Workers strike at Deir el-Medina

The first workers strike in recorded history took place in the 12th Century BC in Egypt. Even though they regarded the king as a kind of living god, Egyptian workers were not afraid to protest for better working conditions.

The most famous example came in the 12th century BC during the reign of the New Kingdom king Ramesses III. Deir el-Medina is among the most important archaeological sites in Egypt because of the wealth of information it provides on the daily life of the people who lived there.

Workers' strike at Deir el-Medina
Workers’ strike at Deir el-Medina

The strike was recorded on papyrus, discovered in Egypt, and though it is damaged and incomplete, it is the only record of the strike in existence.

The workers had waited for 18 days beyond their payday and refused to wait any longer. They lay down their tools and marched toward the city shouting “We are hungry!” They first demonstrated at Ramesses III’s mortuary temple and then staged a sit-in near the temple of Thutmose III.

When laborers engaged in building the royal necropolis at Deir el-Medina did not receive their usual payment of grain, they organized one of the first recorded strikes in history.

Hieratic ostracon with "Necropolis Journal” entries
Hieratic ostracon with “Necropolis Journal” entries, Egyptian Museum of Turin, S. 5656

The protest took the form of a sit-in: The workers simply entered nearby mortuary temples and refused to leave until their grievances were heard. The gamble worked, and the laborers were eventually given their overdue rations.

Some written sources keep the memory of festivals taking place near the chapels of Deir el-Medina, during which food was prepared, beer brewed, and animals sacrificed.

Although the details of these feasts are unknown to us, some aspects are described, as in a Hieratic ostracon with “Necropolis Journal” entries in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, S. 5656, where is mentioned the sacrifice of a bull for the god Ptah, probably on the occasion of a feast of this god.