“In the stela of Sebek-khu the Manchester Museum possesses one of the most important historical documents ever found in Egypt.” So wrote Thomas Eric Peet, exactly 100 years ago, about this rather crudely executed, 28cm-high limestone stela (Acc. No. 3306). It was discovered at the site of Abydos by John Garstang in 1901, excavating for the Egyptian Research Account. It once stood among a mass of such private monuments on the “Terrace of the Great God” at Abydos, a site sacred to the god Osiris, and enabled the owner – as the inscription makes clear – to enjoy the smell of incense from rituals conducted for Osiris nearby.
Yet, this document is unique because it gives an insight into a soldier’s life during the mid-Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1880-1800 BC). The text is difficult in parts due to the legibility of signs. It reads:
An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Abydos [that he may give an invocation offering of bread and beer], oxen and fowl, linen and clothing, incense and oil, every good and pure thing for the Ka-spirit of the member of the elite, governor, who says good things, repeated what was desired during the course of every day, great district official of the town, Khu-Sobek whose good name is Djaa, born of Ita of the district of Tefnut, possessor of honour.
His daughter, his beloved, Gebu, born of … His brother, Dedu, born of Meret-iti-es. Overseer of the chamber, Kheru, born of Khaseti. The nurse of his heart, Renef-ankh, born of [Dedi]. Iubu, born of Meret-iti-es. Nebet-Iunet, born of Iubu.
His Majesty went downstream to overthrow the Bedouins of Asia. His Majesty arrived at the district named Sekmem. His Majesty was making a good start to return to the palace, (when) the Sekmem and the wretched Retjenu fell (upon him?) (while) I was serving at the rear of the army. Then the soldiers of the army went to fight with the Asiatics. I struck an Asiatic, and I had his weapons taken by two soldiers of the army without ceasing fighting; I was brave, I did not turn my back to the Asiatic. As Senwosret lives for me, I have spoken the truth! Then he gave me a throw-stick of electrum, into my hand, a sheath and a dagger worked with electrum together with handle.
Member of the elite, governor, firm of sandal, easy of stride, loyal (lit. one who adheres to the path) to the one who advances him, one to whom the Lord of the Two Lands gave his splendour, one whose position his love promoted, the great district official of the town, Djaa. He says: I have made for myself this memorial, beautified, once its position had been efficiently established at the terrace of the great god, lord of life, foremost in the district “Mistress of Offerings” and in the district “Mistress of Life,”(so that) I may smell the incense that comes forth, (and) I may be provided with the divine censing, the great district official, Djaa. He says: I was born in year 27 during the reign of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Nebkaura (Amenemhat II), justified. When the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Khakaura (Senwosret III), justified, wearing (lit. in) the double crown arose upon the Horus throne of the living, His Majesty made me adopt the profession of a weapon trainer (lit. fighter of stick) beside His Majesty along with six men of the Residence. I have become effective at his side, and His Majesty caused that I be appointed to be a “Follower of the Ruler.” Sixty men have been given to me. His Majesty went upstream to overthrow the desert Nubians. Then I struck a Nubian [at Kenekef] in the presence of my townsmen. Then I went downstream in attendance (lit. following) with six men of the Residence. Then he appointed me “Inspector of the Followers.” One hundred men have been given to me as a reward.
Sobek-khu describes military campaigns into the ancient Near East which, before the discovery of the stela, were little known. As is typical of such autobiographical inscriptions, the protagonist emphasises his talent and promotion through the ranks by Pharaoh because of this. The real importance of this inscription lies in the references to armed combat in the area of Retjenu and Nubia. The soldier is “rewarded” with – or perhaps he simply helped himself to? – the weapons of his defeated foe. This type of autobiographical account – emphasising military prowess – became more common later in Egyptian history, but stands out at this period as something of an innovation. We know from another inscription from Semna that this same Sobek-khu was still active in the ninth year of Amenemhat III, when he would have been aged at least 60.
Little did Peet, the editor of the text and a frequent visitor to the Manchester Museum collection, realise that as he wrote about these ancient conflicts in early 1914, Europe was on the brink of the Great War. Sobek-khu lived to tell his tale but, as in all conflict, many others did not.