By March 23, 2016 Read More →

Pharaoh’s Workers- How the Israelites Lived in Egypt, Leonard and Barbara Lesko, BAR 25-01, Jan-Feb 1999.


Whatever doubts scholars may entertain about the historicity of the Exodus, memories of an Israelite sojourn in Egypt seem too sharply etched to dismiss out of hand. The Biblical account simply contains too many accurate details and bears too many correspondences with Egyptian records to ignore. And although in our current state of knowledge we cannot say whether or how ancient Israelites labored for the pharaohs, we do know the conditions under which Egypt’s own laborers worked. Indeed, archaeologists at Deir el-Medina, Egypt, have uncovered the well-preserved village—including the homes, tombs, statuary, personal letters and legal documents—of the Egyptian craftsmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Readers can decide for themselves whether the Israelites worked in similar circumstances before the onset of a great oppression.

We know from extra-Biblical sources that immigrants regularly entered and settled in Egypt. Some of them are depicted in the tomb of Khnumhotep at Beni Hasan, which dates to about 1850 B.C.E. The best-known large-scale immigration involves a group of Asiatics we know as the Hyksos (Rulers of Foreign Lands), who actually ruled, at least over the northeast Delta, as Dynasties XV and XVI (1650–1550 B.C.E.). Their position did not differ much from that of Joseph as it is described in the Bible.

These foreign overlords were expelled and ordered to return to Canaan in about 1550 B.C.E., but many of them appear to have remained in Egypt, as attested by the continuing presence of foreign names.

About 400 years after the Hyksos, Dynasty XIX came to power in Egypt. This dynasty included Pharaoh Ramesses the Great, who is often identified with the pharaoh of the Exodus (or the pharaoh of the oppression). According to the Biblical chronology, the Egyptian sojourn lasted 430 years (Exodus 12:40), which would span the era from the Hyksos to the Ramesside empire. The Ramesside family originated in the northeastern Delta and came to the throne through the office of the vizierate, the pharaoh’s prime minister and chief justice. The Ramessides certainly had some Asiatic roots, which the family was proud of, as indicated by the choice of the name Seti (which incorporates the name of the Egyptian storm god Seth, who was associated in this period with the Asiatic storm god), as a royal nomen and by Ramesses the Great’s commemoration of the 400th year of the city of Avaris, the old Hyksos capital. But the clan had apparently become thoroughly Egyptianized by the time it ascended to the throne.

In the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Ramesses the Great (also known as Ramesses II), the old Hyksos capital of Avaris in the northeastern Delta was rebuilt and expanded under the new name of Pi-Ramesses (House of Ramesses). This could well have been one of the Biblical cities (named Pithom and Ramesses) that, according to Exodus 1:11, were built by the Israelites when they were enslaved.

In Egyptian records, great works of construction are often attributed to the ruling pharaoh. For many years, historians were content to follow this lead and credit kings with the labors of their lowly subjects. This at least provided a chronological context for the construction work. On occasion, however, the ancient records also name the “overseer of works,” the official who served as chief engineer or architect, and provide a sketchy biography that tells us how these people worked their way up to positions of such great importance. Two of these officials were even deified long after their death—Pharaoh Djoser’s architect Imhotep (Dynasty III) and Amenhotep son of Hapu (Dynasty XVIII).

Until now, the mid-level foremen and lowly laborers—who literally made history—failed to make it into the history books. Recently, however, archaeologists have begun to discover what life was like for these workers and their straw bosses.

Questions still remain about whether prisoners of war and other foreigners served as slaves during the New Kingdom (1550–1075 B.C.E.). But we should remember that the Biblical narrative describes the Israelites as leading very comfortable lives in Egypt. They are represented as being generally satisfied with their lot as immigrants for over four centuries, until an unnamed pharaoh takes it into his head to punish them. Even after their departure, many Israelites, we read over and over again, express regret at leaving.

The Israelites, together with other immigrants and native Egyptians, were probably liable to the corvée—a sort of national service, but one involving much that we would consider slave labor. Some of ancient Egypt’s greatest building projects—pyramids, temples, forts and cities—can be attributed to the corvée, as we know from graffiti found at mines and quarries.

The corvée system has been described as a WPA-style government project for providing gainful employment for an agricultural population during the inundation of the Nile. Service, however, was not always welcomed by the populace, as is gleaned from temple decrees and religious texts. Members of the temple staff received royal immunity from the corvée in this life, and they left figurines of servants in tombs to perform their work in the afterlife. The corvée system no doubt varied over time in intensity and cruelty. At least some of the Israelites were skilled in woodcarving, metalworking and textile production (Exodus 25–28); no doubt they would not have been pleased at being forced to make bricks. And they would not have been alone in their dissatisfaction.

Although we have very little evidence about the working population of the northeast Delta during the Ramesside period, a contemporary site in Upper Egypt has yielded a treasure trove of information about the daily life of workers in ancient Egypt.

In the 1920s, when the world’s attention was focused on Luxor and the astonishing archaeological discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, just over the hill a French archaeological expedition working on the desert’s edge was uncovering the village of the very workmen who produced the royal tombs of the New Kingdom. Without the evidence from this village, our view of life in ancient Egypt would be skewed in favor of an elite minority—aristocrats and high officials, whose large, decorated tomb chapels preserve scenes of an idealized existence.

The site of Deir el-Medina is now quite possibly the best-known village of all antiquity, for it rewarded Bernard Bruyère and his team of archaeologists and philologists, who labored there from 1922 to 1951, with a wealth of artifacts, houses, religious shrines, votive statues, stelae, tombs and their furnishings, and even some of the coffins and bodies, of the free men and women who inhabited the Village of the Place of Truth, as they called their walled village, from about 1550 to 1050 B.C.E.

The village also yielded thousands of written documents—letters and notes, sales agreements, work diaries, court testimonies, wills—that preserve the intimate details of community life over 3,000 years ago. These pithy documents are mostly written in ink on potsherds, called ostraca, or on flakes of limestone, which served as inexpensive writing materials; the village had tons of broken pots and an inexhaustible supply of pure white limestone, thanks to the clearing of the subterranean corridors and rooms that the workmen hewed as the last resting place of their pharaoh and themselves.

When creating their own tombs, across from their houses in the village of Deir el-Medina, the tomb workers decorated the underground burial crypts mainly with religious scenes—the deceased husband and wife praying or meeting the gods in paradise or laboring for them. In their daily jottings, however, the middle-class citizens of Deir el-Medina speak of many worldly matters. We learn of their friendships and animosities, their problems and triumphs, their purchases and their productivity. From surviving texts we know theirs was a close-knit, intermarried community of gifted people who took pride in being entrusted with the high security job of creating the magical means by which their god-king would achieve eternal life with the sun god and the other great deities.

Inhabited for more than 400 years, the main village consists of row houses arranged along a central street, which may have been covered to provide shelter from the intense sun (during one recent July, a thermometer broke at 130 degrees Fahrenheit!). No trees or flowers alleviated the oppressiveness of the sandy desert landscape, but the residents nevertheless lived lives saturated with colors. They painted the interiors of their houses with murals and decorative patterns (at least along the floor lines that survive), and brilliant paintings covered vast expanses within the tombs.

The houses were much alike, consisting of three rooms, one behind the other. A loom stood in the front room, and sometimes a boxlike mudbrick enclosure approached by steps occupied one corner. If the wall decoration associated with it can be trusted, this structure was a birthing bed: The partially surviving scenes associated with them depict a woman with child seated under a vine-covered arbor.

The middle room served as the dining room and central gathering place for family and friends. A single column supported this room’s roof, which was raised to provide lighting just below the ceiling. A small bedroom was next, and an open-air kitchen brought up the rear of the modest dwelling. Cellars offered storage space, and steps led to the roof.

Because it was a good half hour’s walk to the nearest well, the village was regularly served by water carriers, who filled a cistern just outside the village’s northern gate. From ostraca, we know that a servant was provided to grind grain for the women of the village, and a laundry service was provided as well. Housewives kept small animals for food. A cock is portrayed on one ostracon, and excavated bones testify to the popularity of pigs, which provided not only meat but a handy refuse service that kept many an ancient community relatively clean.

When a tomb was being built, there were typically two gangs of workers, one for each side of the tunnel-like tomb. Each gang had between 20 and 30 men; at least once, there were 60 men on a side. Wielding heavy round dolomite stones, the workers first pounded out the apertures and tunnels of the tomb; the rough walls created in this way were straightened and plastered over to create a smooth surface. Then a draftsman, sure and graceful of line, produced outlines of the royal and divine figures as well as the accompanying texts. These could be either painted as they were or carved in low relief and then painted, mostly in primary colors and according to strict design rules. Even an individual hieroglyph could be turned into a detailed, highly colorful image if time permitted.

While they were laboring, the workers stayed overnight in a camp, where their stone huts may still be seen, above the mortuary temple of Queen Hat-shepsut and the Valley of the Kings. These huts were simple affairs, usually with only two rooms, an inner one for sleeping and a front room for social activities. The front room often had rows of U-shaped limestone seats arranged along the walls; some seats were inscribed in ink with the names of those who had picked them as their favorites.

These craftsmen do not seem to have been overworked by their king. The workmen put in only eight-hour days and had weekends off, although these did not come as frequently as ours, since pharaonic Egypt had a ten-day week. In long reigns, when the king’s tomb was finished well before he needed it, the weekends grew to two and sometimes three days off, and there were numerous holy days that everyone observed with drinking and general merriment.

Notes scribbled to members of the family back in the village indicate that the men on duty had cooked meals brought to them regularly. Literacy levels must have been high, as some of the notes are clearly written to women. Families were large, so there would always have been children on hand to carry messages and food between the village and the work camp.

On the job, there were two foremen, one for each of the two groups of tunnelers, and a scribe, who worked with both groups. These three officials were appointed by the vizier of Upper Egypt, the highest official for the entire valley south of Memphis, the capital. The tomb workers must have thought of themselves as especially important civil servants; many of the literate draftsmen privately appropriated the title of royal scribe.

The village was under the control of the pharaoh’s highest minister, the vizier, but was managed day to day by a local tribunal that also served as a small-claims court, a family court and a criminal court. The members varied from one session to the next and included the tomb’s administrators (the two foremen and the scribe) as well as simple workmen. The local court could order restitution or administer physical punishment, but the most serious cases, those involving the death penalty, were referred to the court of the vizier. If a plaintiff was dissatisfied with a verdict, he could appeal to the divine oracle of Amenhotep I, who was the deified patron of the workers’ village.

The workmen and administrators were paid in wheat and barley, from which their wives would prepare their daily bread and beer. The grain was often supplemented by deliveries of fish, oil, firewood and fruits. The housewives were spared the laborious task of grinding grain by state-supplied household help, a small team of female serfs who went from house to house, working for a specified number of days in each. Sometimes a housewife bartered her serf’s time for a commodity she wished to buy. However, the housewives themselves were productive members of the community; many wove linen cloth and sewed clothing that they also used as barter, and some women had garden plots and raised foodstuffs for market, thus enhancing their family’s purchasing power. Although the workmen’s monthly pay was adequate to feed a family of ten, it was not enough to pay for major items like plow animals, servants or real estate. However, many of the men moonlighted in their off hours and produced tomb and home furnishings and votive stelae and statues for their neighbors.

Although the villagers could come and go freely, the village itself was off limits to those who did not live there or did not have official business with it, much like a modern military base. The state provided security for Deir el-Medina. Members of a Nubian tribe known as the Medjai lived outside the walled town and served as policemen, as they did throughout New Kingdom Egypt; many kept their desert patrol jobs for their entire lives.a Their names turn up on the ostraca among those who bartered and dickered with the villagers.

The workmen were not paid munificently by the state, but they nevertheless valued their positions on the royal work force; a father hoped that at least one son would succeed to his place. Training in draftsmanship was easily provided by fathers (among the ostraca are trial drawings with corrections), and the scribe of the administration probably taught ambitious youngsters the basics of reading and writing.

The finest royal tombs were produced in the early XIXth Dynasty. This period is—probably not coincidentally—one of the best-documented periods in the village’s history. We know the names and activities of the men responsible for the period’s finest creations: the tombs of Pharaoh Seti I, (1303–1290 B.C.E.), his long-reigning son Ramesses II (1290–1223 B.C.E.) and Ramesses’ first queen, Nefertari. We can re-create the progress of careers and family relationships. We can measure the workmen’s wealth and purchasing power. We also know something of their troubles and concerns. We can even tell something about their personalities. On one ostracon, a workman beseeches a god to “Make so-and-so … run after me like a cow after grass, like a servant after her charges, like a herdsman after his cattle.” On a stela, a repentant workman claims, “I was a man who swore falsely by Ptah, Lord of Truth, and he caused me to see darkness by day. Now I will declaim his might to both the ignorant and the knowledgeable.” Of course, we know most about the literate scribes and foremen, who had the time, wealth and inclination to leave behind tombs and inscribed monuments dedicated to themselves. These statues and stelae from Deir el-Medina are found today in museums throughout the world.

One of the scribes who appears prominently in the monuments and records of Deir el-Medina is Ramose, who began his professional career in about 1285 B.C.E. at two temples dedicated to worthies long dead. Promoted to assist the scribe of the royal tomb, Ramose remained in the village for the next 40 years, eventually succeeding to the position of chief scribe. He died wealthy and highly regarded by all.

Ramose’s official responsibilities included the distribution of pay to the tomb workers. He also recorded the weights of copper chisels, both at their distribution and again upon collection when they were blunted. After being resmelted, they were weighed again before distribution to ensure that the crown had lost none of its valuable metal. The scribe of the tomb kept the work diary, recording workers’ absences and excuses: “had a fight with the wife,” “attended a funeral,” “blindness.”

Eye infections and temporary blindness, exacerbated by the dry, dusty and dangerous workplace, were frequent complaints. Even today it can be difficult to breathe when walking through a completely excavated tomb. The clouds of fine limestone dust raised by the workers must have damaged the lungs and sinuses of those who had to labor there eight hours each day. Scorpions and snakes were a constant problem, too; villagers had magical spells for protection against them.

The scribe’s duties also included distributing rags to the women of the village to be made into wicks, which were floated on oil in large, saucerlike lamps. Adding a dash of natron (a naturally occurring sodium carbonate) prevented the lamp from emitting blackening smoke. Storehouses full of tools, lumber, lamp oil and paint pigments were all under the scribe’s charge.

>We can picture Ramose sitting in the shade of the valley outside the royal tomb as he watched over everything, taking careful notes on ostraca. Later, he would presumably transfer his records onto papyrus for deposit with the vizier’s office across the river in Thebes.

To supplement his income, Ramose drafted wills and important letters for those who could not write. Over the years, such small jobs allowed Ramose to become one of the most prosperous villagers, the owner of land, serfs and draft animals. He earned enough to have three tombs built, for himself, his wife, her relatives and other members of their household.

When Ramose first arrived in the village as assistant to the aging scribe Huy, he was in his 30s and probably already married. He and his wife, Mutemwia, had no children; neither did Huy and his wife, Nefertari—otherwise a son might have inherited Huy’s position. So the older couple came to adopt the younger as their own children, actually calling them son and daughter in tomb inscriptions.

A pious man, Ramose desperately wanted a son. It was probably for this reason that he sponsored much of the construction and decoration of the local temple to Hathor, the goddess of sexuality and fertility. Inside he placed no fewer than 15 votive stelae and four statues. Almost all of the deities popular at Thebes at this time are represented in the temple carvings, including three Asiatic deities—Anath, Reshep and Kadesh. The village included people of Libyan and Canaanite descent, but most were apparently pure Egyptian. But this did not keep them from embracing foreign religions: Beneficent divine intervention was welcome from all sources. Ramose’s prayers were to no avail, however. In time (around Year 40 of Ramesses II’s reign), the childless couple adopted a young scribe.

Ramose’s successor, Kenherkhopshef, was not well liked by his fellows, in part because he had no qualms about using workmen for his personal projects. He also apparently failed to treat the men well. They accused him of accepting bribes, misappropriating stone from the tomb and overlooking the misconduct of his favorite workmen. Even Kenherkhopshef’s letters to his superiors were curt. One workman complained about Kenherkhopshef’s attitude towards them: “I’m like a donkey to you. If there is work, bring the donkey! And if there is fodder, bring the ox! If there is beer, you never ask for me. Only if there is work (to be done), will you ask for me.”

Kenherkhopshef, a serious bibliophile, collected a large number of books, which were passed on to at least two of his wife’s sons, the second of whom treated them badly, tearing off portions of the papyrus to write his own letters. What was left of this personal library was apparently rescued by a later scribal family, who even referred to drying out illegible papyri that had been soaked by rain.

Seti I died after a relatively short reign of 13 years. That his elaborate tomb was nearly complete at the time of his early demise is testimony to the dedication of the tomb builders and the skills of the two foremen, Neferhotep, overseer of the right-side team, and Baki, overseer of the left. Prodding and guiding, the foremen organized the entire effort within the tomb. They knew the proper layout, including which texts had to go on which walls and which paintings or reliefs of deities should be placed where. The result is one of the truly remarkable monuments of human artistic endeavor.

The foremen must have gotten along well together, for they commemorated each other in their own tombs. Although nepotism was an accepted practice, and it was only natural that each foreman would have liked a son to succeed him in his lucrative position, only Neferhotep had this satisfaction. Leadership and administrative skills were apparently more important than family ties. Baki was eventually succeeded by the son of the chief carpenter, the man in charge of all the scaffolding necessary for shaping and decorating the tomb. Neferhotep was followed by his son Nebnufe and a grandson, named in Egyptian fashion after his grandfather. This younger Neferhotep constructed the largest and finest private tomb in the village. However, the jealousy and ambition of an upstart interrupted the family hold on the administrative post when Paneb, the son of a lowly workman, managed to bribe the king’s vizier and get himself promoted to the foremanship instead.

>Although Paneb was able to meet all his deadlines and satisfied the vizier with his administrative abilities, his tenure of office was not a happy time for the village. A document found on the site (Papyrus Salt 124) contains a detailed diatribe against him by the brother and would-be successor of Neferhotep (the younger), who accuses Paneb of exploitation, rape, blasphemy and attempted murder. Paneb may possibly have been an alcoholic, but he was also a highly talented man with a long and productive career and is now one of the best-known individuals from all of ancient Egypt, thanks to the highly descriptive complaint of his enemy. (The reliability of the description is another question.)

The steady flow of work in the Valley of the Kings through several centuries and dynasties made Deir el-Medina unique. We have no comparable village for the builders of the kingdom’s cult temples and mortuary temples, who must have shared many of the same skills as our tomb workers. These much larger work forces were probably itinerant; their temporary settlements would have disappeared on completion of each project. Thanks to Deir el-Medina, however, we have been granted a glimpse into the everyday lives of the pharaoh’s laborers. We have also learned something about who these workers were: Skilled workers in ancient Egypt were not always native Egyptians, nor was forced labor imposed only on foreigners. For Egyptologists, the careful excavation of Deir el-Medina and its humble documents has been far more valuable than all the gold in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

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