Reconstruction of the workers’ walled town of Deir el-Medina. Tombs of the wealthier artisans can be seen rising up the hillside on the right, many of them topped by small pyramids. Artifacts buried with the workers and the many wall paintings are the best source of knowledge about the lives of ordinary Egyptians who worked on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
For several hundred years the kings of Thebes have built their tombs by cutting them deep into the cliff faces of the valleys high above the mortuary town of West Thebes. A permanent settlement has grown up there to house the craftsmen.
The tombs in the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles are a massive undertaking. Just below the entrances to the royal valleys, a community of craftsmen has grown up. The men and their families live in the town of Deir el- Medina, which was built specially to house the tomb-builders. The workers call the place Pa-demi, which simply means “the town.”
A place of comfort
Deir el-Medina is unique in as much as its foundations and many of its walls are built of stone and not mud bricks. Where it is situated—far from the river—stone is plentiful and river mud is not. However, bricks brought up to the slope are used internally, for steps, raised beds, and temporary structures.
The town has its own temple and priests, vizier’s court, doctor, scorpion charmer, and a wall around it to keep out desert raiders. There are some 70 homes inside the wall and another 40 to 50 outside. A main street runs from north to south through the middle, with a few side alleys leading off it. The community well—filled by watercarriers from the nearest canal off the Nile, about half a mile away—is situated outside the only gate, at the town’s north end.
The houses are lined up along either side of the main street, and each opens directly on to it. The average house has four rooms, although some have as many as seven.
The workmen are divided into two iswt, or gangs, known as the Left and Right side gangs, a reference to a boat’s crew and reflecting on which side of a tomb they work. An iswt is a military-style unit working under a foreman who oversees the workmen’s activities. Each gang consists of stonemasons, carpenters, sculptors, and draftsmen/painters.
The Egyptian week is ten days long— eight days of work and two rest days. On working days, the men of Deir el-Medina live in a camp closer to their work up in the royal valleys. Scribes are in attendance to log the workmen’s tools in and out from a central store, and record the work done, workers’ absences, payments, and supplies. They also write letters for the townspeople and send reports on progress to the vizier.