By Cassandra Bahre
The pharaoh's role was pretty simple in ancient Egypt: ensure the gods are worshiped correctly and ensure ma’at is upheld. Ma’at was a strict societal belief that brought a shared purpose to achieve balance and harmony (in accordance with the will of the gods, of course).
Pharaoh Ramses III had a difficult time upholding ma’at—Egypt was attacked during his reign, and he faced a climate crisis that impacted crop production and the global food supply. Ramses shifted responsibility for upholding ma’at to the nobility/officials. These officials did not have the same societal obligations as the pharaoh; they simply saw opportunity.
The events of this story took place in Set Maat, which translates to Place of Truth (present-day Deir el-Medina). This village was quite a bit different from others in Egypt. It was isolated and filled with upper-middle-class workers. They were artisans of great skill who supported the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and as such, they were paid three times the rate of the average agricultural worker. Their roles were considered sacred, and as they were working with the tombs of the wealthy, the settlement was made up of only the workers and their families (no agriculture workers, tradesmen, etc.)
In this era, salaries were paid in the form of food, sun balm (occupational safety is important!), clothing, and home materials, all delivered at the beginning of each month. Until November 1158 BCE…
It had been weeks since their last payment, and the workers were hungry. On November 14th, they unexpectedly set down their tools in protest and approached the city scribe, who recorded their grievances and delivered them to the officials (and subsequently created the first record of a strike in history!) The officials heard their grievances and two days later appeased the workers by providing a portion of their rations and supplies. However, they didn’t work to correct the supply chain issues that resulted in nonpayment, so it happened in the following month again.
This time, the workers knew simply writing to their officials wouldn’t be enough. They set down their tools and marched to the Temple of Thutmose III and presented their demands to the officials there. These officials did not respond appropriately, so the workers protested in the form of a sit-in at the Temple of Ramses II (the father of their current pharaoh). A new official was called in to hear their demands. The workers explained, and the official ensured payment was made to fulfill ma’at.
Because officials continued to not fix the supply chain, the protests went on for months, each escalating a step further. Eventually, the workers took more drastic measures and occupied the Valley of the Kings, where the dead pharaohs rested. At this point, the officials hired their own authorities and attacked the picketers, completely breaking the concept of ma’at in the process. These authorities further escalated the situation by going into the village and raping the wives who stayed home.
Up until this point, the strike had primarily been about hunger and occupational safety. However, the officials violated ma’at too severely. The ruling class had spread lies, deception, and now brutality. The strike became a societal movement. If ma’at could be broken in Set Maat, the Place of Truth, it could be broken anywhere! A quote recorded on papyrus in this era read, “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.”
As support for Set Maat spread across Egypt, the authorities began putting down their arms and refused to cause any further damage to this sacred Place of Truth and its people.
The strike went on for nine months (with evidence of civil disobedience going on for three years), until an agreement was reached and ma’at was restored. Set Maat was given everything they demanded and more. They were granted their rations and sun balm, but they were also provided with gardeners, fishermen, wood cutters, builders, water carriers, and other essential roles that would help this city thrive without so much dependency on the ruling class. The city was granted the tools they needed to become a self-sustaining community. They provided their demands, they enacted a strike, and their demands were met.