If the number of copies of a literary work is any indication of its popularity, then the Tale of Sinuhe must have been the prose classic for ancient Egyptian readers. Barring religious texts and formulaic inscriptions, no other work was copied as frequently.

Numerous papyrus fragments and ostraca contain portions of the tale. Two papyri in Berlin’s Staatliche Museen preserve almost the entire text. Dating to the 12th Dynasty (1985–1795 B.C.), the so-called “B manuscript” (shown above) contains 311 lines of elegant hieratic script; the beginning of the story, however, is missing. The “R manuscript,” which dates to the end of the Middle Kingdom (c. 1650), contains 203 lines of the tale, including the beginning. Most modern translations draw predominantly from these two manuscripts while incorporating textual variants from other papyri and ostraca.

A third major copy, dating to the reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.), is housed in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. This version of Sinuhe’s tale—found in the tomb of one Senndjem, one of the many burials in the workers’ cemetery at Deir el-Medina—was preserved on both sides of a limestone ostracon, measuring over 8 inches tall and about 3.5 feet long. Containing 130 fragmented lines of hieratic script, it is one of many copies of the text produced during the New Kingdom period (1550–1069 B.C.), a time when master scribes and their apprentices, unable to afford expensive rolls of papyrus, dutifully copied fragments of Sinuhe’s story onto potsherds and ostraca. Sennedjem must have been very fond of the tale of an Egyptian official’s adventures abroad and triumphant return to the land of his birth, for it accompanied him to his tomb.