By Jenny Cromwell
In year 29 of the reign of Rameses III, the workmen of the village of Deir el-Medina – state workers who were responsible for the construction of the royal tombs – went on strike. Consistent late payments and poor working conditions forced them to lay down their tools and walk out of the walled village, in what is the first recorded strike in world history.
The 32-year reign of Rameses III (ca. 1184–1153 BCE), the second king of the 20th dynasty, is well known for several events, notably his military conflicts against the Libyans and Sea Peoples, as well as the schemes within his harem to murder him and change the plan of succession. Such turmoil also had repercussions among the population. War is expensive, as is its aftermath. The so-called Great Harris Papyrus (today in the British Museum, EA9999) records the donations that Rameses III made to temples throughout Egypt following his campaigns, including vast quantities of land, produce, and other commodities. Such redistribution of wealth had a detrimental effect on the royal coffers and as a result on the individuals paid from those resources. Not only were the community of workmen at Deir el-Medina affected, they also left records of their grievances and resulting actions.
Early in year 29 of his reign, an ostracon today in Berlin sets the prelude of what was to come. While overdue grain delivery is attested intermittently throughout the previous 18th and 19th dynasties, the situation came to a head during Rameses III’s reign, such that the workmen felt they had no other options. Towards the end of the second month of the inundation season, akhet (approximately mid-September), the senior scribe Amennakht recorded how the workmen were two weeks (20 days) without payment. As a stop-gap measure, Amennakht himself went down to the temple of Horemheb to procure grain for the workmen. (As Egypt was not a coinage society, payment was primarily in grain, so money was literally food.)
Year 29, second month of akhet, day 21. On this day, the scribe Amennakht announced to the crew, saying: ‘Twenty days have passed in the month, and rations have not been given to us!’ He went to the temple of Djeserkheperre-Meryamun (Horemheb) in the estate of Amun. 46 bushels of emmer were brought and was given to them on the second month of akhet, day 23.O.Berlin P.10633
While civil unrest was averted on this occasion, it wasn’t long before the suspension of rations occurred again and led to crisis. The dispute between the workmen and government authorities is recorded on a papyrus that is today in Turin and known as the Turin Strike Papyrus. The papyrus is an administrative document that compiles multiple events of importance to the village, including lists of personnel, delivery reports, and judicial matters. Eight entries written over three columns on the front (recto) of the papyrus concern the strike action. Overall, the documented events covered a period of about three months that corresponds to early November to early February (the second month of peret, the growing season, to the first month of shemu, the harvest season).
On day 10 of the second month of peret, the workmen left the community, declaring ‘We are hungry!’ Almost two weeks had passed since they should have been paid. Descending down the mountain, they spent the day in peaceful protest sat behind the temple of Thutmosis III while government officials came out and shouted at them to return.
Year 29, second month of peret, day 10. On this day, the crew passed the five guard-posts of the necropolis area, saying: “We are hungry! For 18 days have already passed in this month”. And they sat down at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre (Thutmosis III). Then the scribe of the enclosed Tomb, the two foremen, the (two) deputies, and the two law enforcement officers came and shouted to them: “Go back, then”. They swore great oaths (saying): “Please come, we have a pronouncement of Pharaoh (l.p.h.”. They spent the day in this place and spent the night in the necropolis area.P.Turin Cat. 1880: Text 1 (Column 1, lines 1–5)
Two days later (on day 12), the crew again left the village and walked to the temple of Ramesses II (the Ramesseum), spending the night at its entrance. Much of the papyrus here is damaged, but the statements of the crew, as related to officials, survive. Not only did suspension of payment mean hunger, it also meant they couldn’t afford any other essentials.
They told them that they had turned to them from hunger and thirst, for there is neither clothing nor oil, neither fish nor vegetables. They (the officials) should therefore write to Pharaoh, their good lord, and to the vizier, their boss, to provide for their livelihood. The rations for the first month of peret were made available to them on the same day.Text 3 (col. 1 line 7 – col. 2 line 5)
Rations were provided, but each payment was just a temporary measure, a reaction that plastered over the cracks of more systemic issues. In the following month, two workmen leaving the community were apprehended, but refused to return. The protest of Kenena son of Ruta and Hay son of Huy is testament to how bad the situation was.
We will not return, tell your superiors! Truly, it was not because we hungered that we passed (the walls). We have an important statement to make. Truly, evil is done in this place of Pharaoh!Text 5 (col 2 lines 6–17)
These memoranda attest to the protracted difficulties the workmen faced and the inability of the state to rectify the economic concerns that these men and their families faced – men responsible for the final resting place of pharaoh! At the end of the fourth month of peret, an entry records a response from the vizier, To. The vizier, however, didn’t visit the community in person, sending a message instead, which noted that the granaries were in essence empty and he had sent along what he could find, which amounted to half of the ration delivery. And, of course, it was still not enough. The final strike entry records how the crew left the village again, just two weeks later, going this time to the temple of Merenptah. There they encounter the mayor of the city, who provides aid until Pharaoh can provide.
Year 29, first month of shemu, day 13. The crew left the necropolis grounds on, saying: “We are hungry!” They sat down at the rear of the temple of Merenptah (l.p.h.). They called out to the passing mayor of the city, who summoned Mennefer, the gardener of the Chief Overseer of Cattle, who told them that he would give them 50 sacks of emmer for their sustenance until Pharaoh gives you rations.Text 8 (col. 3 lines 14–18)
And there the entries end, with a final stop-gap measure. But this was certainly not the end of the problem. Further texts record how the workmen passed the walls of the village again later in Rameses III’s reign. Such action took place intermittently throughout the rest of the 20th dynasty, with increased frequency under the reigns of Rameses IX–XI, the final rulers of the New Kingdom. The strikes and their frequency highlight the economic weakness of the state. These 3,000-year old records also remind us that civil disobedience and the government refusal – or inability – to meet workers’ demands is not a modern phenomena.
Provenance: Deir el-Medina.
Date: Year 29 of the reign of Rameses III (ca. 1155 BCE).
Language: Late Egyptian; written in the hieratic script.
Collection: Text 1: Berlin, Staatliche Museen P.10633; Text 2: Turin, Museo Egizio P.Turin Cat. 1880.
Designation: N/A. ID on trismegistos.org: Text 1 = TM 136297; Text 2 = TM 139434.
Bibliography: Jean-Christophe Antoine (2009), “The Delay of the Grain Ration and its Social Consequences at Deir el-Medîna in the Twentieth Dynasty: A Statistical Analysis,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 95, pp. 223–234; William F. Edgerton (1951), “The Strikes in Ramses III’s Twenty-Ninth Year,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 10/3, pp. 137–145; Paul J. Frandsen (1990), “Editing Reality: The Turin Strike Papyrus,” in Sarah Israelit-Groll (ed.), Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim vol. 1 (Jerusalem), pp. 166–199; Jac J. Janssen (1979), “Background Information on the Strikes of Year 29 of Ramesses III,” Oriens Antiquus 18, pp. 301–308; Jac J. Janssen (1992), “The Year of the Strikes,” Bulletin de la Société d’Égyptologie de Genève 16, pp. 41–49; Matthias Müller (2004), “Der Turiner Streikpapyrus (pTurin 1880),” in Bernd Janowski and Gernot Wilhelm (eds.), Texte zum Rechts- und Wirtschaftsleben (Gütersloh), pp. 165-84.