Deir el-Medina is the Arabic name for the village in the Theban necropolis, once occupied by the pharaohs’ tomb-builders and the artisans of New Kingdom Thebes. It’s name means ‘Monastery of the Town’ and derives from the Coptic monks who occupied the Ptolemaic temple there during the early Christian period, but in ancient times it was known as ‘Set Ma’at’ (the Place of Truth) or simply ‘Pa-demi’ (the town).
We do not know exactly when the village was founded. Bricks discovered in the original enclosure wall were stamped with the name of Tuthmose I, although Queen Ahmose-Nefertari and her son Amenhotep I of early Dynasty XVIII were revered by the inhabitants, suggesting that its origins may have been earlier. A cult temple of Amenhotep I was situated at the northern end of the village. Little is known about the earliest settlement here, which was destroyed by fire, but later during the reign of Horemheb the houses were restored and the village expanded.
The remaining structures in the village today date from Dynasties XVIII, XIX and XX and excavations, restorations and study in recent years has been carried out by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO). The site has yielded a huge amount of information about the daily lives of the inhabitants, their families and relationships, as well as their working and living conditions. A great deal of textural material in the form of papyri and ostraka (large flakes of limestone or pottery sherds used for sketches and jottings) have been found, making it possible for archaeologists to outline detailed reconstructions of the social and industrial organisation of the settlement. A massive collection of figured ostraca has been recovered, especially from ‘the Great Pit’, a wide deep hole to the north of the Temple of Hathor. It is thought that the pit was originally dug by the villagers in search of water. Such settlement sites are rare. There have been discoveries of similar communities at Giza, dating from the Old Kingdom and Kahun, from the Middle Kingdom, which together with Deir el-Medina enables us to build a more complete picture of the lives of the common people of ancient Egypt.
The community at Deir el-Medina consisted of the workers and craftsmen who were employed in the construction of the New Kingdom royal tombs of the King’s Valley. It occupied an area of around two hectares, with seventy dwellings enclosed within the original walls and about fifty more outside during the Ramesside period. The residential area was approached from the northern end where a well was located and had a broad central street running north to south with houses on either side.
The houses were all built to a similar plan from mudbricks, usually with four small rooms, an internal staircase leading to a terrace or upper room and sometimes a cellar. The flat roofs were constructed from planks of wood from palm trees, internal walls were plastered with gypsum and painted white and floors were of stone. There was a large brick structure in the corner of the entrance hall, entered by a short flight of steps – thought to be either a domestic shrine or a bed-platform used in childbirth (or perhaps both combined). The platform would often be decorated with depictions of the god Bes, who was associated with childbirth as well as being a household god. The main room was lit by high clerestory windows and this room had a low raised platform and stelae dedicated to ancestor cults and to Meretseger, goddess of the Theban necropolis. A storage area was also used as sleeping quarters and a kitchen area with an oven and an open roof was at the rear of the house. The dwellings were not unlike some of the traditional houses on the West Bank today.
The door lintels and jambs of the houses were painted red and often inscribed with the name of the inhabitant’s family. They seem to have been inherited by family members who usually carried on the position or trade of the householder and the more elevated their position, the grander their house. The community was isolated, having little contact with the outside world (probably for security reasons) and they were governed directly by the Vizier of Upper Egypt. His local representative was the ‘Scribe in the Place of Truth’ or ‘Scribe of the Tomb’ who would relay the daily orders to the gang’s foreman. The tomb-builders were assigned to two gangs. It is suggested that they worked on the left side or the right side of the royal tombs and each gang or ‘iswt’ was responsible for the work on their own side under a foreman. Each gang consisted of stonemasons, draughtsmen, artists, carpenters and sculptors as well as having their own deputies, guards and door-keepers who were responsible for the security of the workplace and discipline of the men. The workmen were guarded by the ‘Medjay’ or necropolis guards, some of whom were stationed outside the village. The tomb-builders walked to the Kings Valley over the mountain on paths still used today, and perhaps spent part of their shift, which lasted a week (consisting of ten days), sleeping in ‘stopover villages’ on the mountain ridge. The remains of these huts can still be seen.
The workmen were paid in grain and other provisions such as fish, vegetables, water oil and salt. On special occasions such as festivals (there were many of these) they were given a holiday and bonuses which may have consisted of extra rations of food such as meat or poultry and other ‘luxuries’. When work on a royal tomb slowed down the workers were laid off for a time and records indicate that the craftsmen would often have been employed in more menial tasks. They also supplemented their income by taking private commissions which enabled the workers to construct tombs and burial goods for themselves, their families and other private individuals. This apparently worked on the principle of bartering their skills and many ostraca have been found which record the buying and selling of goods between the inhabitants of the village.
There are also records of disputes in the village – probably inevitable in a small isolated community. One such dispute is recorded between two individuals, Amen-nakht and Paneb over the office of foreman after the death of Amen-nakht’s brother. There were also disputes over settlement of property, non-payment for goods received, theft and blasphemy. During the reign of Rameses III a labour strike by the workmen was considered necessary after a long period of severely reduced rations – the strike seems to have produced the desired result and more provisions were soon made available. However, it was to be the first of several such strikes over pay and conditions. The village had its own judiciary system which was comprised of leading members of the community. They settled all minor matters of crime or dispute so that only the more serious cases needed to go before the vizier’s court.
Much of our information comes from the workmen who were buried in pyramid tombs surrounding Deir el-Medina. One of the early inhabitants of the village, an architect and foreman during the reigns of Tuthmose III to Amenhotep III, was named Kha, and whose intact burial was one of the major archaeological discoveries in the village (found in 1906 and now reconstructed in the Turin Museum). His tomb contained very high quality burial goods, including tomb furnishings, jewellery, papyri and pottery and bronze vessels. In the houses themselves many objects have been found, including baskets or pots containing foodstuffs and cosmetic products which tell us about the lives of these families. Many textural documents and stories have been found at Deir el-Medina in the form of papyri and ostraca. There is a huge pit at the northern end of the village, beyond the Ptolemaic temple, in which thousands of ostraca were found, containing letters, records of births, deaths and marriages and many aspects of religion and law pertaining to the inhabitants. There seems to have been quite a high level of literacy in the village, especially among the women, who would have had the responsibility of running the household when their husbands were away working.
The demise of the workmen’s village came about at the end of Dynasty XX during a period of turmoil and civil war and the inhabitants were moved into a new village within the walls of nearby Medinet Habu in order to protect them from Libyan attack. The village of Deir el-Medina was abandoned to the desert and only the temples and shrines continued to be visited. By the end of Dynasty XX the remaining workmen were under the ‘protection’ of the high priests of Amun at Medinet Habu, before the instability of the Third Intermediate Period brought about the end of an era.
During the Ptolemaic Period a Temple of Hathor was constructed at the northern end of the village on the site of earlier remains and this was eventually converted into a Coptic church and monastery. Deir el-Medina was also the site of an important Graeco-Roman cemetery. The workmen’s village lay buried by sand until it was found by Ernesto Schiaparelli following the discovery of the tomb of Kha.
How to get there
Deir el-Medina is situated behind the hill which separates the modern villages of Qurnet Murai and Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. It is around 10 minutes walk from the Antiquities Inspectorate. The village is usually approached today from the southern end, but only entrance to the main street is allowed. Tickets include entrance to the Workmens Village, the tombs of Sennedjem, Inherkau and the Temple of Hathor and cost EGP 30 from the main ticket office. An extra ticket is needed for the tomb of Peshedu.
For much more information and pictures from Deir el-Medina see Images of Deir el-Medina