Story of Wenamun

Story of Wenamun
Pushkin Museum
Also known as Moscow Papyrus 120
Type Papyrus
Date c.1000 BCE
Place of origin al-Hibah, Egypt
Language(s) Hieratic
Scribe(s) Unknown
Discovered 1890

The Story of Wenamun (alternately known as the Report of Wenamun, The Misadventures of Wenamun, Voyage of Unamūn, or [informally] as just Wenamun) is a literary text written in hieratic in the Late Egyptian language. It is only known from one incomplete copy discovered in 1890 at al-Hibah, Egypt, and subsequently purchased in 1891 in Cairo by the Russian Egyptologist Vladimir Goleniščev.[1] It was found in a jar together with the Onomasticon of Amenope and the Tale of Woe.

The papyrus is now in the collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, and officially designated as Papyrus Pushkin 120. The hieratic text is published by Korostovcev 1960, and the hieroglyphic text is published by Gardiner 1932 (as well as on-line).


The two-page papyrus is unprovenanced. It was reported to have been discovered in an illicit excavation at al-Hibah, Egypt and was bought by Vladimir Golenishchev in 1891-92. Golenishchev published the manuscript in 1897-99.

The text

Second (final) page of the papyrus

The story is set in an anonymous "Year 5", generally taken to be year 5 of the so-called Renaissance of Pharaoh Ramesses XI, the tenth and last ruler of the Twentieth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (1190 - 1077 BCE). However, since Karl Jansen-Winkeln has proposed to reverse the order of the High Priests of Amun Herihor and Piankh, this ascription has become disputed.[2] With the pontificate of Herihor falling later than that of Piankh, who is attested in year 7 of the Renaissance,[3] the date in the heading of Wenamun should rather refer to the direct (or indirect) successor of Ramesses XI. Following Jansen-Winkeln, Arno Egberts (1991) therefore argues that the story is set in the fifth regnal year of Smendes I, the Delta-based founder of the Twenty-first Dynasty. Recently, yet another solution has been suggested by Ad Thijs[4] who ascribes the text to year 5 of "king" Pinedjem I, who is the successor of Ramesses XI in his radically alternative chronology, which is based on the reversal of High Priests put forward by Jansen-Winkeln.

As the story begins, the principal character, Wenamun, a priest of Amun at Karnak, is sent by the High Priest of Amun Herihor to the Phoenician city of Byblos to acquire lumber (probably cedar wood) to build a new ship to transport the cult image of Amun. After visiting Smendes (Nesbanebded in Egyptian) at Tanis, Wenamun stopped at the port of Dor ruled by the Tjeker prince Beder, where he was robbed. Upon reaching Byblos, he was shocked by the hostile reception he received there. When he finally gained an audience with Zakar-Baal, the local king, the latter refused to give the requested goods for free, as had been the traditional custom, instead demanding payment. Wenamun had to send to Smendes for payment, a humiliating move that demonstrates the waning of Egyptian power over the Eastern Mediterranean; a causative factor of a new nature can be seen in this ebbing of Egyptian power — the rise of Assyria and its intrusion into Phoenicia around the year 1100 BCE.[5]

After a wait of almost a year at Byblos, Wenamun attempted to leave for Egypt, only to be blown off course to Alashiya (Cyprus), where he was almost killed by an angry mob before placing himself under the protection of the local queen, whom he called Hatbi. At this point the story breaks off.


The described route of Wenamun

It was once widely believed that the Story of Wenamun was an actual historical account, written by Wenamun as a report regarding his travels. However, literary analysis conducted by Egyptologists since the 1980s (Helck 1986) indicates that it is a work of historical fiction, a view now generally accepted by most professionals working on the text. As Sass (2002) summarized the situation, "In recent years most Egyptologists have come to regard Wenamun as a work of fiction, composed after the events it relates, its value as a historical source rather limited (see also end of Section 4). On the other hand students of the Ancient Near East and of Egypto-Levantine connections, thirsting as they are after every scrap of written information, often still treat Wenamun practically as a primary historical source of the late 20th dynasty." As examples of the latter approach, Sass cites Mazar (1992), Kitchen (1996), Millard (1998), Yurco (1999), Ward (1999), Markoe (2000), Leahy (2001), and Weinstein (2001). For details on the former approach, see Baines 1999; Scheepers 1992; Egberts 2001; Sass 2002; Schipper 2005. Jaroslav Černý found that the text had no corrections, and was apparently written without any interruptions, such as would have been caused by simultaneously composing the document. In general, the literary character of the text is summed up by Egberts (2001:495) as being apparent from the sophisticated plot, the rhetoric and irony of the dialogues, the imagery, and the underlying reflection on political, theological, and cultural issues. Specific grammatical features also point to the literary nature of the text. Moreover, the palaeography of the text points to a Twenty-second Dynasty date for its composition (Caminos 1977:3; Helck 1986:1215), as well as a number of anachronisms more reflective of a post-Twentieth or Twenty-first Dynasty time frame (Sass 2002; Sass specifically states it was written during the reign of Shoshenq I).

The text ends quite abruptly, possibly showing that the person writing the text down was only interested in the first part of the narrative, and stopped when he realized that he had continued too far into the return journey. However, it has also been suggested that the text as it stands is complete and nothing has been lost at the end, with the last words (And she said to me: "Be at rest") as a fitting, but hitherto unrecognized closing formula.[6] Finally, at the end of the text, in a slightly larger hand, the syllable (copy) is written, showing that it is not the original, which of course limits the value of paleography as a means to date the content of the story.

It would be naïve to assume that there have only been two copies of this narrative: a 20th Dynasty original and a 22nd Dynasty copy. The literary elements in the surviving text (such as the 'too good to be true timeframe' which was pointed out by Arno Egberts)[7] suggest that in-between the events described and the apparent date of our surviving copy the story was somehow reworked to entertain a broader audience. From the fact that many of the main protagonists are not properly introduced, it seems clear that the 'report' became 'literature' at a time when most of the names and situations were still recognizable for an educated audience. A case in point is the ambiguous reference to "the messengers of Khaemwase who spent 17 years in this country and died in their positions " in lines 2, 51-53. Since this could theoretically refer to either Ramesses IX, Ramesses XI or the son of Ramses II, it seems that the editor of the text could expect his readers to know who was meant.

It is quite possible that the copy we have may date as much as one-hundred and fifty years later than the original. The first reason for this assumption is that the post-script is used. This is otherwise only used in the twenty-second dynasty (945-715 BCE). The other reason is the locale where the document was discoveredthe Upper Egyptian town of al-Hibah. This town only gained any degree of importance under the reigns of Shoshenq I and Osorkon I. There was also apparently a renewed interest in the affairs of the Levant during the twenty-second dynasty.

The author of Wenamun possibly wrote the original manuscript as an administrative document, a report of his journeys. However, the man who had the document copied over a century later most likely had a different reason. When theorizing about the purposes of the copyist, it seems to be all-too-common to forget about the reverse side of the papyrus. This concerns, as near as we can tell, the "sending of commodities by Ni-ki.. through the agency of Ne-pz-K-r-t for unspecified payment." It could be that this is a summarization of an attempt to perform a mission similar to that of Wenamun in this later time. The Journey of Wenamun to Phoenicia, then, may have been copied as a preparation for this later trip.

Importance of the document

The Story of Wenamun is an unparalleled source for learning of conditions in Egypt, as well as in Phoenicia. One can also see from this document, as from no other of the period, common attitudes toward religion (especially the cult of Amon), the state of Mediterranean shipping practises, and even the attitudes of foreign princes to Egyptian claims of supremacy in the region. Even the supremacy of the pharaoh in Egypt is placed under our scrutiny. The current pharaoh, Ramesses XI, is never even mentioned during Wenamun's journey. Thebes, Wenamun's hometown, is under the control of Herihor--the High Priest of Amon. The authority Wenamun goes to see in the delta is Smendes, who resides at Tanis, and bears the never-before-seen title "organizer-of-the-country". It is worthy of note that neither Smendes nor Herihor bear any royal title whatsoever. Overall, the Story of Wenamun presents to us what could possibly be the most vivid and descriptive narrative of pre-classical times.

Because the text is based on a historical framework, it remains particularly useful to historians for the study of the late New Kingdom and early Third Intermediate Period. They often treat the text as a primary source of the late 20th Dynasty. The Story of Wenamun was discovered with another historical fiction, the so-called Tale of Woe [Papyrus Pushkin 127], which takes the form of an imaginative letter as a vehicle to convey a narrative; see Caminos 1977 for discussion of both works.

The geography of Wenamun questioned

One scholar, Alessandra Nibbi, has written a great number of articles in which she tried to show that many modern interpretations of geographical references in Ancient Egyptian texts are incorrect. On the basis of her analysis of the source texts, she concluded that the Egyptians were not a seafaring nation.[8] Egyptian words normally connected to the Mediterranean (such as “the great ym of Kharu”) and the connected geographical names were reinterpreted.[9] As a result of her investigations, she had to ‘relocate’ the locations mentioned in ‘Wenamun’, assuming that Wenamun journeyed through the wadi Tumilat to lake Timsah.[10] Although, so far, her conclusions have not been accepted by any major scholars, her work has led to a renewed study of certain terms.[11]


  1. (Caminos 1977:1).
  2. Karl Jansen-Winkeln, Das Ende des Neuen Reiches, ZAS 119 (1992), pp.22-37
  3. Nims, JNES 7 (1948), 157-162
  4. Ad Thijs, The Burial of Psusennes I and “The Bad Times” of P. Brooklyn 16.205, ZÄS 96 (2014), 209–223
  5. A. Malamat, The Egyptian Decline in Canaan and the Sea-Peoples, included in 'The World History of the Jewish People', vol. III: Judges, Rutgers University Press (1971), page 36
  6. Friedrich Haller, GM 173 (1999), 9
  7. Egberts, "Hard Times: The Chronology of 'The Report of Wenamun' Revised", Zeitschrift fur Ägyptischen Sprache 125 (1998), pp. 93–108.
  8. A. Nibbi, Wenamun without Cyprus, Discussions in Egyptology 53 (2002), 71-74
  9. A. Nibbi, The City of Dor and Wenamun, Discussions in Egyptology 35 (1996), 76-95
  10. A. Nibbi, Wenamun without Cyprus, Discussions in Egyptology 53 (2002), 71-74
  11. Florence Friedman, On the Meaning of W3ḏ-Wr in Selected Literary Texts, GM 17 (1975), 15-21

Further reading

External links

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