Egypt: Deir el-Medina, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Deir el-Medina

By Marie Parsons

Deir el-Medina

Deir el-Medina, like Kahun and the town being uncovered at Giza, is a community of workmen and their families, supervisors and foremen and their families, all dedicated to building the great tombs of the Egyptian Kings. The image of hundreds, perhaps thousands of toiling slaves, whipped by overseers, seems seared into the modern consciousness, and "everyone" is convinced that the despots who ruled Egypt with iron greedy fists must have built their wealth and glory on the bleeding backs of this tortured labor.

Nothing can be farther from truth (except perhaps that aliens in space ships pressed a button and built the Giza complex, and other great monuments.) The more work being done on these villages sounds a clear message that, while they worked hard, these villages were made up of mostly free and willing citizens, doing their part to ensure the afterlife of their King. The Giza town dates from the Old Kingdom, Kahun from the Middle Kingdom, and Deir el-Medina from the New Kingdom. In each, we can see the daily lives and some of the larger politics that fascinate us so about Egypt.

Deir el-Medina, which in Arabic means "monastery of the city", was called Pa-demi by the workmen, simply, "the town," though it was also called Set Maa, "the place of truth." is one of the most well-preserved ancient settlements in all Egypt. It lies near Thebes and was a highly skilled community of craftsmen who passed their expertise on from father to son. The community included the workmen and their wives, children and other dependents, as well as coppersmiths, carpenters, potters, basket-makers, and a part-time physician. The workers belonged to what we today would call the middle class, having no royal or noble connections, and much of their work was unglamorous.

These workers cut and prepared the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and in the Valley of the Queens, both on the West Bank at Thebes, and were administered directly by the vizier. They were better educated and better paid than the vast majority of their contemporaries elsewhere in Egypt. A number of the inhabitants augmented their income by producing furniture and funerary items for surrounding communities, and so they bought and sold in the west Theban markets, intermarried with the Theban population, and visited the Theban temples.

The village was located southeast of the Valley, on the Nile side of the western mountains, in a barren, waterless pocket in the hills. One hundred or more individuals including children lived in the community, and more than 30 foreign names have been identified there. In addition to the names of the viziers and other high officials who oversaw from Thebes, the names, families, and other details of the workmens lives are known.

Deir el-Medina

The site has yielded a wealth of textual material providing information about the way these people lived, their marriages, inheritances, divorces, how they sought legal redress, advice from the gods. In addition to papyri, large flakes of limestone were used by scribes as note pads. Thousands of these ostraca were found inscribed with letters, notes, records, and many other kinds of evidence concerning the lives of the men and their families, most dating from the 19th and 20th Dynasties.

For much of the time Deir el-Medina was a community of women. They were entrusted with many responsibilities of their own, and in one case a foremans wife paid out the workmens wages in her husbands absence. Many of the wives may have been literate, since messages were sent to them at times, when it is doubtful that scribes were present, who might have translated the messages. Many of the women also held religious titles such as chantress, singer or priestess, including duties in major temple cults outside the village. There are stelae showing women making offerings venerating their ancestors. At least one example is recorded of the wife of a scribe who willed distribution of goods from her estate to her sons, indicating that women had legal rights. The Town At its height, Deir el-Medina comprised an area with seventy homes within, another 40-50 outside the wall.

The original village was bisected by one main street which ran from north to south, but a few side alleys were created when the village was expanded. Outside the north gate lay the community well, filled by water-carriers from the Nile. The entrance to the town was at the north. The houses were lined up along either side of the main street, and each opened directly on to it.

The original houses were of mud-brick and had no foundations. Later houses were single-story, built on rubble with basements of stone or brick. An average house consisted of four rooms. The chief feature of the entrance hall was a large brick structure in one corner. It was approached by a flight of stairs. The block was topped by a brick superstructure rising almost to the ceiling so that it resembled a large canopied four-poster brick bed. The exterior of the block could be plain or decorated in frescoes. The most common decoration depicts the god Bes, deity associated with childbirth. It has been assumed that the brick bed was used for childbearing, but it may also have been merely an altar. This room also contained niches for offering-tables, stelae or ancestral busts and may have been an informal chapel for the family.

The second room was loftier than the first. Its main feature was a low platform of mud-brick with higher projecting sides at each end, with the top being plastered and whitewashed. It served as a seating area by day and bed at night. The room also contained a false-door stela dedicated to a favored deity, and there might be more niches for shrines or stelae. Underneath the platform might be a small cellar to store household goods. Child burials have been discovered under some of these rooms. The room was lit by windows set high in the walls.

Off this main living-room were one or two small rooms which may have served as store-rooms, work areas and sleeping quarters for the females of the household. At the back of the house was a walled open area serving as the kitchen, where grain was ground into flour to be baked into bread. The Workers The workmen were called Servants of the Place of Truth, since the ancient name of the site was Set Maat, the Place of Truth. They were known collectively as men of the gang, and divided into two gangs or iswt, Left side and Right side. This term was taken from the personnel manning a boat, and here meant perhaps depending which side of the tomb on which they worked. The term iswt signified a military-style unit working under a foreman who controlled the everyday tomb-building activity.

Several scribes were in attendance to record the work that took place, workers absences, payments, supplies received, etc. In the middle of the reign of Ramesses II there were at least 48 men, but by the end of the reign that number was down to 32, perhaps because the tomb had been completed. In the reign of Ramesses III, 40 men were named, but in the reign of his successor Ramesses IV the gang was expanded to 120 men. But Ramesses IV ruled only 6 years and the gang was cut back to 60.

Each gang consisted of stone-masons, carpenters, chief carpenters, sculptors, and draughtsmen. They were controlled by two foremen, each known as the overseer of construction in the Great place in the 18th Dynasty, and then just the chief of the gang in the Place of Truth.

The stonecutters excavated the royal tombs in the soft limestone hills, sometimes hundred of feet into the cliffs or the valley floors. The draftsmen guided the decorations by laying out the designs and enlarged them from gridline drawings to fit the available space, checking and frequently correcting those guidelines. The painters had a wide variety of pigments available, enabling them to brush remarkable detail into the figures.

The foremen and scribes constituted the leaders of the village, between the inhabitants and the higher authorities, including vizier and overseer of the treasury. They oversaw the removal of material from the royal storehouses for use in constructing the tomb, received and distributed the wages among the workers, sat as chief magistrates on the local court and acted as chief witnesses for oaths. They also recommended candidates for replacements in the work-force, which could sometimes be swayed by bribery.

Other positions in the village were the guardians of the Tomb who controlled the royal storehouses where the tools and other constructions materials were kept. They handed the materials over under the supervision of the foremen and scribes. The door-keeper of the Tomb guarded the entrance to the royal tomb, acted as bailiffs and debt-collectors. There were the police, or Medjay, stationed on the west bank to prevent unauthorized entry to the tombs. They were directly under the authority of the mayor of Thebes-West. The police chief sat in as a member of the community courts.

There were servants of the Tomb , wood-cutters, water-carriers, fishermen, gardeners, washermen, and at times, potters. They were under the direct control of the scribes and door-keepers. They worked for the workmen, but could rise to become full-fledged workmen. Women servants ground into flour the grain supplied by the authorities.

Because currency did not exist in ancient Egypt the workmen were paid in kind. The chief payment consisted of monthly rations of emmer wheat, for flour, and barley, for making beer. The foremen and scribes received a higher salary than the ordinary workmen. Apart from the grain, the workers were given fish, vegetables and water, wood for fuel and pottery. There were also more irregular deliveries of dates, cakes and ready-made beer. Bonuses were issued on festival days or other special reasons. These bonuses might include extra provisions of normal supplies but also sesame oil, blocks of salt and natron, and meat. The workers supplemented their government income by making their own funerary equipment, including coffins, boxes and other items.

They paid each other for various items of manufacture, and the scribes charged for painting the required inscriptions. The craftsmen also accepted outside commissions, so that much of the furniture used in private burials at Thebes was made at Deir el-Medina.

The Beginnings

Deir el-Medina was founded sometime in the 18th Dynasty. Amenhotep I, c 1527-1506 BCE, may have been the ruler who first formed the corps of workmen who would soon become hereditary tomb-builders. He was the first ruler to build his tomb separately from his mortuary temple. He and his mother Ahmose-Nefertari were worshipped as patrons by the royal workmen in later times.

Under the reign of Tuthmosis I, 1506-1493 BCE, a wall of bricks stamped with his name was erected around the village, confirming that the community definitely existed at that time. Tuthmosis I himself is buried in the Valley of the Kings. At this time, the 18th Dynasty, the construction of his tomb was supervised by the overseer of construction at Karnak, who had also been involved in the erection of the two obelisks of Tuthmosis I at Karnak. Later on, the workmen came under the direct authority of the Vizier.

The chief evidence from the 18th Dynasty consists of the few tombs of this period, together with some pit-burials and a few stelae. The most important of the tombs is that of the foreman Kha, who died during the reign of Amenhotep III, 1390-1352 BCE. The sarcophagus and coffin of Khas wife Meryt lay nearby. Their funerary equipment included ear-rings, gold collar and bracelets, a girdle composed of gold plaques and faience beads, a fine wooden statue of the deceased with garland, alabaster and pottery vases, bronze vases, tools, shabtis in their box, furniture including two beds and stools, ten wooden boxes, a wig, gameboard, linen and an especially fine papyrus.

During the Amarna period, the tombs of Akhenaten and his family were constructed by workers who lived at the village of el-Amarna. It is quite probable that while Deir el-Medina remained inhabited at this time, it did not serve as the official community for the royal workmen. By year 7 if the reign of Horemheb, c 1317 BCE, Deir el Medina once again was inhabited by the royal workmen. In that year, tracts of land including deserted tombs, were assigned to members of the community by the chief steward of Thebes. There is little more detailed information about the village until the reign of Seti I, c 1294-1279 BCE, early in the 19th Dynasty, by which time the community must have been well established.

The People

Since the reigns of Ramesses II and his successors there comes a wealth of evidence in the form of ostraca, papyri, stelae and tomb inscriptions, which tell the names of the workmen and their wives and children, even the houses of individual families. At the beginning of the 19th Dynasty, one of the foremen was named Kaha, son of a chief carpenter and possibly son-in-law of the preceding foreman. Kaha and his family held on to the post with minor interruptions until the end of the 20th Dynasty.

The other gangs foreman was Neferhotep, when the available records began, and he held the post under Horemheb, Seti I, and Ramesses II. He was succeeded by his son Nebnufer, who in turn was succeeded by his son, Neferhotep the younger, who held office for the last half of the reign of Ramesses II, through the reign of Merneptah, and into the reign of Seti II. The tomb of Neferhotep is by far the largest and most splendid in the workmens necropolis. It was Neferhotep who adopted Paneb, mentioned earlier who was even accused of trying to kill Neferhotep.

Neferhotep was not killed by his protg; his brother Amennakhte reported that the enemy killed Neferhotep. It is felt certain that this phrase refers to a civil war which broke out in Egypt between Pharaoh Seti II and the usurper Amenmesse, who controlled Thebes for several years. Neferhotep seems to have been killed just before Thebes fell to the forces of Seti II. Paneb bribed the vizier of Seti II to win the succeeding appointment as foreman, but he eventually met justice, at which point foreman of the right was filled by the family of Nekhemmut, and it remained there for most of the 20th Dynasty.

Scribes and Literature

Each gang had its own scribe, appointed directly by the vizier. The scribes chief duty was to keep a register of work done and to note any absentee workers. He also recorded the removal of material from royal store-rooms, and the payments of the workmens wages. One notable scribe was Ramose, appointed in year 5 of Rameses I, and was still in the post in year 38. Ramose has left a large number of stelae and other monuments, including three tombs, one of which was used by his female dependents. He owned slaves and farm land, and is frequently depicted in tombs of his fellow workers. He and his wife Mutemwia were childless, and he is shown on two stelae praying to the deities of childbirth and fertility, even dedicating a stone phallus to Hathor.

Ramose was succeeded as scribe by Kenherkhepeshef, who held the office until the end of the reign of Seti II. He had two accusations of bribery against him, and is recorded as using men of the gang to do private work for him during official working hours. The draughtsman Parahotpe complained bitterly, saying "what does his bad way mean in which you behave to me. If there is some beer, you do not look for me, but if there is work, you do look for me"

Deir el-Medina

The villagers had a level of literacy, and fragments of now familiar texts have been found. The text of Hordjedef son of Khufu is known solely from having been discovered at Deir el-Medina. The most frequent work found on ostraca from the site is the famous Satire on Trades by Khety. He was also the ghost-writer of the Instructions of King Amenemhat I, composed after the kings assassination in 1962 BCE. This piece is the second most popular text found in the village. Until recently, papyri and ostraca from the community were the sole evidence for the Maxims of Any dated from the 18th Dynasty, but a copy turned up at Saqqara as well.

Several popular stories were also found at Deir el-Medina. One of the best known is the tale of Sinuhe, the political refugee in Palestine during the reign of Senusret I. Other tales include the allegorical tale Blinding of Truth by Falsehood, of which only one incomplete copy from Deir el-Medina survives, and still others concern the activities of the gods, such as the adventures of Set and Anat, and a complete papyrus of the Contendings of Horus and Set.

Fragments of the private library of Kenherkhepeshef have been found, including a dream book giving the interpretation of various dreams. Some examples are:

If a man sees himself in a dream, looking out of a window, good, it means the hearing of his cry by his god.

If a man sees himself in a dream, drinking a warm beer, bad, it means suffering will come upon him

On the back of the dream book, Kenherkhepeshef, copied out in his own hand parts of the victory hymn of Rameses II about the battle of Qadesh, and he also recorded one of his reports to the vizier on the progress of work on the royal tomb.

The Tomb Workers Strike

The ostraca, papyri, and the other evidences show that life millennia ago in a country far away in often more ways than mere time and distance, really was not all that different from what we know today. People knew what they wanted, what they were owed, what they loved and what they disliked. The following two sections illustrate this very well.

During the reign of Ramesses III, construction at Thebes apparently severely depleted the grain reserves used to pay the workmen of the royal necropolis. The administrators were also corrupt, reducing the grain rations intolerably. A letter sent by the scribe Neferhotep around Ramesses' 25th regnal year states, "On and a half khar of gran (about 168 lbs) have been taken from us.we are dying, we cannot live"

The workmen then went on strike, in possibly the worlds first labor dispute. On the 21st day of the second month, in Ramesses 29th year, the scribe Amennakhte personally delivered a formal complaint about this situation to the Temple of Horemheb, part of the large administrative complex of Medinet Habu. Although a payment was forthcoming soon after, the poor conditions continued and in the sixth month of that year, the men of the two gangs stopped worked 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 temple, possibly Ramesses II, and possibly a third, that of Seti I, until the mens 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. Even in subsequent reigns the workers had to take action to receive any 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 village possessed its own court, known as the kenbet, composed of the foremen, deputies and scribes, plus certain villagers who may have been included because of their seniority or esteem. Its sessions may have taken place in the evenings or on rest days, and it had power to settle all civil action and to decide minor criminal matters. Major cases involving capital offences would be referred to the viziers court at Thebes.

The bulk of the cases seem to have involved disputes over non-payment for goods and services. The community seemed to enjoy a good court case, as it could serve to be somewhat diverting from the normal routine, and went to court apparently over what could seem to be trivial matters. Each man or woman conducted his or her own case, so lawyers fees were not required.

One action, which may not have been typical, was in the 17th year of the reign of Ramesses III, and was an attempt by workman Menna to recover payment owed him for a pot of fat he had sold on credit. He was not at all deterred by the fact that the defaulter was the chief of police, Mentmose! Mentmose had promised to pay for the pot with barley, but when he defaulted, Menna reported him three times before the scribe of the Tomb, and finally in the third year, second month, of Ramesses IV, eighteen years later, Menna reported him once more. Mentmose swore to pay before the next month or receive 100 blows of a stick and perhaps pay double.

Menna also apparently sued Mentmose over the course of eleven years at another time over non-payment of some articles of clothing. In year 28 of the reign of Ramesses III, Menna also sued the water-carrier Tcha for selling him a defective donkey.

Even if one was the winner in court, the debtor still had to be forced to make payment. The case of Mentmose certainly indicates that payment could be withheld for a long time. The doorkeepers of the Tomb were employed to exact payments due, but in at least one recorded case, the enraged debtor turned on the bailiff and give him the thrashing and never made his payment. If the loser disagreed with the courts decision or preferred not to trust in the human judges, one could also appeal to the gods. The deified Amenhotep I could be asked to render an oracular verdict on any claims submitted to him.

Deeds of gift or divisions of property were also registered with the court, as shown in the case of the lady Naunakhte. She laid down the division of her property and her husband and children swore to abide by her wishes. The proceedings were then recorded on papyrus and probably kept by the interested parties.

The court also dealt with theft. In year 6 of the reign of Seti II, c 1197 BCE, the workman Nebnufer son of Nakhy appeared before the court and accused the lady Heria of stealing a valuable tool which he had buried in his house. The court then asked the lady Heria if she had stolen the tool and she said no. She was then asked if she could and would swear by the Lord about the tool that she did not steal it. Heria immediately took the oath in the name of the god Amun.

However, that all seemed insufficient. The court sent a workman to search her house. He discovered not only the tool but ritual equipment stolen from the local temple. Lady Heria was thus found guilty not only of theft, but of blasphemy and perjury as well. She was declared worthy of death, and remitted to the vizier for final judgment. Unfortunately there is no final record of her actual fate.

There was a previous case of blasphemy the year before this. The foreman Hay was brought before the tribunal, and four villagers attested that Hay had pronounced insults against Seti II, the current ruling Pharaoh. An attack on the person of the Pharaoh, even verbally, was considered of course sacrilege. Pharaoh was the living personification of Horus, the King-Priest of the unified Two Lands. At this time, Seti II had just recently regained power in Thebes after a civil disturbance.

Hays defense was that he was actually sound asleep at the alleged time of the incidents. The accusers then became mysteriously silent when the court inquired into the nature of the alleged insults, and they were required to swear that in fact they were hiding nothing and had heard nothing against Pharaoh. They were then each sentenced to receive a hundred blows each for bearing false witness.

One interesting note however is that this tribunal was presided over by Paneb, who was mentioned earlier. Paneb and Hay were rivals, and Paneb had even been reported to have threatened to kill Hay, just as he had threatened his adopted father. A petition was drawn up at the end of the 19th Dynasty, now called the Salt papyrus. The petition was direct to the vizier, drawn up by the workman Amennakhte, son of the chief workman Nebnufer, brother of the foreman Neferhotep. It is in this papyrus that we read "the enemy killed Neferhotep," and further accused Paneb of bribing the current vizier to win appointment as foreman. Although Amennakhte later admits that Paneb may have had a strong claim to the appointment, having been the adopted son of Neferhotep, he lists a number of other charges against Paneb: that Paneb stole the things of King Seti Merenptah, that he went to the burial of Queen Henutmire and took away a model of a goose, later found in his house; that he stole tools; had an illicit affair with the lady wife of the workman Kenna and two other married ladies, as well as the daughter of one of them, and ordered royal workmen to do work for him.

The charge of the misuse of government employees for private work can be confirmed from surviving records. At the same time, workmen were absent on tasks for the other foreman and even the vizier. In any event, a trial was held and Paneb was removed from office and he disappears from further records in the community.

The End

During the course of the 20tt Dynasty the control of the central government slackened and payments to the workers became more erratic. Libyan raiders attacked the Theban area. The tomb of Ramesses VI was violated by a gang that had robbed an unnamed tomb earlier. In the course of the reign of Ramesses IX, an organized gang looted various tombs in the Valley of Kings and Queens. The mayors of both Thebes-East and Thebes-West charged each other with either taking stronger measures or incompetence at being unable to stop the gang. As investigations went on and on, senior workmen in the village and deputies were implicated and arrested, and now, instead of appointments passing from father to son, the foremen came from the ranks of the ordinary workmen.

Civil war raged through the Theban area at least twice a decade over the next few ears. The village was eventually abandoned and its inhabitants sought refuge behind the mortuary temple walls at Medinet Habu, but the temple was stormed, looted and refugees enslaved. Workers were conscripted to serve in the Nubian campaigns,

The royal tombs may again have been desecrated and looted again in the 18th year of Ramesses XI, about 1081 BCE. There can be no doubt that some of the former villagers took advantage of this chaos and looted tombs in the Valley of the Queens. The next year order was again restored, and thirteen men identified as being tomb robbers, including one workman of the community. The surviving workers, under orders from the high priest of Amun, now the virtual rulers of the Thebes area, gathered the royal mummies and their funerary equipment and reburied them in two secret caches, after repairing the bodies. One cache was near Deir el-Bahri. After Ramesses XI there were no more royal tombs at Thebes. The succeeding Kings were buried at Tanis in the Delta. Deir el-Medina was only occasionally visited by its former inhabitants, probably frequenting the temples when conditions permitted.

During the Ptolemaic (Greek) Period a temple dedicated to Hathor and Maat was built in the valley by Ptolemy Ptolemy VI, on the site of earlier temples. A large cache of demotic papyri was found dating from 188 to 101 BCE, which reflect the lives of the priests who served here. Deir el-Medina and its people may be "dead" but its voices have chosen to live on and on.

See Also


  • The Complete Valley of the Kings by Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson

  • The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs by Morris Bierbrier

  • Pharaohs Workers ed. by Leonard H. Lesko

  • Thebes in Egypt by Nigel & Helen Strudwick

Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to