In his first two decades on the throne, Ramesses III had repelled invasions, restored Egypt’s temples and re-established national pride. The court now looked forward to the king’s thirty-year jubilee, determined to stage a celebration worthy of so glorious a monarch. There would be no stinting, no corners cut. Only the most lavish ceremonies would do.
It was a fateful decision. Beneath the pomp and circumstance, the Egyptian state had been seriously weakened by its exertions. The military losses of 1179 were still keenly felt. Foreign trade with the Near East had never fully recovered from the Sea Peoples’ orgy of destruction. The temples’ coffers might be full of copper and myrrh, but their supplies of grain—the staple of the Egyptian economy—were gravely depleted. Against such a background, the jubilee preparations would prove a serious drain on resources.
The cracks started to appear in 1159, two years before the jubilee. Of all the state’s employees, the most important—and usually the most favored—were the men who worked on the excavation and decoration of the royal tomb. Living with their families in the gated community of the Place of Truth, they had grown used to enjoying better than average working conditions, and better than average remuneration. So, when the payment of their monthly wages (which also included their food rations) was eight days late, then twenty days late, it was clear something was badly wrong. Their scribe and “shop steward,” Amennakht, went at once to the mortuary temple of Horemheb to remonstrate with local officials. Eventually, he persuaded them to hand over forty-six sacks of corn to distribute to the workers as interim rations. But that was only the start of it.
The following year, as the apparatus of government became increasingly preoccupied with the impending jubilee, the system of paying the necropolis workers broke down altogether, prompting the earliest recorded strikes in history. The crisis erupted just three months before the jubilee was due to begin. Having waited eighteen days beyond their pay day and with still no sign of their wages, the workers decided to withdraw their labor: perhaps then the state would sit up and take notice. Shouting “we’re hungry,” they marched en masse from their village and temporarily invaded the sacred enclosure surrounding Ramesses III’s mortuary temple. They then set off for the mortuary temple of Thutmose III, just behind the Ramesseum, and staged a sit-in. They would not move until their grievances were heard. The beleaguered government officials dispatched from the Ramesscum to reason with the strikers had to listen to their litany of protests, but did not have the authority to remedy the situation. Only at nightfall did the workers return to their village. Their protest had lasted the whole day. The only gesture by the state was a derisory delivery of pastries: if they have no bread, let them eat cake.
The next morning, with no resolution of the dispute and no wages in sight, the men stepped up their action, installing themselves at the southern gate of the Ramesseum, Thebes’s principal storehouse of grain. This time they refused to return to their village at dusk, instead spending the night in uproarious demonstration. At dawn, a few plucky souls broke into the temple itself, hoping to persuade the authorities to give them their dues. The crisis was getting out of hand. Panicked by the angry workers in their midst, the temple administrators called the Chief of Police, Montumes, who ordered the men to leave immediately. They refused. Unable or unwilling to assert his authority, Montumes was forced to withdraw, tail between his legs, to consult his boss, the mayor of Thebes. When he returned some hours later, he found the workers deep in negotiations with the priests of the Ramesscum and the local government secretary of western Thebes. The men’s demands were clear:
We have come here out of hunger and thirst. There is no more clothing, no more oil, no more fish, no more vegetables. Send (word) to the pharaoh, our good lord, and send (word) to the vizier, our boss?
Mention of the vizier and the pharaoh clearly unsettled the Theban authorities. If the situation escalated into a national crisis, they knew their jobs—and necks—would be on the line. So, after several more hours of talking, they capitulated and gave the strikers their overdue rations from the previous month. It helped to diffuse the immediate tension, but the underlying problem had still not been addressed: they were now nearly halfway through the new month with no sign of the next installment of wages.
On the fourth day of the dispute, news reached the workers that the mayor of Thebes had crossed over to the west bank with more provisions. The Chief of Police pleaded with them to go with their wives and children to the nearby mortuary temple of Seti I, to await the mayor’s arrival. But the strikers were not so easily fobbed off: they had heard such promises before, and had learned not to trust the weasel words of officials. Indeed, it took another four days of protests and marches —including one at night, the men’s flaming torches lighting up the sky—to secure the long-overdue rations.
Still the state apparatus proved incapable of carrying out its basic duties. Two weeks after the first series of disputes, the necropolis workers went on strike again, this time taking their protest to the control point leading to the Valley of the Kings. The authorities were beginning to be seriously shaken by these public demonstrations of disobedience, and put pressure on the community leaders to escort the strikers back to their village. Faced with forcible removal, one of the workmen threatened to damage a royal tomb, regardless of the consequences. The mood was turning ugly.
The showdown between workers and state authorities culminated just two months before the start of the jubilee year. Striking for a fourth time, the men marched once more from their village, dismissing the shouted pleadings of their superiors with determined obstinacy: “We won’t come back. Tell that to your bosses!” This time, they made it clear that their grievances were not just about overdue rations, but about the broader failings of the administration:
We have gone (on strike), not from hunger, but (because) we have a serious accusation to make: bad things have been done in this place of Pharaoh.
For authorities used to a subservient populace, this was dangerous talk indeed. Yet still the ostrich mentality prevailed at the heart of government. A few weeks later, the vizier himself came to Thebes: not to placate the striking workers, but to collect cult statues for the imminent jubilee celebrations. He paid only a fleeting visit to the west bank and incensed the workers with a small handout from his security chief—provoking yet more demonstrations.
When the jubilee arrived, the authorities’ indifference was temporarily put aside in the interests of national unity. Decorum and basic self-interest demanded that the king’s big year should pass off without major incident, so the workers were paid on time and in full. But no sooner had the jubilee passed than the system broke down once more, prompting further, regular strike action. The heart of government was rotten, and the relationship between the state and its workers never fully recovered.
—Toby Wilkinson: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (2011)
The Turin Strike Papyrus, housed in Museo Egizio Papyrus Collection