The Egyptian, by Mika Waltari

Published in 1945, this was apparently a huge classic in the middle of last century, described as the best known book written in Finnish (Tove Jansson wrote in Swedish), the only Finnish book ever adapted to become a Hollywood movie, and the best-selling translated novel in America until The Name of the Rose.

It's about an ancient Egyptian doctor, Sinuhe, who spends most of the first half of the story travelling through Egypt's neighbours, as far as Crete, Smyrna and Babylon, and then in the second half returns home to participate in the intrigues at the courts of Akhenaton and his successors Tutankhamun and Horemheb (an old friend of the narrator). It was hailed for its "realistic" portrayal of ancient life, which to me tends to signal that it buttressed existing popular conceptions; I definitely felt that the scenes of ideologically driven internal conflict and brutal military suppression of popular uprisings might be drawn from more local experience of mid-century Europe than from any study of ancient Egypt.

It is a solid book of its kind, which would have appealed to the prejudices of mid-century readers while at the same time making them think that the author was informing and enlightening them. Of course, it has a comic slave character, almost all the women are seductresses, and none of the many "Negroes" are named. But there is a decent sense of scale in both space and time, and the reflections of the politics of the day are sufficiently oblique to remain interesting.

It is interesting that the story of Akhenaton became such a popular topic for literature. Agatha Christie wrote a play about him in 1937, and he's also the Pharaoh of Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers which was published in 1943. Of course, his close family connection with Tutankhamun added an extra element of interest. But I wonder how many other ancient rulers had more or less well-documented heretical religious ideas, and have been completely forgotten? I reckon Akhenaton easily beats Julian the Apostate, who is the only other one I can think of. (Unless you count those who won, like Constantine and Henry VIII.)