Statue of Rameses III, Penn Museum Statue of Rameses III, Penn Museum. Photo: Mary Harrsch / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

In the world’s first recorded labour dispute, the voice of the exploited echoes powerfully across the millennia, writes Sean Ledwith

In the post-lockdown period, we have witnessed an impressive uptick in levels of strike action in the UK. Rail workers, nurses, teachers, civil servants and many other groups have articulated their grievances, voted for industrial action and formed picket lines. People on those picket lines may not realise it, but they are part of a tradition of resistance in the workplace that stretches back, not just over centuries, but millennia as well. In a Turin museum, there is a contemporary account of the first recorded strike in world history which took place in the 1150s BCE during the New Kingdom era of Ancient Egypt.

The surviving scroll, known as the Turin Strike Papyrus, records the words of a scribe called Amennakhte who functioned as a type of early union rep for a group of tomb workers in the legendary Valley of the Kings. The magnificent art which we associate with Pharaonic Egypt was the product of the skill and imagination of this type of highly specialised worker, but the account of the strike reminds us that, for all its seemingly alien and remote ideological superstructure, the great civilisation that emerged along the Nile was one based on class and exploitation like all others in the ancient world.

Guardians of Maat

Founded around 3000 BCE, the civilisation of the Pharaohs was constructed on the concept of Maat or balance, which was to be maintained by the figurehead of the state in the name of gods such as Amun, Horus and Osiris. Geographically protected by the Mediterranean to the north and deserts in all other directions, the Egyptian ruling class was able to take control of the waters of the Nile, securing plentiful harvests, large surpluses and a thriving workforce. The relative absence of external threats enabled the elite to centralise and consolidate the state structure, with priests, merchants and peasants all subordinated to the overriding status of the Pharoah. Military innovations such as the chariot and bronze weaponry enabled the Pharaohs to extend their influence across the Eastern Mediterranean and into Sudan.

Contact with the other great urban civilisation in Mesopotamia facilitated huge intellectual advancements in administration, astronomy and mathematics that were channelled into constructing an elaborate superstructural edifice that justified the social hierarchy as personified in the person of the Pharoah. Dynasties came and went over the centuries, but the elevated status of the supreme leader was rarely questioned, and was underlined by the distinctive monumental architecture of Ancient Egypt, with the pyramids being the most spectacular examples.

Sea Peoples

This social structure functioned with remarkable stability over many generations but could be jeopardised by dynastic upheavals, natural disasters or foreign invasions. The changing periods of Ancient Egypt, known as the three kingdoms, essentially represented convergences of these factors. It was in one of these transitional moments, not coincidentally, that the world’s first strike took place. During the reign of Rameses III (c. 1186-55 BCE) a confederation of dislocated raiders from the Eastern Mediterranean, known as the Sea Peoples, launched a sustained series of amphibious attacks on Egypt’s northern coast which threatened the hegemony of Dynasty XX.

Rameses was eventually able to subdue this threat in the 1170s, thanks to increased investment in the navy and the introduction of conscription across the country. The Pharaoh had won a great victory that he could validly claim rivalled that of his illustrious predecessor and namesake Rameses II – aka Rameses the Great – at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE. This defeat of the Hittites is usually cited as the first major conflict of the ancient world that was recorded in detail.

Propaganda tour

Inevitably, the Pharaoh’s propaganda, as seen on temple reliefs, highlighted the successful repelling of the incursions, but made no mention of Egyptian losses or the effect the campaigns must have had on harvests and in disruption to trade. Rameses also decided to reap the political benefit of the war by organising a north-south tour of the country, with a sizeable entourage, that would present him to the population, with a renewed commitment by the regime to the maintenance of Maat. A programme of temple and monument refurbishments was also part of this propaganda package. This extravagant outlay would have been massively expensive and would have added to the cost of the war, putting a strain on the state treasury.

Stuff the Jubilee

By the 1150s, Rameses III was looking forward to marking the thirty-year jubilee of his reign and, of course, commissioned another no-expense-spared celebration of his successful defence of the kingdom. Unfortunately for him, the Pharaoh had badly underestimated the dual financial impacts of his campaigns against the Sea Peoples and the consequent propaganda tour of the country. In 1159 BCE, the artisans and tomb-builders working at Set-maat (or the Place of Truth) did not receive their monthly payment in kind on time. This location is now known as Deir el-Medina, and its archaeological remains and surviving documentation give us a fascinating insight into the lives of one of the world’s first large-scale labour forces.

The site was within walking distance of the Valley of the Kings to the north and the Valley of the Queens to the west, and was kept secret due to the high importance attached to the afterlife in the eyes of the Egyptian ideological superstructure. Personal letters reveal there was a multicultural workforce consisting of not just Egyptians, but also craftsmen and their families from Nubia and the Levant. The division of labour included painters, sculptors, stone cutters, plasterers and water carriers. The value of this workforce to the ruling class can be measured by their renumeration, which was three times the rate of a peasant working in the fields and included six days off per month. These workers were not slaves, and were entitled to their own local government which included rights to trial by peers, and to petition the vizier, or minister, regarding pay and conditions.


As a relatively well-off group of workers in a time of economic contraction, the tomb workers were in a strong bargaining position once the dispute began. In 1159, as the Jubilee celebrations came closer, there was a significant delay in their monthly payment. Amennakhte, the scribe who wrote the scroll now in Turin, tells us there were negotiations with officials which resolved the initial problem, but then the same delay occurred the following month. When the problem recurred for the third consecutive month, the workers decided to take action. They marched into Deir-el Medina and confronted the authorities with words recorded in the scroll:

‘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.

Then the strikers headed to the prestige project of Rameses III’s mortuary temple for another demonstration. This was followed by an occupation of the temple of another one of his illustrious predecessors, Thutmose III.

This type of opposition from below to the status quo had never been seen before in Egypt (so far as we know), and it is not difficult to imagine the growing panic among the Pharaoh’s advisors about the appropriate response. Maat was clearly being threatened, but this time not by foreign invaders but elite workers who were responsible for the ruler’s safe passage to the afterlife. The possibility for the dispute to escalate into a direct threat to the whole social structure must have occurred to the local officials.

Let them eat pastries

The immediate response was to expedite an emergency supply of pastries to the strikers, but that, unsurprisingly, did not calm the situation. The industrial action spread to nearby Thebes, where protesters stormed into the central grain storehouse and helped themselves. The local chief of police, Montumes, demanded that the strikers return to work, but was forced into a humiliating retreat amid hoots of derision. Eventually, the workers were persuaded to return to the site with promises of a resolution. Incredibly, the next month the same delay with payment took place.

Impressively, the strikers decided to escalate their action this time. All entrances to the Valley of the Kings were blockaded, which meant that families could not visit tombs to make offerings for the souls of the deceased making their way through the afterlife. This was an explicit challenge to the ideological underpinning of Maat and an implicit challenge to the authority of the Pharaoh and his putative role in safeguarding all Egyptians, dead or alive. When soldiers appeared and threatened to remove the strikers by force, their response was a reciprocal threat to destroy the tombs: a powerful negotiating ploy that forced the authorities to back down. This impressive defiance is captured in the strike scroll:

‘“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.”’

Moral victory

This stalemate dragged on for three years as the local officials were too scared to take on the strikers, but also too scared to tell the Pharoah about the ongoing crisis. There is lot of detail inevitably missing from the scroll, but one striking aspect of the episode is that the Pharaoh’s Jubilee does seem to have gone ahead in 1156 BCE without significant disruption. One feasible scenario is that the strikers were also committed to the maintenance of Maat and were not willing to directly challenge Rameses with the unimaginable metaphysical consequences that would have triggered.

The tomb-workers were clearly not crushed by force, however, as the strikes seemed to have resumed soon after the official celebrations. A deal to suspend the action for the duration of the Jubilee is likely and would have represented a moral victory for the strikers. Within the course of the strikes we can also dimly detect a change of consciousness on the part of the workers, from initially raising economic demands to then raising wider concerns about the nature of the political system.

Rameses III probably never knew about the strike that nearly derailed his Jubilee, as the local officials would have feared for their heads in the event of him finding out. Thanks to the Turin Strike Papyrus, however, we can learn about the birth in antiquity of the tactic of the strike which has become a welcome sight on our streets again.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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