The First Recorded Labor Strike: Ancient Egyptian Workers Demand Their Due (c. 1157 BC)

In the annals of history, labor strikes are often associated with the industrial era, with images of factory workers picketing for better wages and working conditions. However, the concept of labor strikes dates back much further than the Industrial Revolution. One of the earliest recorded labor strikes occurred in ancient Egypt around 1157 BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III. This remarkable event offers a fascinating glimpse into workers’ lives in antiquity and their quest for fair treatment.

The Setting: Deir el-Medina

The strike took place in Deir el-Medina, a village on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Deir el-Medina was home to the artisans and laborers who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground for pharaohs and nobles. These workers were highly skilled craftsmen, including stonemasons, painters, and sculptors, who created some of ancient Egypt’s most magnificent tombs and temples.


The workers of Deir el-Medina were employed by the state and were provided with food, housing, and other necessities in return for their labor. Their work was essential for ensuring the pharaohs’ safe passage to the afterlife, making them an important but often overlooked part of Egyptian society.

The Catalyst: Delayed Rations

In ancient Egypt, workers were typically paid in rations of food and other goods rather than money. These rations included bread, beer, grain, and sometimes meat and vegetables. The workers of Deir el-Medina depended on these regular supplies to sustain themselves and their families.

Around 1157 BC, the workers’ rations were delayed during the 29th year of Ramses III’s reign. The reasons for the delay are not entirely clear, but it is believed that corruption, administrative inefficiencies, or economic difficulties may have been factors. Whatever the cause, the delay in rations created a dire situation for the workers and their families, prompting them to take unprecedented action.

The Strike Begins

The workers of Deir el-Medina decided to stage a strike, a bold and risky move in ancient Egypt. They organized themselves and marched to the nearby mortuary temples, where they protested by sitting down and refusing to work. Their demands were simple and just: they wanted their overdue rations.

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The striking workers directed their complaints to the local officials and the high priest of Amun, who was a powerful figure in Thebes. They made it clear that they could not continue their work without the food and supplies they needed to survive. This peaceful protest was a remarkable act of collective bargaining, demonstrating the workers’ unity and determination.

The Response

The officials were initially taken aback by the strike. Labor strikes were unheard of in ancient Egypt, and the authorities had to quickly figure out how to respond. Realizing the importance of the workers’ demands and the potential disruption to the construction of the royal tombs, the officials decided to negotiate.

tutenkamen tomb

The officials promised to address the workers’ grievances and provided them with some of the overdue rations. The workers, satisfied with this initial concession, returned to their work. However, the distribution of rations remained inconsistent, and the workers were forced to strike again several times over the following months.

The Outcome

The repeated strikes eventually led to significant changes. The workers’ actions drew attention to the issues of corruption and inefficiency within the administration. The authorities were compelled to improve the distribution system and ensure that rations were delivered more reliably.

While the immediate impact of the strikes was the resolution of the workers’ grievances, the broader implications were more profound. The strikes demonstrated that even in ancient times, workers could organize and advocate for their rights, challenging the existing power structures. This early example of labor activism set a precedent for future generations of workers.

Legacy and Historical Significance

The strikes at Deir el-Medina are significant for several reasons. They provide valuable insights into the social and economic conditions of ancient Egypt, highlighting the importance of the labor force in maintaining the state’s monumental projects. The strikes also reveal the workers’ awareness of their collective power and their willingness to stand up for their rights.


Moreover, the documentation of these strikes offers a rare glimpse into the daily lives of ordinary Egyptians. The events were recorded on ostraca (pottery shards) and papyri, providing historians with detailed accounts of the workers’ demands, the negotiations, and the outcomes. These records are some of the earliest examples of written evidence of labor disputes and collective bargaining.

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