In the seventh month of the 29th year of the reign of Pharaoh Rameses III – a date we know as November, 1152 BC – a small group of Egyptian royal tomb workers did the unthinkable. Fed up with shortages in the food rations that were their pay, they went on strike.
Their extraordinary actions were nearly hushed up except for an unexpected turn of events. It would also have remained unknown except that a scribe named Amennakht recorded the details – mostly out of duty, partly to cover his own behind.
His report shows how little things have changed in 3,170 years of recorded labour disputes, mired as Canadians are in rotating Canada Post strikes and mindful of the protest by more than 54,000 Quebec university students over unpaid internships.
“We know so much about the strikers because archaeologists found the written records in the ruins of the town,” says Gayle Gibson, a Toronto Egyptologist who is president of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities. The records were written on flat pieces of discarded stone called ostraca, which were later thrown in the town dump after being transcribed onto now-lost sheets of expensive papyrus.
The village the Egyptian tomb makers lived in was called The Place of Truth, now known as Deir el-Medina. It was like a modern-day company town. The tomb workers were government-paid artisans who built and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, across the Nile’s banks opposite the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor.
For months leading up to the strike, the tomb workers had been grumbling about the delays in receiving their rations of food, and their complaints had been recorded by the scribe Amennakht. About 60 artisans lived in the town. They worked in two groups on the tomb site, and were led by two foremen, Nekhenmut and Khonsu.
They lived with their families and servants in the village of approximately 500, along with gardeners, water carriers, fishermen, police and scribes. All were government employees and since Egypt had no monetary system at that time, they were paid for their work in rations of food, clothing and sometimes equipment.
The scribes were the go-betweens for these tomb workers and the Vizier Toh, who was prime minister under Rameses III. The vizier had tried to overhaul the gangs of food suppliers to the village but after five months of meagre rations, the workers had had enough.
That November, the two work gangs put down their tools and marched out of the work site. The two foremen, their deputies and the scribe were stunned when they heard the news. They had no idea where the men had gone and they set out on a search.
Eventually, they found the workers sitting on a patch of high ground behind one of the sacred buildings, a group of wiry men clad only in their dusty white kilts, talking quietly among themselves about the enormous thing they had just done.
The foremen called out for them to get back to work but they were met, the scribe records, “with great oaths.”
“We are hungry!” the men shouted. They hadn’t received their food rations for 18 days. The village elders returned to the village. As night fell, the workers did the same.
The next day, the workers started out for their worksite, but instead left the royal valley and headed for another temple, where they entered the compound in search of bread. This was a serious breach of religious etiquette, and a scribe and some guards set watch over the angry men. The police official, a man named Mentmose, offered to go across the river to ask the mayor of Thebes to help. The mayor’s answer is not recorded, but whatever it was, the strike continued. No one came to speak to the men as they sat by the temple grain stores, so at the end of the day they decided to spend the night beside the temple gate.
Eventually the men’s rations were brought to them – six weeks overdue – and they went home, feeling vindicated.
Another walkout occurred a short time later, which further exasperated the foremen and scribes, who feared word of this unrest could make its way to the vizier.
Two of the senior workmen, speaking for the group, now told the scribe, “Tell your superiors we will not return! It was not because we hungered that we left the royal valley. We have an important statement to make: Evil is done in this place of Pharaoh.”
Egyptologist John Romer, author of Ancient Lives: Daily Life In Egypt Of The Pharaohs, writes: “We may detect in the men’s actions all the indignation of those who felt entrusted with deep secrets and grave responsibilities, yet despite this had been forgotten by their masters. Don’t forget us, they seem to be saying … loyal servants we may be, but we demand your proper attention.”
Such serious charges prompted the scribe to compile a complete record of the work stoppages, which is the document from which this account comes. He also began making careful note of those, such as the police official, who had supported the workers’ actions.
By now what the workers hoped, and the scribes feared, soon came to pass: The vizier had been told of the strikes. In late December, he sent a condescending message to the villagers, saying: “Do I, the Vizier, give in order to take away? If it had happened that there was nothing, even in the granaries, I would have given you that which I had found.”
He also announced a half-month’s rations would be distributed right away. But since this was just half the amount owed to the tomb workers, his words had no calming effect on them.
Four days later, when only a fraction of the rest of the food had been provided, foreman Khonsu joined his work gang’s dispute. He wanted to go to the vizier’s staff moored in the harbour to tell them that in his opinion lower administration was holding up distribution of the food.
But the scribe angrily threatened them. “Do not go to the harbour; if you do, I will put you in the wrong in any court you go to!”
The scribe writes that in the end he prevailed, and the men – who were probably frightened into ignoring the pleas of the foreman who had joined their cause – returned to work.
But all of the scribe’s threats and cajoling couldn’t scare the workers forever. Two months later, the tomb workers protested again. This time, the mayor of Thebes supplied the village with 24 sacks of grain to tide them over until royal supplies could arrive. But by now, some of the angry villagers were convinced it was the mayor who was stealing their food.
On all sides, frustration and animosity were reaching a flashpoint. And then something happened that no one could have predicted.
A worker named Pa’anuket, a petty criminal who was neither liked nor trusted by the other villagers, made a formal complaint to the scribe, witnessed by foreman Khonsu.
He angrily claimed that two prominent workers – a son of this scribe and a friend of the man’s family – had been stealing stones from the royal tomb for their own use. He accused another worker of stealing stones from another royal temple. For good measure, the worker also denounced a close associate of the scribe’s for stealing a branded ox from the old temple of Rameses II. “It is standing in his stall,” he stated. He added that the ox thief had also seduced the wives of three prominent villagers, one of whom was the scribe’s own daughter-in-law.
“Now,” said the whistleblower, “let me see what you will do to them or I will make a complaint to the Pharaoh my Lord and also to the Vizier” about the food shortages.
The result was electric. “Quite suddenly,” Romer writes in his book, “the proper quotas of rations began to reach the village again, and a number of men, including Scribe Amennakht’s eldest son Harshire, then training for his father’s post, were put to checking and distributing the rations as they arrived at the village, doubtless to ensure a fair distribution.”
As a result of the threats of a petty criminal to expose lawlessness and corruption at the royal work site, the tomb workers finally got action.
And so for the two remaining years of Rameses III’s time on the throne, the village’s accounts were properly maintained and the food was always delivered regularly.
(At least, that’s what scribe’s records tell us.)
Peter Bailey is an award-winning newspaper editor and writer with more than 40 years of experience. He specializes in automotive and travel writing, and lives in Hamilton, Ont.