I finished The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, and while it was a beautiful journey, it was an emotionally draining one. It should be noted that the book itself is a product of WWII, so delves into some pretty dark territory.
While the 1954 Hollywood epic made the story of Akhnaton and his god Aton into a proto-Christian morality play in which Akhnaton was perhaps a prophet of the one true god before his time, Akhnaton and the monotheism he attempts to impose on Egypt are portrayed in a much less black and white fashion in the book. Akhnaton is a benevolent tyrant who seeks to impose his utopia on Egypt for the good of its people though he himself is shielded from any consequences of his policies. The love of peace and hatred of war makes Egypt weak before its devious enemies, seriously compromising its national security through appeasement and belief in the goodness of one’s foreign foes. The equality preached by Akhnaton in Aton’s name becomes the rallying cry of class warfare, as the poor and the slaves rise up to punish the rich and bring every man down to their level, and Egypt is turned into a land of thieves and ruffians. The Pharaoh’s plan to redistribute the wealth of Egypt is a miserable failure, for akin to the seizures of farmland in 20th century Africa, the productive farmers are driven off their lands and replaced by ignorant neophytes whose early crop failures plunge Egypt into famine. Worship of Aton and the war between the gods Aton and Ammon seem less of a metaphor for any sort of proto-Christianity but a conflict between the corruption of state capitalism and national socialism or Bolshevism.
Sinuhe loves Akhnaton and loves the vision he offers of a world of love, peace and equality, but Akhnaton’s way is awash in blood and costs Sinuhe all he holds dear. The recurring motif is the failure of the human character which dooms (or at least taints) great enterprise. It also leaves one with the bleak impression that there is nothing for man but what he leaves behind and that is far from guaranteed, whether it is Akhnaton, who is struck from history, Aziru the Amorite King, who is executed with his family and fed to wild beasts, or Sinuhe, who believes his account will be destroyed upon his death in his house of exile. Though it’s a beautifully told story, imagine if Ben-Hur ended with his family still presumed dead and they never met Jesus. While I did mention that the themes of the Egyptian are more political than religious, there lurks in Sinuhe’s longing something of a note of tragedy about a pre-Christian world in which all the gods are false and corrupt, demanding endless blood and sacrifice; Sinuhe does cling to hope for the Aton that is a god with and within all men and before whom all are equal.
Of interesting note, the one Karma Houdini ended up being Nefernefernefer, the courtesan to whom Sinuhe gave all of his (and his parents) property leading to his original exile. Despite ending the book with wealth beyond measure, even Kaptah, Sinuhe’s loyal servant and comic side-kick has gone through his fair share of torment and anguish. In the film, Nefernefernefer returns afflicted with a disfiguring disease (strongly implied to be syphilis) and Sinuhe mercifully treats and forgives her in a grand redemptive gesture. In the book, during the riots in Thebes where the supporters of Aton are destroying the temples of Ammon, Sinuhe hands her over to the embalmers in the House of Death to have their way with her, only for her to charm all of them and con all of them out of their ill-gotten treasures stolen from the wealthy dead, and that’s the last we hear of her.
As much as I enjoyed The Egyptian, I’m looking forward to decompressing with something a bit lighter.