Labour strikes in the modern era are traced back to the 19th-century struggles for an 8-hour workday. However, the history of workers’ unrest is much longer. One of the most labour-intensive activities in history has been the construction of pyramids and burial chambers in Pharaonic Egypt between 3000 and 1000 BC. No wonder, then, that the first labour strike occurred in 1170 BC in ancient Egypt and is recorded in one of the papyri found in Luxor.
Before the story of the strike is told, a word about dates of historical events in Egyptian saga. Egyptians, like the Europeans of the post-Renaissance period, were very particular about record-keeping and put every detail to pen. They made inscriptions on stone stellae and papyri – some, as in the case of the Papyrus Harris in London Museum, as long as 42 meters and 16.5 inches wide. In these inscriptions, they have recorded days, months and years of all the important events. They have also recorded such details as imperial monetary grants, royal visits, interaction with provinces, correspondence with foreign governments, exported items, imported goods, famines, droughts, wars, ship designs, ship logs, images of royal gifts, pictures of foreign heads of states, drawings of animals and, in relation to this article, labour unrest.
The occurrence of the first recorded strike is revealed to us through a so called Turin Strike Papyrus discovered in 1880 in the village of Set-Ma’at – meaning “The Place of Truth” – which is the present-day village of Deir el-Medina on the left bank of the Nile across the modern city of Luxor. It was home to the artisans and craftsmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of Kings. The inscriptions on the Papyrus have been made by a scribe named Amennakhte, who apparently was a shop steward. According to the story, Ramses III and his court had been looking forward to his thirty-year jubilee in 1156 BC when the trouble began at Set-Ma’at.
Pharaonic workers may have been compensated in many modes of payment; however, the supply of grain was an important part of their wages, that they needed to feed themselves and their families. At that time, as noted by Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson in his Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian coffers were full of copper and myrrh but the supply of grain was gravely depleted. Troubles began in 1159, year 29 of the reign of Ramses III, when according to the Egyptian scribe, the workers passed the five guard-posts of the tomb, saying that they were hungry for the previous 18 days. They sat down at the rear of the temple and spent the night there despite their foremen shouting at them. On the next day, the workers were given some cakes but they went on strike again the next day. Many officials came to visit them to convince them to end the strike, but they insisted,“The prospect of hunger and thirst has driven us to this; there is no clothing, there is no ointment, there is no fish, 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.”
That day, the workers got their ration after a delay of 21 days.
Three days later, each man was given half a sack of barley (for brewing beer, perhaps) but the main rations were absent, and the workers went on strike once again. One of the high officials came to them and asked them, “Tell (me) that which I shall write to Pharaoh about.” That day, each of the two workers’ groups got 44 sacks of grain, but neither the shortage of grain ceased nor the strike action by the workers.
The following month, workers laid down their tools once again. One worker, named 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 was punishable by death, but hunger had driven the workers to offer this act as a threat.
A month later, the Vizier of the Kingdom came to the site and told the workers, “It so happens that there is nothing in the granaries – but I shall give you what I have found.”
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.”
The strikes, however, continued. It was reported in an entry for the first month of summer that, “The crew passed the guard-posts saying: ‘We are hungry.’” They shouted at the mayor of Thebes as he was passing by, who gave them 50 sacks of wheat and promised to give more when he received it from the Pharaoh.
Many officials came to visit them to convince them to end the strike, but they insisted,“The prospect of hunger and thirst has driven us to this; there is no clothing, there is no ointment, there is no fish, 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”
Then the strikers began raising the question of Ma’at, a set of customs that, like our own tribal Pakhtunwali, applied to everyone from a peasant to the king and where everyone was supposed act according to his or her place in society. The workers implied that the pharaoh, as the god on earth, had violated the principle of Ma’at by failing to provide pay or rations to his people.
The strikes continued past the jubilee celebrations till Ramses III was murdered by a knife thrust into his neck; as revealed through a scan of his mummy. His murder was not related to labour strikes, but was the result of a palace intrigue.
Considering the social conditions of the time, especially the fact that the reigning pharaohs, being god-kings with the powers of wholesale summary execution, it is surprising that the workers were driven by circumstances to lay down their tools, walked away from the construction sites and refused to return till their rations were restored. It is equally amazing that the protest was not dealt with by a bronze fist (it was the Bronze Age, as iron had not been discovered at that time!).
Elaborate Egyptian records in the form of stela, papyrus and clay tablets, as indeed the records of contemporary Hittite, Ugarit, Assyria and Cyprus Kingdoms, tell glamorous tales as well as tragic stories of that era.
These records and the language they were written in, were forgotten till their painstaking deciphering by a host of Western archaeologists and linguistics. That is where clues to the reasons of acute grain shortages are discovered. Not only that, they also reveal the unprecedented simultaneous collapse of the then civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean in the late Bronze Age. The reasons for the non-provision of pay or food to these uniquely gifted artisans lay in the decades preceding this industrial action, when the civilisations were collapsing under the onslaught of barbarians from across the Green Sea, the name given to the Mediterranean by the Egyptians.
The Bronze Age (3000 BC – 1200 BC), following the Neolithic Age, saw humans taking astonishing strides in industry, agriculture, international trade and diplomacy. The great pyramids, the famed Minoan palaces at Knossos, ship building, export of surplus harvests, metal mining and organised governments are the developments of this era. Egyptian and Hittite (in Anatolia) records even tell us about an Eternal Peace Treaty between them concluded in 1259 BC, the first recorded peace treaty between nations.
Complications of managing international trade can be gauged by the composition of bronze itself. It required tin that was mostly mined in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, and copper of which the major mines were located in Cyprus and Timna – present day Israel. Gold, the standard mode of payments even at that time, was mined from Nubia in Upper Egypt. Yet gold and bronze were used in all the littoral nations of the eastern Mediterranean and in the islands of the Aegean. In the field of arts, Minoan artists developed the technique of fresco painting, where the paint is applied on and absorbed by the wet surface of the base plaster; a style heavily favoured much latter by Renaissance artists in Italy. This gives longer life to the painting, as against the previous technique of using paint on dried surface that exposed the dyes to chip off after a short time.
After a run of some two thousand years, these civilizations collapsed, exposing them to barbarians from the sea, as masterfully depicted by Cline in his book titled 1177 B.C. The origin of these murderous raiders is traced to the coasts and islands of southern Europe. The world didn’t witness another onslaught of barbarians till the Huns invaded Rome and no maritime barbarians wrecked sedentary population centres till the Vikings descended on Europe in their longboats two millennia later at close of the 1st millennium AD. The Sea People ravaged the coastal towns of east Mediterranean for well over 40 years before Ramses III defeated them comprehensively in the Nile Delta.
On the walls of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, near the Valley of the Kings, Ramses III said concisely:
The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Khatte, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at [one time]. A camp [was set up] in one place in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset (crete), Tjekker (?), Shardana (Sardinia), Shekelesh (Sicily), Danuna (?), and Weshesh (?), lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting.” Ramses III boasted that the enemy were “capsized and overwhelmed in their places.” “Their hearts,” he wrote, “are taken away; their soul is flown away. Their weapons are scattered in the sea.” (Cline, ibid)
In Papyrus-Harris, Ramesses III boasts,
“I overthrew those who invaded them from their lands. I slew the Danuna [who are] in their isles, the Tjekker and the Peleset were made ashes. The Shardana and the Weshesh of the sea, they were made as those that exist not, taken captive at one time, brought as captives to Egypt, like the sand of the shore. I settled them in strongholds bound in my name. Numerous were their classes like hundred-thousands. I taxed them all, in clothing and grain from the store-houses and granaries each year.”
Ramses III and Egypt had triumphed in this great struggle when many of the contemporary civilizations had succumbed to the Sea People, and also to a variety of natural or man-made disasters. The struggle with the Sea People had been sandwiched between Libyan invasions that Ramses III had fought off successfully. However, these victories came at a great loss in men and material. There was not sufficient manpower to attend to farming. The lucrative international trade, which has been conclusively proved by land and undersea archeology, was disrupted; resulting in loss of revenue.
It is, therefore, a remarkable degradation of Egypt that it had run out of grain whereas according to letters found in Hattusa, the capital of Anatolian Hittite Empire, and in Ugarit, the capital of the eponymous kingdom in Northwest Syria, the pharaohs had been supplying grain to these nations in times of famines.
The precedent set by the strikers at Deir el-Madina made the workers aware that they had more power than they had earlier realised. Egyptian records show that strikes continued throughout Egyptian history and the pattern found its way into other societies as well. The workers of the modern era, therefore, should be cognizant that their right to strike, as enshrined in the laws of modern nations, was initiated by a set of hungry artisans, toiling in the subterranean Egyptian royal tombs over 3,000 years ago.