42 - The Tale of  Sinuhe - Varille’s ostracon

Former collection of Alexandre Varille (1909–1951), acquired early 1935.

Given to Jacques Jean Clère by Alexandre Varille in the 1940’s.

Collection of Jacques Jean Clère (1906–1989).

Given to the current owner by Irène Clère (1915–2008).


Publication :

  1. J.J. Clère, “Three new ostraca of the story of Sinuhe” in JEA, vol. 25, no. 1, London, 1939, pp. 16–29, ill. pl. IV–V.

Varille’s ostracon

Ostracon with two Hieratic texts inscribed on two faces:

- Front: The Tale of Sinuhe.

5 lines of text (comparisons: Berlin Papyrus 10499, 51–60 and Berlin Papyrus 3022, 27–36).

Translation: [I went with him to his tribe] and they treated me well. [One land gave me to another land. I set forth from Byblos and returned to Quedem] where I spent a year and a half. Then Ammunenshi—[the prince of Upper Retenu—took me in, saying: “You will fare well with me, because you will hear] the language of Egypt.” He said this because he knew [my character], and he had heard [about my wisdom. The Egyptians who were there with him, had spoken about me]. (...) the [tenth] month of the Shemu season, on the 28th day. He asked me: “Why did you come here? [What happened at the court?”] Then I replied: “King Sehetepibre departed for the horizon and [we did not know what might happen].”

- Back: Hymn to a deity.

6 lines of text.

Translation: [...] in southern lands; Lord [...] the goddess Renenet (?), being precise and complete; [...] dispelling the confusion; the Lord of fury [...] who massacres (?) the people of the sun; the radiant Lord (?) [...].


Black and red ink on limestone.

Fragment, chips and visible signs of wear.

Egypt, Deir el-Medina, 19th Dynasty.

4,5 in. high - 7 in. wide (11.5 cm x 18 cm)


5 000 / 8 000 €

The Tale of Sinuhe.

Masterpiece of Egyptian literature.


Egyptologists consider The Tale of Sinuhe the finest literary work of ancient Egypt for its composition, style and use of language. Its anonymous author has been called the “Egyptian Shakespeare”, and Rudyard Kipling placed the work among the monuments of world literature.

Written during the Twelfth Dynasty, in about 1800 BC, it enjoyed great popularity for more than 700 years until the Twentieth Dynasty.


The tale recounts the story of Sinuhe, an official of the royal house of Amenemhat I. His position places Sinuhe in close quarters with the king’s assassins, as told in another ancient text of the same era, Instructions of Amenemhat. After overhearing a conversation that implicates a prince in a plot, Sinuhe is fearful of the possible consequences that this intrigue could have on his life and he decides to flee to Asia to live in exile there rather than return to el-Lisht to face royal judgement and the conspirators. His flight takes him to the Syrian border, where he eventually settles following many journeys. He becomes a tribal chief and the son-in-law of the local prince, but later tires of his life and longs for his country of birth. A letter from the Palace of el-Lisht invites him to end his exile, and he decides to return to Egypt. When Sinuhe arrives at the royal residence to face the judgement of the king, the king welcomes him, accepting him as one of his own and granting him customary privileges. He then lives out his life enjoying the benefits of royal largesse.


The two ostraca show the Ramesside versions of the Middle Kingdom tale and are remarkable in that they offer a passage little seen in the corpus of literary ostraca of that time: the meeting of Sinuhe with Ammunenshi, the ruler of Upper Retenu (mountainous regions of Syria between the Orontes and Euphrates Valleys). In this passage, Sinuhe, thirsty and lost in the eastern desert, is rescued by a Bedouin tribe before meeting Ammunenshi, to whom he tells of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I and explains the reasons for his exile.

Slight onomastic and topographical variations seen in the corpus of ostraca telling The Tale of Sinuhe raise the issue of the accuracy of the historical copy. The perspective of the copyist differs from that of the Egyptologist. It appears that, starting in the New Kingdom, several versions of the tale were in circulation, creating at the time a corpus of great diversity. We can explain this by the theatrical nature of the story, which resulted in several versions for performance on the stage. Over time, other changes appeared and the text came to be often reduced to short passages copied by student scribes studying classical literature. Having become the embodiment of the literary refinement of the Middle Kingdom, The Tale of Sinuhe also began to be used as learning material starting in the Eighteenth Dynasty and continuing throughout the Ramesside Period (Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties). The social and cultural roles attributed to the tale guaranteed its survival and development for almost seven centuries. 



Corpus of 7 papyrus and 26 ostraca known to date:


- Papyrus Berlin 3022, Twelfth Dynasty, 311 columns and lines of text


- Papyrus Berlin 10499, Middle Kingdom, 203 lines of text


- Papyrus Golenischeff (5 fragments), Moscow Inv. 4657, Nineteenth Dynasty, 16 lines of text.

  Berlin 3022, 22 and 56–66. Berlin 10499, 1–47 and 81–90.


- Papyrus Amherst (5 fragments from Papyrus Berlin 3022), Berlin, Twelfth Dynasty, 11 columns of text.                 

  Parallel: Berlin 10499 (5–6, 10–16, 18, 20–22 and 23–24)


- Papyrus Hagareh 1, Petrie Museum UC 32773, Middle Kingdom, 4 columns of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (103–110)


- Papyrus Buenos Aires, Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties, 11 columns of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (251–256)


- Papyrus Turin 54015, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (138–161)


- Ostracon Ashmolean Museum, Nineteenth Dynasty, 130 lines of text (front/back).

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (1–113), Berlin 3022 (1–280)


- Ostracon Berlin P. 12341, Hyksos Period, 3 lines of text.

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (58–60), Berlin 3022 (34–36)


- Ostracon Berlin P. 12379, Nineteenth Dynasty, 7 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (273–279)


- Ostracon Berlin P. 12623, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 25 lines of text (front/back).

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (1–19) and (49–68) = Berlin 3022 (25–44)


- Ostracon Berlin P. 12624, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 9 lines of text (ostracon lost during war).

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (38–51), Berlin 3022 (13–27)


- Ostracon Borchardt, Berlin, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 10 lines of text.     

  Parallel: Berlin 10499 (1–10)


- Ostracon British Museum 5629, Nineteenth Dynasty, 8 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (300–311)


- Ostracon British Museum 5632, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 6 lines of text (back).

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (77–87)


- Ostracon Cairo CG 25216, Nineteenth Dynasty, 9 lines of text (front).

  Parallel: Berlin 10499 (1–51)


- Ostracon Clère, location unknown, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 1 line of text (back).

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (51–66), Berlin 3022 (26–43)


- Ostracon Cerny, Nineteenth Dynasty, 3 lines of text.

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (54–57), Berlin 3022 (30–34)


- Ostracon IFAO 1011, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 9 lines of text (front).

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (108–114)


- Ostracon IFAO 1045, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 11 lines of text (front).

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (38–90)


- Ostracon IFAO 1174, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 6 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (7–13)


- Ostracon IFAO 1437, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 6 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 10499 (67–73)


- Ostracon IFAO 1438, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 4 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 10499 (9–18)


- Ostracon IFAO 1439, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 8 lines of text (front).

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (147–160)


- Ostracon IFAO 1440, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 5 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (188–199)


- Ostracon IFAO 1609, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 5 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 10499 (1–4)


- Ostracon IFAO 354, British Museum, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 5 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (126–130)


- Ostracon Petrie 12, Petrie Museum UC 34322, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 11 lines of text (front/back).

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (236–245 and 248–253)


- Ostracon Petrie 58, Petrie Museum UC 31996, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 5 lines of text.

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (47–50), Berlin 3022 (22–25)


- Ostracon Petrie 59, Petrie Museum UC 31997, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 5 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (250–256)


- Ostracon Petrie 66, Petrie Museum UC 34323, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 6 lines of text.

  Parallel: Berlin 3022 (142–151)


- Ostracon Senenmut 149, Berlin, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, 6 lines of text (front).

  Parallel: Berlin 10499 (1–12)


- Ostracon Varille, Nineteenth Dynasty, 5 lines of text (front).

  Parallels: Berlin 10499 (51–60), Berlin 3022 (27–36)