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ANCIENT EGYPTIAN LABOR STRIKES



Special by THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
From the Bureau of Eternal Labor Struggles
Amir Bey, 2011
March 2

     Labor strikes. They are not only a fundamental workers' right they are an ancient tool for guaranteeing them. The first labor strikes occurred in ancient Egypt during the late New Kingdom, 12th century BC, or by their chronology, on the 10th day of the second month of winter through the 1st month of summer (winter was followed by summer) of the 29th year of the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III. Before climbing into our time machine, let?s look at what?s going on in our time.
     Present-day Egypt is still a leader in social protests, and is in the throes of the social protests and labor strikes that upended Hosni Mubarak?s 30 year regime. This dramatic situation is part of a wave of unrest stretching from North Africa, to the Arabian Peninsula, to Gulf states, beginning with Tunisia January; a state of emergency was declared in Algeria, with protests being planned; Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi faces his last days, there is mounting international opposition; on the Arabian peninsula, in Bahrain, Yemen, and in the Gulf States of Iraq, and Iran. The whole Middle East is in a metamorphisis that is transcending boundaries, and is secular in effect.



An Ancient Egyptian Carpenter


     It is not a generalization to say that even in the US there are elements of these protests in Madison Wisconsin, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Protestors from state union workers (the powerless) using the few means they have to protect their interests by inhabiting public spaces to block governments (the powerful) who are threatening their rights.

     The right of laborers to collectively negotiate with the state, the government, who are in effect their bosses, is under the severe threat of being completely erased by Republicans where they have the strength in the state houses and governorships. State workers' unions are facing a determined onslaught under the pretext of the state union workers? right to negotiate is responsible for those states? economic woes. And the Republicans claim that those demonstrating, along with their Democratic congressional supporters are tying up government, and ?not doing their jobs.?

     The workers' cause is receiving support not only from workers in other states, but has caught attention from people around the world. A case in point is Ian?s Pizza in Madison, has been receiving pizza orders to feed the protesters camped out at the state house from China, Egypt, and other countries so much so that they can only supply $25,000 worth of orders, any more is beyond their capacity.

     Now back to da time machine and the temple workers? strike. Hereditary temple workers of the Royal Necropolis at Deir el-Medina, refused to work because their wages, which were specific periodic allotments of wheat, barley, cloth for clothes, fish, and other essentials, had been long overdue. When the workers saw that their concerns were being ignored, they marched to a mortuary temple, and refused to leave. When they didn?t get a sufficient response, they repeated the same protests in other temples. These unprecedented acts of civil disobedience greatly shocked the authorities, because the powerful institutions of the Pharaoh and the priests were absolute.

     Rameses III has been said to be Egypt?s last ?great? pharaoh, and the late New Kingdom was a time when Egypt suffered from corruption, both from embezzling authorities and tomb robbers. When the granaries were checked, it became clear that someone had been pilfering them, and no account could be given for the empty stores.

     Here are selected excerpts from fragments of the Turin Papyrus written by the scribe Amennakht, son of Ipuy. His work as a scribe is among the most important that has come down to us. He not only recorded this work stoppage, but also drew the earliest map from Egypt, along with other documents. The text below has been modified in some places* for easier reading, but is essentially the same as the original. In these excerpts, the expression ?passed? means to strike; note that the phrase ?sat down?, should be taken literally; this was the earliest sit down strike:


Site of the Strike: The Workers' village at Deir el Medina
Year 29, second month of winter, day 10
     On this day the crew passed the five guard-posts of the tomb saying: "We are hungry, for 18 days have already elapsed in this month;" and they sat down at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre (Thutmose III).
     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 [Which was rarely accessible to the unitiated]. The three captains, the two deputies and the two proctors came. They found them seated at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre in the outer road.

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

The strike continues; here amounts of their payment are being listed.

Year 29, second month of winter, day 11
     They passed again. They reached the gate of the southern temenos-wall of the Temple of Wesermaatre-setepenre.
There were brought by the scribe Pentaweret: s'b-cakes: 28, s'b-cakes: 27. Total 55.

There is a ?chief of police? mentioned. One of them, a Nubian (Nubians were often police and soldiers during the New Kingdom), Mentmose, is a supporter and makes suggestions:

     "I'll tell you my opinion. Go up, gather your paraphernalia, close your doors, fetch your wives and your children, and I'll lead you to the temple of Menmaatre and let you settle down there forthwith.?


Year 29, second month of winter, day 12
     They reached the temple of Wesermaatre-setepenre. They spent 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, who had access to the state granaries]
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: "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."
The ration of the 1st month of winter was issued to them on this day.

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. ... 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. Declaration by the chief of police Mentmose: "I'll tell you my opinion. Go up, gather your paraphernalia, close your doors, fetch your wives and your children, and I'll lead you to the temple of Menmaatre and let you settle down there forthwith.

Year 29, second month of winter, day 13
     The chief of police ... "finish 'whatever you are (doing)' ..." likewise, they having taken their wives ... go/went out again saying ... the chief taxing master had brought to them ... list of that which came to them ... which the chief taxing master Ptahemheb sent.

Second month of winter, day 15 or 16
     .... "Give each man half a sack of barley," 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 .

Here the ?General? or chief of the soldiers of the temple being built for Ramses III speaks to the crew:
day 17
     The imy-r mSaw of the temple of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Wesermaatre-meriamun came to the crew. He heard [their declaration, saying: "Tell (me) that which I shall write to Pharaoh about." 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, 7 sacks, 18 men, each 5 sacks, the two


New Kingdom Workers' Tombs at Deir el Medina
     


The following is a list of rations being given to the workers; note that the ?Right? and ?Left? sides refer to how workers were divided on sides with separate foremen:

Year 29, second month of winter, day 17
Giving the ration of the second month:
Right side:
     1 foreman: 7 sacks
     the scribe: 3 sacks
     8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.
Left side:
     1 foreman: 7 sacks
     the scribe: 3 sacks
     8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.
     The two gatekeepers, the four washermen ...

The workers become more defiant, threatening to rob the tomb in order to feed themselves. They see that the issue is more than their starving, but the dishonesty and theft by certain officials. The Vizier To himself, the Pharaoh's cheif administrator, must respond to the workers:

Year 29, third month of winter
     The crew passed the guard posts; they sat down in the Tomb. 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 tomb23. 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. 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 To 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 [recently] promoted for 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 granaries25 - but I shall give you what I have found.' And the scribe Hori of the Tomb 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." And I brought them up again.

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 [Pharaoh 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."

And the record continued; it seems that this was a protracted struggle that went on many weeks. So, as we climb back into our time machine, we can see that it's the same old game of the workers being lied to and stolen from, but also that an important tool for workers is to strike. It was an irresistable weapon that forced the establishment to take notice of the workers' grievances, and even caused the authorities to acknowledge their corruption. Should Wisconsin unions give up their few tools for self-determination?

*The text was taken from a translation by Paul J. Frandsen in Editing Reality: The Turin Strike Papyrus; Sarah Israelit-Groll, Studies in Egyptology, Vol.1, Jerusalem 1990, Magnes Press, Hebrew University



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