The Strike by Artisans of Ancient Egypt. (The Working Class Heroes of the Past!)


It seems that this never-ending story (working class heroes) had already begun since the existence of human civilisation. Challenging-Class is not a new thing and does not only belong to our time. It is indeed interesting to know that it was, even in ancient Egyptian, an important issue.

Here we read an excellent reportage by two brilliant Egyptologists and adorable friends of mine: Marie Grillot & Marc Chartier 🙏💖

The Image at the top: Metmuseum, Craftsmen, Tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky.
New Kingdom

When the Pharaoh’s Workers Go on Strike

via; égyptophile & Égypte-actualités

The Ramesseum, the temple of millions of years of Ramses II
The Village of Artisans of Deir el-Medina, in Antiquity:
“Set Maât her imenty Ouaset” – the “Place of Truth to the West of Thebes.”
Workers at work represented on the walls of the tomb of Rekhmiré – TT100 – Theban Necropolis

Deir el-Medina, in the year 29 of the reign of Ramses III (circa 1150 BC). The “press” of the time, namely a few ostraca, but above all, a papyrus currently kept in the Egyptian Museum in Turin (Italy), under the “pen” of the scribe Amennakht, reports totally unprecedented social unrest in the ranks workers specialized in the construction of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.

The “strike papyrus” of Turin – “Le papyrus de la Grève” – provenant de Deir el-Medineh – Thèbes.
Egyptian Museum of Turin – inventory number Cat.1880 (acquired in 1824 for the Bernardino Drovetti Collection)

The discomfort this working class feels is due to the delays brought by the officials of the Royal Treasury to pay them. Indeed, in regular times, the living conditions and remuneration of these workers responsible for the construction and decoration of the monuments and funerary temples of the pharaohs are rather enviable; their food rations (loaves of bread, bags of cereals, measures of beer…) being fixed according to their qualification and their responsibilities. But suddenly, the social process seizes up because supplies are slow to be delivered, and the little that arrives is of poor quality. A collective decision is therefore taken: the work stoppage, as a sign of protest. The first “strike” in history was born!

Artisans at work depicted on the walls of the tomb of Vizier Rekhmire – TT 100 – Theban Necropolis – 18th Dynasty

Addressing whom it may concern, the workers express their demands thus: “We have come here driven by hunger and thirst; there are no clothes, no fat, no fish, no vegetables. Write about this to Pharaoh, our good lord; write to the vizier, our chief, so that we are given something to live on”.

Ostracon representing a stonemason – Limestone – Ramesside period – 1200-1153 BC
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge – E.GA.4324a.1943 (museum photo)

As it is still possible to see today in such a context, in all latitudes, this social discontent which manifests itself on the banks of the Nile is grafted onto a much more general malaise: “The political and economic situation of Egypt at the turn of the 12th century BC, Professor Nelson Pierrotti notes, was very unstable. The young King Ramses III had to stem further invasion attempts by a large coalition led by the ‘Sea Peoples’ and contain two Libyan invasion attempts in year 12 of his reign; the Pharaoh left to protect his Syrian possessions. The country will know a new era of prosperity at the end of this warlike period. But, little by little, economic problems call into question the prosperity of the Valley. In the modern sense of the term, that there was an economic crisis may explain part of the events. Pharaoh must replace his viziers. The administration no longer works well. But Ramses makes himself responsible for the situation. A plot to assassinate him, plotted by Tiyi, second royal wife, is even discovered. This idea of decadence has led Egyptologists to see in the episode of the conspiracy, the inevitable culmination of the long reign of Ramses III” (

Mounted on scaffolding, artisans polish a seated royal colossus of pink granite.
Tomb of Vizier Rekhmire – TT 100 – Theban Necropolis – 18th Dynasty

A clarification: when the author writes that “the administration no longer works well”, let us understand that corruption has appeared among civil servants, a symptom of a “disintegration” of Egyptian society, the immediate effect of which is a weakening of the country’s economy.

The ingredients of a strike in the most modern sense of the term are making their first appearance: picketing, confrontations with the forces of order, occupation of premises – key buildings of the central administration, even temples – to “claim salary arrears”, as Professor Christian Leblanc points out; foot-to-foot negotiations, if necessary accompanied by “violent altercations”, to win the case.

Limestone ostracon: register of absence from work in the year 40 of Ramses II.
Only 2 out of 40 workers have never failed. Among the motives, services rendered to others (leader, scribe, colleague)
figure prominently. We also find “participation in a drinking party” or “his wife has her period”… (
19th Dynasty – British Museum – EA5634

“Obviously, writes Christian Leblanc, the prosperity of the kingdom which had been that of the time of the great king [Ramses II] had vanished, and in Thebes, on the left bank, the population came to react to the harsh consequences of this economic collapse. To the ambient austerity, imposed and difficult to bear, it responded with strikes and seditions… And so it was that one fine day in the second month of winter 1150 BC, the artisans of Deir -Medineh, destitute and hungry, showed their anger and shouted their grievances at the south gate of the Ramesseum. They demanded fish, vegetables, bread, oil and clothing… in short, as many foodstuffs and products as the surrounding memorials were used to distribute, at regular intervals and as a salary, to those who worked on the construction sites and the domains of the Crown. Although confronted by the police and other officials of the temple, the unfortunate protesters obtained, this time, satisfaction. Still, they were not reassured about the coming payments “(The Memory of Thebes, the Harmattan, 2015).

From promises and momentary satisfactions to new disappointments, the first strike in history lasted several weeks, with new twists over the next two years, despite the change of main interlocutor, Ta, having been invested with the duties of vizier of Upper and Lower Egypt. “We will not leave, the demonstrators tell the necropolis officials. Tell your superiors, when they are with their companions, that we have not only broken down the walls because of hunger, but we have to make an accusation important to formulate because crimes are committed in this place of the Pharaoh.”

“The strikes cease as soon as the payments, even small ones, resume, and they begin again as soon as the delays accumulate again. They recur episodically until around the middle of the reign of Ramses IX” (Dominique Valbelle).

Statuette of the architect Khâ – wood – 18th Dynasty from his tomb (TT 8) at Deir el-Medina
discovered on February 15, 1906, by Ernesto Schiaparelli – Egyptian Museum of Turin – S. 8335

“You have to know how to end a strike”: this modern slogan is no doubt also valid for the events that marked the last years of Ramses III. We do not find any indications relating to the end of this first strike in history. But, in the same global context of what are called “social demands,”: “This is the first strike to our knowledge, writes François Daumas, whose history has preserved the memory. The embezzlements have emptied the attics of the state, and we can no longer pay the humble workers. They revolt, refuse to work and remain in their barracks but derive only meagre profits. The administrative balance is distorted. Corruption reigns. And it is significant to note that it was during this period that the looting in the necropolis began. Religious ideas no longer have a hold on minds when stomachs are tormented by hunger.” (“La civilization de l’Egypte pharaonique”, Arthaud, 1971)

Marc Chartier & Marie Grillot


Il “papiro dello sciopero” di Torino – The strike papyrus – from Deir el-Medina – Thebes
Museo Egizio in Turin – inventory number Cat.1880 (acquired in 1824 by the Bernardino Drovetti Collection)

Christian Leblanc, The memory of Thebes, L’Harmattan, 2015
Christian Leblanc, The Strikes of Year 29 of the Reign of Ramses III and the South Gate of the Ramesseum, in Memnonia XXII, 2011
Thierry Benderitter, The tombs of Deir el-Medina, osirisnet Nelson Pierrotti, The first strike in history, 12th century, 1166 BC. AD, 2019 Food strikes in Ancient Egypt – The Turin Strike Papyrus, and Other Records Jenny Cromwell, The First Recorded Strike in History, 2022

12 thoughts on “The Strike by Artisans of Ancient Egypt. (The Working Class Heroes of the Past!)

    • You are looking around in your good land England, dear brother. Broaden your view to see, still in our present time, how many workers are dying in their protest to get their justified rights! It is a bitter truth, mate!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. elainemansfield

    Fascinating. I had no idea about this, but I’m glad to learn about it. Thank you. These workers were artists and left us their beauty and insight. In my limited experience, the wealthy always take advantage of the workers, so I’m not surprised it happened in Egypt, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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