Food strikes in Ancient Egypt – The Turin Strike Papyrus, and Other Records

Bread riots have been a regular feature of public protests in Egypt, and the most recent unrest in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, is associated with rises in food prices.  So it is timely to look at what is thought to be the first known ‘sit-down-strikes‘ over food in the Nile Valley, which took place during the 29th year of the reign of Ramses III, 12th Century BCE (c.1198-1166 BCE).

Note: I have included plans or pictures of the different temples in which the workers had their sit-down strikes, together with pictures of  mummies and tombs of the respective pharaohs, as well as a map showing the location of the mortuary temples in which the strikes took place – which are all on the West Bank, across from Luxor.

The major record for the strike is contained in the so-called Judicial Papyrus of Turin, verso ii

1879 , verso ii.

Strike papyrus in the Turin Museum

This is a difficult text, it is broken up and the hieratic is not easy to read.  I think we did not attempt it until our third year of hieroglyphic study.  Being a graduate student at Berkeley, I was fascinated by the subject matter; for at the same time we were working on the text learning about workers’ strikes in ancient Egypt, there were ‘sit-down-strikes’ being organized on and around the Berkeley campus.  So it was an exciting text to work through and I am sorry that I have lost my original records and notes, but must rely on a variety of texts saved over the years from the internet.

As background to the strikes, this is what  nefertiti.iwebland.com  has to say (In the translation I have put in bold the mortuary temples in which the gang are thought to have performed their sit-down strikes :

[On the day of the first strike] the scribe Amennakhte personally delivered a formal complaint about this situation [i.e., lack of payment-in-kind to the workers in the tombs and temples] to the Temple of Horemheb, which was part of the large administrative complex of Medinet Habu [see below on Horemheb].

Horemheb as the god Amun-Re. Originally covered with gold. Source: virtual-egyptian-museum.org

Statue of Horemheb with Amun. Source: Museo Egizio.

Tomb and coffin of Horemheb. He died before the tomb was completed, his mummy was removed and has not been found.

Tomb of Horemheb decoration.

Plan de la tombe de Horemheb (vallée des Rois,...

Plan de la tombe de Horemheb (vallée des Rois, Thèbes ouest, Egypte) (Photo credit: dalbera)

The mortuary temple of Horemheb (1323-1295), who appropriated that of Pharaoh Ay (1327-1323), is in ruined condition. It was located just north of the large temple of Ramses III, next to a small temple of Amun.

Although a payment was forthcoming soon after [the intervention of the scribe at the temple of Horemheb], the poor conditions continued and in the sixth month of that year, the men of the two gangs[*] stopped working and  marched together to one of the royal mortuary temples, perhaps Tuthmosis III, where they staged what would now be called a sit-in.

They repeated this on the following day within the complex of another mortuary temple, possibly Ramesses II, and possibly within a third temple, that of Seti I, until the men’s complaints were recorded by the priests and sent across the river to Thebes. Only then were the rations owed finally distributed, but the events of this strike would be repeated before the reign of Ramesses III ended.  

Along the west Bank of Luxor, just above the cultivated area, there are the remains of a series of mortuary temples that are dated from this era. 

Cults of deceased pharaohs who had built the temples were followed and a sit-down strike in them must have been considered outrageous.

* Two gangs: In ancient Egypt workforces in temples and tombs were generally partitioned into two halves, a right and a left side, each with their own hierarchies of foremen, scribes etc.

==============

Mortuary temples where the workers went on sit-down strikes are underlined in blue. The workmen’s city of Deir el-Medina, where they and their families lived, is also underlined in blue.

The Turin Strike Papyrus was written by the scribe Amennakhte at Deir el Medina [the workmen's village in which the strikers lived,underlined in blue in above map]. It describes the workers’ struggle to obtain food, which were payments in-kind.  It also describes the corruption which had spread throughout the administration.

Although the text is broken and not always easy to follow, I’ve put it all below to give a flavor of the problems of the time.  Also, I’ve included pictures and plans of the different mortuary temples on the West Bank (Karnak-Luxor)  in which the workers demonstrated, as well as photos of their mummies and their tombs.

Year 29, second month of winter, day 10.
On this day the crew passed the five guard-posts [Medjay guarding the necropolis]. of the tomb saying: “We are hungry, for 18 days have already elapsed in this month[past payday - i.e., giving of food and supplies];” and they sat down at the rear of the [mortuary] temple of Menkheperre [Thutmose III].

Thutmose III.  Source:  Wiki

Thutmose III

The ruins of the mortuary temple of Thutmoses III are to the left of the temple of Hatshepsut, his step-mother. islamic-architecture.info

Thmosis III mortuary temple.  touregypt.net

Thutmose III Tomb – offerings. Source:http://www.egyptos.net/egyptos/pharaon/thoutmosis-III.php

Coffin room in the tomb of Thutmosis III. Source: touregypt

The scribe of the enclosed tomb, the two foremen, the two deputies and the two proctors came and shouted to them: “Come inside.”

They swore great oaths (saying): “Please come back, we have matters of Pharaoh.”

They spent the night in the Tomb.

Year 29, second month of winter, day 10.
The entire crew passed the five guard-posts of the tomb. They reached the inner part of the temple of Pharaoh [Generally not accessible to the uninitiated] . The three captains, the (two) deputies and the two proctors came. They found them seated at the rear of the mortuary temple of Menkheperre [Thutmose III] in the outer road. [See above  photos]

 Year 29, second month of winter, day 10.
On this day the crew passed the guard-post because of their ration.

Year 29, second month of winter, day 11.
They passed again. They reached the gate of the southern temenos-wall [temple enclosure] of the Temple of Wesermaatre-setepenre [Ramses II]. [As mentioned above, there were mortuary temples that had been built all along the Left Bank of the Nile by recent-past pharaohs, each with its own compliment of administrative staff.]

Year 29, second month of winter, day 11.
There were brought by the scribe Pentaweret: s’b-cakes: 28, s’b-cakes: 27. Total 55.  temenos-wall: temple enclosure.

Year 29, second month of winter, day 12.
They reached the mortuary temple of Wesermaatre-setepenre [Ramses II] the night quarrelling in its entrance. They entered into its interior, and the scribe Pentaweret, the two chiefs of police, the two gatekeepers, the gatekeepers of the Gatehouse of the Tomb … (The chief of police) Mentmose (declared that he would go) to Thebes saying: “I will fetch the mayor of Thebes    [Ptahemheb, the mayor of Thebes, also held the position of chief taxing master, having access to the state granaries].

Ramesses II

Ramses II Mortuary Temple ‘Ramsesseum’. Source:http://www.aeswa.org.au/lectures.htm

Entrance to the tomb of Ramses II. Source: http://www.presstur.com/site/news.asp?news=27605

Mortuary temple of Ramses II – the Ramessiem. Note numbers of store rooms that surround the temple, in which grains and other supplies were stored.

The numerous storage rooms can be seen surrounding three sides of Ramses II mortuary temple.

Temple of Abu Simbel – south of Aswan on the west bank. Source: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/90167217

Grand entrance of Abu Simbel, Ramses II

“I (Mentmose) said to him: “Those of the Tomb are (in) the temple of Wesermaatre-setepenre [Ramses II].”
He said to me: “… treasury … you … there is not … give you … (to the place where) one is …”
The two chiefs of police … Pharaoh, the accounts scribe Hednakht, the god-fathers of this administration (came out (?)) to hear their statement.

They said to them [i.e the strikers to the officials]: “The prospect of hunger and thirst has driven us to this; there is no clothing, there is no ointment [of not insignificant importance in a hot dry climate], there is no fish [a main  source of protein], there are no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh, our good lord, about it, and send to the vizier, our superior, that we may be supplied with provisions.”

The ration of the 1st month of winter was issued to them on this day [about 21 days late].

Year 29, second month of winter, day 12.
They passed and (they) reached the Temple of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Wesermaatre-setepenre [Ramses II]. … Mentmose (?) (said) to the crew: “Finish ‘whatever you are doing’ that we may go out.”

Year 29, second month of winter, day 13.
At the Gatehouse of the Tomb [of Ramses II or Seti I, text is not clear]. Declaration by the chief of police Mentmose [During this strike the chief of police sided openly with the strikers, probably not a good career move.]: “I’ll tell you my opinion. Go up [to your homes in Medinet Habu], gather your paraphernalia, close your doors, fetch your wives and your children, and I’ll lead you to the temple of Menmaatre [Seti I] and let you settle down there forthwith.

Mummy of Seti I (sethos i)

Mortuary temple of Seti I

Funery temple of Seti I, West Bank

Tomb of Seti I

Tomb of Seti I

Second month of winter, day 15 (or 16).
…. “Give each man half a sack {In the New Kingdom about 80 litres] of barley, [for brewing beer]” so he said. Mentmose had one qbw-jar of beer and fifty (??) brought to them, but to no avail. They passed again and in the evening they were even carrying torches (?).

Second month of winter, day 17.
The imy-r mSaw[overseer of travellers] of the temple of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Wesermaatre-meriamun [Ramses III] came to the crew. He heard [their declaration, saying: "Tell (me) that which I shall write to Pharaoh about." [It was during the reign of Ramses III that the strikes took place].

The scribe Hori … He said to me: “the mayor of Thebes … spending the night.”
I haven’t got emmer to give to you. One gave a ration at the gatehouse … in the second month of winter, day 17, likewise. The foreman, 7½ sacks, 18 men, each 5½ sacks, the two striplings, complete, the woman slave, complete.

Year 29, second month of winter, day 17.
Giving the ration of the second month:

Right side:*
1 foreman: 7½ sacks
the scribe: 3¾ sacks
8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.

Left side:*
1 foreman: 7½ sacks
the scribe: 3¾ sacks
8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.

*  [In ancient Egypt workforces in temples and tombs were generally partitioned into two halves, a right and a left side, each with their own hierarchies of foremen, scribes etc.]

The two gatekeepers, the four washermen …

Year 29, third month of winter.
The crew passed the guard posts; they sat down in the Tomb [possibly of Ramses III - diacussed further down]. The three captains went out to fetch them. And the workman Mose, son of Anakhte, said: “As Amun endures and as the ruler, whose wrath is greater than death, endures, if I am taken from here today I shall go to sleep only after having made preparations for robbing a tomb [Tomb robbing became a favourite pastime of both official and private looters in the late New Kingdom - as now again seems to be the case following the downfall of Mubarak's government]  If I do not (i.e. keep the oath), it is because of this swearing of mine by the name of Pharaoh there that one shall punish me.

The crew went out to pass the guard-post from the rear of the village after the three captains had made a great shout against them at the gate of the village [Probably the workmen's village of Deir el Madina where they and their families lived]. The scribe Amennakhte of the enclosed Tomb made the two proctors and the two deputies go out to fetch them. The proctor Reshpetref returned saying to us: “Thus speak Qenna, son of Ruta, and Hay, son of Huy: ‘We will not come back, you can tell your superiors that,” – they stood in front of their comrades – “for sure, it is not because of hunger that we passed (i.e. that we are on strike), but we have a serious charge to make; for sure, something bad has been done in this place of Pharaoh’, so they said.”

And when we went out to listen to their statement, they said to us: “Tell it as it is.”

Year 29, fourth month of winter, day 28.
The vizier Toe went northwards after he had come to take the gods of the southern region to the Sed-jubilee. The chief of police Nebsemen, son of Pahnesy, came to say to the three captains and to the crew as they were standing at the gatehouse of the Tomb: “Thus says the vizier: ‘Was it for no reason that I did not come to you? It was not because there was nothing to bring you that I did not come! As for your saying: ‘Do not take away our rations!’ am I the vizier who was promoted (recently) [Toe, who had been vizier of Lower Egypt had been appointed vizier of the whole country on day 23 of the second month of akhet year 29] or the purpose of taking away? I may not give (you) what he who is in my position should have accomplished - it so happens that there is nothing in the granaries [one of the reasons for the state of the granaries may well have been the corruption apparent everywhere]- but I shall give you what I have found.’”

And the scribe Hori of the Tomb [of Ramses III?] said to them: “There is given to you a half-ration and I will distribute it to you myself.”

Year 29, first month of summer, day 2.
Amenkhay and Weserhat gave the two sacks of emmer to the crew as ration for the first month of summer. The foreman Khonsu said to the crew: “Look, I tell you, accept the ration and then go down to the market-place to the gatehouse, and have the vizier’s children [= subordinates] tell him about it.”

When the scribe Amennakhte had finished giving them the ration they betook themselves to the market-place in accordance with what he (i.e. Khonsu) had told them. But when they passed one guard-post, the scribe Amennakhte went out and said to them: “Do not pass to the market-place. For sure, I have just given you two sacks of emmer. You go then, and I’ll have you convicted in any court you’ll go to.”
Year 29, first month of summer, day 13.
The crew passed the guard-posts saying: “We are hungry.”

They sat down at the rear of the temple of Baenre-meryamun [Merneptah] . They shouted at the mayor of Thebes as he was passing by, and he sent to them the gardener Meniufer of the chief overseer of cattle to say to them: “See, I’ll give these 50 sacks of emmer for provisions until Pharaoh gives you (a) ration.

Mortuary temple of Merneptah

Mortuary temple of Merenptah

Mortuary temple of Merenptah. The numbers of storerooms of this and the other temples that were entered by the workers were considerable, and the workers may well have simply not believed that there was no grain or other food stores available at the time.

Tomb of Merenptah – Entrance

The reign of Ramses III during which these strikes took place was tumultuous.  Aside from the strikes and tomb robberies detailed above, there was a conspiracy organized by the pharaoh’s harim against Ramses III and records of the trial remain in hieratic form in the Turin Judicial Papyrus.

Given the kind and magnitude of building and decorating during the Reign of Ramses III, as well as the mortuary temples that the workers had previously entered in order to strike, it is difficult to understand why there were no supplies available for the workers.

Mummy of Ramses III. Source: http://www.egyptologyonline.com/mummies.htm

Medinet Habu – Mortuary temple of Ramses III

Medinet Habu complex, Mortuary temple of Ramses III

Tomb of Ramses III

Tomb of Ramses III – Bakery. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_cuisine

A Libyan, Sudani, and Asian – mortuary temple of Ramses III. Source: http://www.catchpenny.org/race.html

As well, there were disruptions all along the valley and in the Luxor area caused by Libyan incursions, which I did quite a bit of work trying to unravel, for these incursions took place both before and after Ramses III’s era and resulted in a series of forts being built in the western Delta of Egypt to keep the Libyan forces at bay.

Ramses III with captured Libyans and other enemies, Madinet Habu temple. Source: http://kennethgarrett.photoshelter.com/image/I0000buHpHtsNkgE

==================

The data in the strike papyrus and related documents referring to the workers not only provide invaluable information on administrative matters, but also on diet and social affairs as well as on political events of the time.  Here are a few records from ostrica found at Deir el-Medina [village in which workers lived]:

 A letter of complaint from workers in the necropolis of Deir el-Medina.

To: Bearer of the fly swatter to the right of the King, mayor of the city and vizier, Ta [the same Vizier Toe, discussed above in the Strike Papyrus], the scribe Neferhotep writes to his Lord, Life-Strength-Health (an honorific following the name of a superior).

This letter is to let my Lord [the Vizer, Ta]  know the following:

I inform my Lord that I work at the tombs of the royal children, which my Lord [the vizier] ordered constructed. I work very carefully and very excellently, progressing well and perfectly.

I do not want to bother my Lord, because I work very regularly and I am not tired. [but]

I want my Lord to know that we (the workmen of the necropolis) are in the most extreme deprivation… [he then states that they have not been provided with goods [= their wages in kind] from the government stores and goes on to say] …

The stones are not light to carry!

Someone also suppressed 1 ½ bag of barley, giving to give us instead 1 ½ bags of dirt!

May my lord act so that our livelihoods are assured, because we are already near death and cannot stay alive. 

Indeed, [those responsible] give us nothing, nothing at all!    

A salary statement of Deir el-Medina for the workmen of the necropolis:

First month of summer salary for the second month of summer: the foreman 7 ½ sacks, the scribe 7 ½ sacks, each of the 17 workers 5 ½ sacks, 93 ½ sacks, the two youth each 2 bags, 4 bags, guards 4½ bags ; all the maids (together) 3 sacks, porter 1 ½ bags; physician 1 ½ bag; which makes the total 117 ½ bags.  

{Here the scribe has unfortunately erred in his calculation, this happens very often in these documents.}

Wage chart for workers in the left and right ‘gangs’, and names (In construction and decoration, there were generally two groups of workers – one for each side of the tomb]. By Vladimira

Receipt for wages for work done at Deir el-Medina.

Which was given to paint the coffin:
A garment woven with a value of 3 {séniou weighing about 7.6 grams of silver} and
A bag worth ½ a bag of grain,
1 mat with cover, ½ séniou, and
A bronze vase worth ½ séniou.

- Copyright © C. 1998-1903 ORSI

The reign of Ramses III during which these strikes took place was tumultuous.  Aside from the strikes and tomb robberies detailed above, there was a conspiracy organized by the pharaoh’s harem against Ramses III and records of the trial remain in hieratic form in the Turin Judicial Papyrus.

All of the senior workers discussed in this blog had houses in Deir el-Medina which, being located in the desert near the mortuary temples and valley of kings and queens, was completely reliant on the government to provide food and other supplies.  This helps to account for the need of strikes by the workers when obligations of payments in kind could not be met.

Deir el-Medina: The workmen’s village where skilled craftsmen, such as those on strike, and their families resided. Source: http://www.wepwawet.nl/dmd/main.htm

Even in subsequent reigns the workers had to take action to receive payments. In the reign of Ramesses XI, the scribe Dhutmose traveled south of Thebes to collect the grain from local temples and farmers for the community, taking along two door-keepers for protection.

The temples and tombs in which the workers enacted their sit-down strikes covered a little over 300 years of pharaonic rule, and presumably in each of them cult activities continued to take place.

[Revised 15 March 2012]

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About diana buja

Picture from a recent training of veterinarians and vet technicians upcountry. I discuss in French with some Kirundi and have also a Kirundi translator to help with technical aspects ... Blog entries are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general, reflecting over 30 years of work and study in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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8 Responses to Food strikes in Ancient Egypt – The Turin Strike Papyrus, and Other Records

  1. Pingback: A Taste of 2012 – Top Posts Favor Colonial Era; Food; Ancient Egypt | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, the Middle East, Agriculture, History & Culture

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  5. naomi says:

    fabulous. found this because of Rachel Laudan’s link. now will follow you!
    naomi duguid

    Like this

  6. Pingback: Bread riots. Again. This Time in Ancient Egypt | Rachel Laudan

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