No site in all of Egypt has contributed more to our understanding of everyday village life for the common Egyptian than Deir el-Medina.
Often referred to as “The Valley of the Workers”, Deir el-Medina is home to the remains of an ancient Egyptian settlement which would have been simply known as Pa Demi (“The Village”) by those who lived there, or formally as Set maat (“The Place of Truth”) on official documents. The name Deir el-Medina is a later Arabic term for the site which refers to a later monastery built there by the copts in the 4th century.
The village was unique in that, unlike most Egyptian settlements, Deir el-Medina did not grow up organically, but was instead a strategically planned community created to house the small army of laborers and artisans it took to man the ongoing construction of tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings.
At its peak, the community would have contained around 68 houses, most of which were contained inside a walled off area covering around 1.4 acres of land with a single, narrow road running the length of the village.
While the size of the tightly packaged mudbrick houses in the village varied, the average home would have had around 750 sq ft of living space consisting of 4 to 5 rooms all connected in a single long chain. Visitors would enter the house from the central village street and proceed into a receiving room, then as they proceeded further would enter the main living area, next they would pass through one or two smaller room until they got to the back of the dwelling against the village wall where the open air kitchen would have been located along with a small stairwell leading to the roof, where workers could sleep at night or keep small animals or a garden.
For most tourists though, the main attraction to this site is the tombs that these workers lovingly constructed during their free time. Though the site features only a handful of small rock-cut tombs, each with only one or two chambers, the interiors are lavishly decorated with brightly painted scenes. Where as tombs in the Valley of the Kings are typically covered in tightly regulated formulaic mystical texts, the tombs of the workers are more free form and organically constructed by artists who spent their entire lives creating tombs for others.
Sadly during our visit in 2018, no photography was allowed at all inside these tombs. However you can explore the interiors of a handful of the tombs on a new website dedicated to the site here.
The second main attraction for most tourists is the Ptolemaic Temple of Hathor located just north of the village.
Years after the village of Deir el-Media had been abandoned, the Ptolemies began construction of the Temple of Hathor during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator – around 221–205 BCE.
The temple itself is small and consists of a small hypostyle hall, vestibule and three chapels, what remains of each is highly decorated and still features some of it’s original color. It is also the last Egyptian temple to feature a fortified brick enclosure wall.
The Southern Chapel was dedicated to Amun-Sokar-Osiris and is one of the few temples to contain scenes of the judgment of the dead, depictions of which were usually reserved for tomb walls or papyrus scrolls. A new website dedicated to Deir el-Medina explains the scene below this way:
The goddess Maat leads a figure of the deceased king (Ptolemy VI Philometor) toward the hall of judgement. Above the king, forty-two judges sit ready to consider their verdict on his fate. Horus and Anubis weigh the heart of the deceased. The heart is balanced on a scale against the feather of Maat. Ibis-headed Thoth stands on the right, recording the result.Lenka Peacock
The Central Chapel was dedicated by Ptolemy IV Philopator to the goddess Hathor and the reliefs depict Hathor receiving offerings from him, his sister Arsinoe, and also from Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator, who later continued the decorating of the chapel.
And the third chapel, The Northern Chapel, was dedicated to Amun-Ra-Osiris and the reliefs wrapping around the room depict the king before various deities, including Hathor, Isis, Nepthys, Horus, Anubis, Mut, Amun and others.
Unfortunately the remaining areas inside the fortified walls, which would have contained four more chapels, were greatly damaged, altered and affected by the coptic monks who utilized the site during the 4th century CE and converted the temple into a Christian church.
ONE MAN’S TRASH IS ANOTHER MAN’S ARCHEOLOGICAL GOLD MINE
Up until around the late 1800s little attention was paid to this desolate part of the West Bank. Then starting in the late 1800s/early 1900s several significant finds were made, including the intact tomb of Sennedjem (TT1) and a large amount of ostraca.
In an environment where wood was scarce and papyrus was reserved for only the most important documents, many ancient Egyptians simply used what they had an abundance of on hand for writing material, shards of broken pottery. Containing everything from memos and notes, to receipts, dispatches, personal letters, charms, court documents and even literature, these shards are known as ostraca, and have proved to be one of our greatest sources of knowledge about life outside the royal palace for the common Egyptian.
Like most scrap paper, many of these ostraca were not meant to be held onto for any length of time, and more often than not, found their way into the rubbish heap just outside the town, which is where archeologists would find them thousands of years later in 1930, and then again in 1949 in another dumping ground referred to as the “Great Pit” on the other side of the site where more than 5,000 ostraca were discovered.
LIFE IN THE VILLAGE OF SET MAAT
From this vast literary archive we have been able to learn a lot about what life would have been like for those living in the village of Set Maat.
For starters, it is clear that the village was purposely located in its isolated location to help ensure that the workers building the royal tombs in the valley would have less opportunity to interact with others. Thereby minimizing the amount of information that could be spread to potential tomb robbers and thieves. This isolation however, caused the village to be almost completely dependent on government supplied deliveries of food and supplies since the people who lived in the village were artists, not farmers and the inhospitable conditions in the valley made it impossible to grow their own food.
This atmosphere produced an almost continuous system of barter and trade between households for sandals, beds, baskets, paintings, amulets, loincloths, and even toys. Being skilled artists and laborers, many would also trade work, such as building an addition to the roof, or their skill at painting for a sack of grain or a jug of beer.
Records show that the population of the town was made up of a diverse combination of Egyptians, Nubians and Asiatic laborers. However, since the male laborers (there is no documentation of any female artisans) worked 8-10 day shifts in the valley, staying in temporary onsite worker housing while there, the village itself was often occupied primarily by women and children.
Those artisans heading into work would have been divided into two groups, left and right gangs, who worked on opposite sides of the tomb walls and had a similar hierarchal structure to that of a ship’s crew, with a foreman for each gang who supervised the villagers’ work.
These workmen would have been salaried government employees and paid nearly three times that of the average field hand at the time. Even so, many had unofficial second jobs, or took on extra work crafting private tombs for wealthy individuals.
The community seems to have been well educated, with most of its inhabitants, including women, having the ability to read and possibly write. And while the members of the villages could freely come and go, it appears that access to the village by outsiders was strictly regulated and required a strong work-related reason.
It’s interesting to note that almost everything we know of life for women in the New Kingdom era comes from the information we have gleaned from the ostraca at Deir el-Medina. Records show that women were able to own land, and were entitled to their own wealth and one third of all martial goods. These marital goods belonged solely to the wife in case of divorce (which did exist) or the death of the husband. However, if the wife was to die first, her share would go to her heirs and not her back to her spouse. The women of the village were also supplied with servants by the government to help assist them with the grinding of grain and the cleaning of laundry. Women it seems were also able to be married (or unmarried) and hold prominent religious stations and titles of chantress or singer within the local shrines or temples.
But perhaps most beautiful of these records are the remains of poetry and literature that have been discovered. Like this poem, composed by a scribe in the community name Amennakhte as an ode to the city of Thebes.
What do they say to themselves in their hearts every day, those who are far from Thebes?Amennakhte
They spend the day dreaming [?] of its name, [saying] “If only its light were ours!”…
The bread which is in it is more tasty than cakes made of goose fat.
Its [water] is sweeter than honey; one drinks of it to drunkenness.
Behold, this is how one lives in Thebes!
The heaven has doubled [fresh] wind for it.
If you’ve been following along on our journey through Egypt chronologically, then you should already be very familiar with Ramses III (if not, head over here to learn more). During the 25th year of his reign, supply lines connecting Egypt had begun to experience serious problems due to civil and economical turmoil. No one felt this more acutely than the isolated village of Set Maat that was completely dependent on the delivery of government supplies of food, tools and essential items. Exasperated by the ongoing delays, the tomb laborers simply threw down their tools, walked off the job and proceeded to take what we now view as the first sit-down strike in recorded history.
A letter to the vizier complaining about the lack of wheat rations contained oaths, statements of “we are hungry” and ” eighteen days have passed this month” without being provided rations. The villagers pleaded with the leaders to send their letter on to the pharaoh so their concerns could be resolved.
Eventually their complaints were heard and addressed and the workers begrudgingly went back to work. Later, several other strikes would follow citing similar disruptions in payment, until the villagers finally grew weary of fighting and decided to return to work for good during the remaining years of Ramses III‘s reign.
However, this turmoil between the village and the pharaoh would only continue to magnify as the country became more and more destabilized. Tomb robbing increased ten fold and threats of Libyan raiders and civil war plagued the inhabitants of the village as government supply lines all but evaporated. By 1110 BCE the site had become uninhabitable and the village was abandoned.
VISITING THE SITE & GETTING THERE
As I’ve mentioned before in other articles, the west bank of Luxor is not the most tourist friendly of locations, which is why many tourists choose to hire a guide for the day, or hire a car to drive them around to the the various sites. However, if you’d like to go it on your own, you have a few options. If you’re staying on the east bank, you’ll need to walk down and take the public ferry across to the west bank. From there it’s about a 2.9 mile walk from the ferry landing to Deir el-Medina. Alternatively you can rent a bike near the ferry HERE and ride over to the site.
Once at the site, there is little to no signage directing you around or explaining anything. So if you aren’t up for a heavy dose of research in advance, I’d highly suggest hiring a guide to show you around and explain what you’re looking at, because without one, it may appear as only a sea of crumbling mudbrick walls and broken pottery shards.