In the first part of the narrative, Wenamun (also called Wen-Amun or Wen-Amon) dates his departure from Thebes as "Year 5, fourth month of the third season, day 16." Year 5 most likely refers to the fifth year of the Renaissance era, which began in the nineteenth year of the reign of Ramesses XI (1099-1069 B.C.E.). We are thus fairly certain that Wenamun's journey is set in the years 1075-1073 B.C.E., if we use the low chronology, or 1095–1093 if the high chronology is used. The middle of the fourth month in the third season corresponds to approximately 20 April, which is a reasonable time of year to begin an expedition.
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 which demonstrates the waning of Egyptian power over the Eastern Mediterranean. 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.
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. For details, 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 those which would be 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 underlaying 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 22nd Dynasty date for its composition (Caminos 1977:3; Helck 1986:1215), as well as a number of anachronisms more reflective of a post-20th or 21st dynasty time frame (Sass 2002; Sass specifically states it was written during the reign of Shoshenq I).
The text also ends 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. Finally, at the end of the text, in a slightly larger hand, the syllable (copy) is written, showing that it is not the original.
It is quite possible that the copy which we have may date as much as one-hundred and fifty years later than the original. The reasons for this assumption are as follows. The first reason is that the post-script is used. This is otherwise only used in the twenty-second dynasty (945-715 B.C.E.). The other reason is the locale in which the document was discovered--the Upper Egyptian town of el Hibeh. This town only gained any degree of importance under the reigns of Shoshenk 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.
Overall, the Story of Wenamun presents to us what could possibly be the most vivid and descriptive narrative of pre-classical times. Surprisingly, it is also remarkably accurate. Quite probably, the accuracy of this document is based on the fact that it was never intended to be more than a description of his trip, which was to be read through and filed away, then forgotten about. Perhaps this is the most outstanding difference between "The Journey of Wen-Amon to Phoenicia" as opposed to "The War Against the Peoples of the Sea" (c.1177 B.C.E.), or the information found on the "Harris Papyrus" (c.1153 B.C.E.), both of which were written during the time of Ramesses III.
Whereas there could be no valid reason for this author to exaggerate the grandeur of Egypt, or the loyalty (or disloyalty) of a particular prince to Herihor, Smendes, or even to Ramesses XI, the purpose for the last two documents was to summarize (and gloat over) the reign of a pharaoh, as well as to list his wealth and achievements for all of Egypt, as well as the entire world, to see, for all eternity. While there are many differences, the similarities should not be surprising, seeing that they date only fifty-four years apart, and were found in the same region of Egypt.
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.