palace intrigues, sexual liaisons, marriages, murders, and shifting political alliances.
At times, self-absorbed, arrogant, and cowardly; at times, heroic and generous, Sinuhe emerges as a conflicted soul, gravitating from one extreme to the other. He shows compassion by healing the poor and needy without demanding compensation. But when embroiled in palace politics, he commits murder and inflicts brutal revenge on his enemies. On the one hand, he sympathizes with and tries to propagate Akhnaton’s vision of the equality of all human beings under the one god; on the other hand, he is convinced of Akhnaton’s madness and responsibility for the breakdown of law and order in Egypt and its surrounding empire.
Waltari demonstrates his consummate skill as a writer by creating a compelling texture of ancient Egypt. His research is impressive. Egypt comes alive with its hustle and bustle, pungent odors, opulence, intense heat, noisy streets, graphic violence, wars, exploitation, territorial skirmishes, extremes in poverty and wealth, systemic brutality and oppression, rituals and mythology. Waltari’s re-creation of Crete with its bull dancers and of Babylon in all its ancient splendor are particularly memorable. Sinuhe’s diction sounds old world appropriate and sustains reader interest with its intricate, vivid details. There are many noteworthy phrases peppering the novel, one of which is the amusing reference to a birth in poverty as a birth “with dung between your toes.”
The characters are well-developed and believable. Their behavior is self-serving; their morality questionable. Some forge friendships with Sinuhe. Perhaps the most delightful relationship is that of Sinuhe with his one-eyed, self-aggrandizing slave, Kaptah. Kaptah’s droll comments, antics, and down-to-earth perspective ingratiate their way into Sinuhe’s heart until Sinuhe grants him his freedom and trusts him to manage his worldly assets. Kaptah proves to be loyal to his former master and an astute business man. He freely confesses to stealing from Sinuhe only what amounts to a reasonable amount. Their relationship endures, blossoming into a charming friendship of opposites.
The novel is rich in historical details, presenting a panoramic but bleak view of ancient Egypt during the time of Pharaoh Akhnaton. It brings to life a turbulent time in Egypt’s history, a time plagued with political intrigue and internal conflicts because a pharaoh defied an institutionalized belief system with its powerful infrastructure by insisting on the monotheistic worship of Aton as the one god.
Highly recommended as a well-researched, immersive, and vibrant work of historical fiction.