Pharaoh Ramses III and the First Labour Strike Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Pharaoh Ramses III and the First Labour Strike

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It is almost certain that there have been instances of some groups of people refusing to work for someone or some other group of people until they were treated better. This Entry relates the first time that this event was documented. This may be said to be, therefore, the beginning of the known history of labour strikes and collective bargaining.

When, Where and Why?

We are hungry: eighteen days have elapsed in the month.
– Workers at the royal necropolis, in a message delivered by the scribe Amennakht* to the administrative complex of Medinet Habu, which was to become the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Ramses III

Near the end of the rule of Pharaoh Ramses III in ancient Egypt, in the year 1158 or 1157 BC, the country found itself in conditions of grave financial hardship. A series of three large-scale wars (two against Libya and one against a confederacy of seafaring raiders known as 'The Sea People') had been fought and won at considerable expense in a period of slightly under 30 years. The government was inefficient and corrupt. A fortune was being spent on the construction of a gigantic tomb for the future use of Ramses III in the Valley of the Kings on the western shore of the Nile River and on building work in the city of Thebes (modern Luxor).

In addition, the massive eruption of the volcano Hekla in Iceland had thrown an enormous amount of volcanic rock and cinder into the global atmosphere, resulting in the failure of sunlight reaching the ground in anything like full force, which inhibited plant growth for about 20 years. Reserves of all kinds were low.

So, What Happened?

On the 21st day of the second month of the 29th year of the reign of Ramses III, the message quoted at the beginning of this Entry was transmitted by the artisans and skilled tradesmen of Deir el-Medina to the Vizier. Deir el-Medina was home to the individuals working on the construction of the tombs and to their families. The workers did receive payment for their labour, and they returned to work.

Not Much of a Strike, was it?

Had that been the end of the matter, this may not have qualified as a strike at all, but that was not the end of it. In the sixth month of the same year, the workmen again found themselves without pay or provisions.

Two crews stopped working and made their way to one of the royal mortuary temples. They then sat down and communicated the exact nature of their grievances in no uncertain terms:

It was because of hunger and thirst that we came here. There is no clothing, no ointment, no fish, no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh our good lord about it, and send to the Vizier our superior, that sustenance may be made for us.

The next day, they repeated this action within a different temple. The record is uncertain as to whether there was another repetition on the third day.

So, how did it end?

The priests finally recorded the complaints of the workers and sent to Thebes for the required food and supplies. This did not, however, mark the end of the labourers' difficulties. There were several similar actions before the end of the reign of Ramses III and during the reign of later pharaohs.

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