by Connie Tindale
Deir el Medina is the Arabic term for Monastery of the
City. In this instance 'Monastery' refers to the Coptic monastery that was built there much
later and 'City' refers to the Medinet Habu, but originally the village was known simply
as Pa-demi- 'the town'.
During the 18th - 20th New Kingdom Dynasties, this village
was a hive of activity. Not only did guards protect it, but also entry to it was most
likely restricted to those who lived there. Intruders were likely to be killed.
The residents of its seventy houses were gifted artisans who had the favour of the Pharaohs
for whom they prepared tombs in the Valley of the Kings- 'Houses of Eternity'. It was
the workers' task to dig, prepare, and decorate the tombs; and that made them holders of
secrets. Not only did they know where the Pharaohs' tombs were they also knew
precisely what was in them and that made the tombs vulnerable to robbers; consequently,
the village was deliberately isolated.
However, as most tombs were actually robbed soon after
their completion it appears that the villagers were not as entirely honest or free from
gossip as the Pharaohs believed them to be. During their frequent visits to the
riverside where they traded in animals and surplus goods including coffins, they could well
have traded in information too.
The workers were split into two work parties, one to work
on the right hand side of a tomb and one to work on the left-hand side. Once assigned
to a working party an artisan would stay with that group for life. They spent eight
or nine days out of a ten-day week away at the Valley of the Kings during which time they
lived in temporary camps above the Valley and returned home at 'weekends'. This left
the village mostly in the care of women and that might be why Bes, the goddess of childbirth
became one of the village's principle deities
In addition to Bes, villagers worshipped Hathor, the
Goddess of the Western Cemetery, but the present temple to her, which she shares with the
Goddess Maat, was built during a Ptolemaic dynasty. This was a couple of hundred years
after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and about seven hundred years after the village had
lost its importance. Fortunately, both the Greeks and the Romans were good at
assimilating rather than obliterating other religions.
A great deal is known about life in the village as the
artisans were literate and left documentation of village life on papyrus and slivers of
limestone known as ostraca which they used as rudimentary notepads. From these,
information has been gathered about where individuals lived, what their jobs were, what
they ate and how novel was their sex life. The French author Christian Jacq brought
the village to life in wonderful detail through his Ramses and Stone of Light series
of books. These are available in translation throughout the world and give an insight
into the intrigues of life in ancient Egypt.
The village, whose entrance lay at the opposite end of the
village to the one which visitors enter now, is remote and waterless so food and water had
to be brought there daily. These supplies were almost certainly brought to the gates
and left there, as it is unlikely that deliverymen or carts would be allowed inside. On
occasion, there were interruptions to the supplies, which caused great hardship, and workmen
responded to these disruptions by stopping work and marching to nearby temples to demand
payment. Such a demonstration took place in the Medinet Habu during the reign of
Ramses III and villagers fled to that temple for protection when Libyans attacked them in
the reign of Ramses IV.
The houses run off both sides of a central street and were
built of mud brick on stone foundations. The external walls were plastered and then
painted white. Each house fitted a basic four-room design, one of which was an
unroofed cooking area. Some houses had storage cellars. All houses had a raised
platform in one room, which could have been used as an altar or a birthing area but may have
served both purposes. Many houses had stone lintels above the front doors on which the
names of its occupants were carved and this habit made identification of various homes
easier. It also shows that not everything was equal because the status and wealth of
its owner dictated the elaborateness with which a house was finished. Today, the grey
stone and the grey dust give the village the ethereal look found in old black and white
While they were not working on tombs for the Pharaohs,
artisans worked on tombs for themselves and for wealthy Theban dignitaries. Pyramids
had long ago stopped being the Pharaohs' main choice for tomb making but it was still
popular with Thebans and there are several examples of small pyramid tombs here. One,
which has been restored, sits above a sunken burial chamber of Sennedjem, the entrance to
which lies not inside the pyramid but in front of it. In addition, to the workers'
tombs, two sarcophagi of the Divine Adoratrices (Wives of Amun) were found at the Deir el
Medina although it is doubtful that they were actually buried there and it is more likely
that they were moved there from the Medinet Habu with the intent of recycling them during a
breakdown in government control in the late 20th dynasty.
Variations on the spelling of Inherkhau, = Inherkha, Ankherha
Variations on the spelling ostraca = ostraka