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Village: Deir el Medina is a small settlement 2 km west of the Nile
(see maps). It was home to workers of the royal necropolis and might be viewed as a microcosm of life in Ancient Egypt even
though although the workers were at the 'top' of their profession.
The ancient name of the site was Set Maat, 'the Place of Truth' and the workmen were 'servants' in the Place of Truth. The community seems to have been established near the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, at least by the reign of Tuthmosis I (whose name has been found on bricks in the walls surrounding the village) or perhaps a few years earlier - since the villagers through many generations held Amenhotep I, and his mother Queen Ahmose Nefertari, in high esteem (maybe as patrons).
From research over the last century we know much about the people, how they lived and where they were buried and what they owned. Many finds were removed in the free-for-all of previous centuries and pieces are found in nearly every major museum in the world. It is ironic that more is known about the workmen who cut the New Kingdom tombs than we do about the kings who commissioned them.
The great pit (see map) or town dump (from a later period) contained thousands of ostraca with texts. The decipherment and publication of many of the non-literary ostraca form the basis for of the published information about the community.
Drinking water could be obtained only in the Nile valley - a journey of 2 km. Drilling wells of 52 metres was beyond their capabilities. Regular supplies were to be brought to the village and stored in large jars in the houses.
History: '[On that day] came the vizier ... and read to them a letter saying that Nebmaatre Ramesses Amenherkhepshef-meryamun [Ramesses VI] ... had arisen as the great ruler of the whole land ... and he said: Let the gang come up.' … from an ostracon.
The settlement was founded sometime early in the 18th dynasty, though by which monarch is uncertain. Many bricks in the enclosing wall are stamped with the name of Tuthmosis I - the first pharaoh definitely to be buried in the Valley of the Kings. It is known that the previous king, Amenhotep I, and his mother Ahmose--Nofretiri, were regarded as patron deities by the workmen.
The first village was destroyed by fire during the 18th Dynasty. The village grew under Tuthmosis III as building expanded on the west bank at Thebes. Under Akhenaten the inhabitants were moved to Amarna - some of the names found at Amarna are similar to those found at Deir el Medina (but it is not certain if these were the same people).
Most of the evidence dates from the 19th and 20th dynasties when the royal influence returned to Thebes. The village was expanded to its maximum extent and nine distinct quarters were formed. Streets and access ways were cut through the blocks of dwellings and funerary concessions. The old houses were restored and new ones added, the village being expanded to the south and west to enclose its suburbs and a new stone wall was built around the whole. For this period a great deal of information is available - such as the names of the viziers and other high officials who oversaw the excavation of the tombs.
At the beginning of the 19th dynasty activity in the Valley of the Queens started, resulting in tombs for the chief royal wives and children.
The village was finally abandoned at the end of the New Kingdom when royal burials in the Valley of the Kings ended. The villagers removed the valuable wooden doors and supporting columns from their houses when they left, causing the eventual collapse of the houses.
Houses: The houses were huddled closely together much like modern villages. Forty rooms made up the core of the first 18th Dynasty workshops, the village comprising of twenty houses and maybe 100 people.
Houses may have been allotted by officials but many were held on a hereditary basis through it's four-hundred- year history. Most houses had one floor and were built without foundations and with mud-brick walls. The later village houses were erected on rubble and had simple walls with stone bases from 2.0 to 2.5 m high with mud-brick superstructures. They were built in terraces with doors facing each other across the streets, some-times back-to-back. They averaged only 5 to 6 metres wide, but were not regularly spaced out. Rooms were often high (measuring from 3 to 5 metres tall). Houses were whitewashed outside with red doors. Inscriptions on the jambs and lintels often gave the owners' names. Stone jambs and columns were in some of the better houses, but all floors were earth.
Each house was built using the a succession of rooms of increasing privacy, as well as a passage to a kitchen and rear open area. A typical house would have:
- first reception room opening directly from the street - door opposite the entrance led to the main inner living room and a bed-shaped shrine
- second reception room up a step or two from the first chamber and at street level with one or two central columns
- small cellar under the second reception room
- small room (or twin rooms) off the second reception room and serving as a bedroom or workroom for the household women
- passage led to the kitchen with a domed bread oven
- staircase to the flat roof
- rear cellar for food storage or a rectangular grain silo
Ancestor Worship: Non-Royal ancestors were often worshiped in private homes, such as in Deir el Medina, rather than in temples. Statues, stela and offering basins from the village show that families were worshiped or venerated. The Ancestors were called akh n Re (able spirits of Re). They were often intermediaries between morals and gods and were often thought to have a special relationship with the sun god Re, taking an honoured position in the barque as he travelled in the land of the dead at night. Domestic worship involved leaving offering at the statue (or stela) which were in niches in the houses - the offering encouraged the akh n Re to intercede on behalf of the living.
New Kingdom (Dynasties 18-20, 1550-1070 BC)
The New Kingdom is composed of the 18th to the 20th Dynasties, following the expulsion of the Hyksos and the reunification of the country by Ahmose (1550-1525 BC).
The New Kingdom was a time of great prosperity and massive building projects at Thebes demonstrate
the power and wealth of the kings period. Several kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty led campaigns into Palestine, parts of
which were brought under Egyptian control.
The rock cut tombs of kings and private individuals were lavishly decorated. A wide variety of literature from this period has survived, including funerary, legal, medical and literary papyri, personal letters and hymns. The builders of the tombs lived in Deir el Medina.
Gold, of conquered Nubia, was heavily exploited until it was exhausted in the early 19th Dynasty. A less settled period followed and the threat of the Hittites reached a crisis in the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC) with the battle of Kadesh. Ramesses III's (1184-1153 BC) assassination marked the beginning of decline. The New Kingdom ended with a series of weak kings, corrupt administration, tomb robberies and Libyans incursions into the Theban region.
Amarna Period (1390-1327 BC)
The reigns of Akhenaten (1352-1336 BC), Smenkhkare (1338-1336 BC), Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) and Ay (1327-1323 BC) made up the period and it is named after the city founded by Akhenaten, son of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC). Akhenaten became king as Amenhotep IV and changed his name when he rejected traditional religion in favour of the worship of the Aten or sun disc. He closed temples to other gods and obliterated their names from monuments.
Akhenaten was succeeded by the Smenkhkare, then the famous Tutankhamun. Rejecting Akhenaten's religious beliefs, Tutankhamun restored the traditional gods and abandoned Tell el-Amarna. He died young and was succeeded by an elderly courtier, Ay. Subsequent kings did their best to remove all traces of the period from the record and the names of the Amarna period kings are not found on 'king lists' [Turin Royal Canon], various ancient texts that list the names of the Egypt's kings in chronological order.
Armarna's art is very distinctive. The royal family were depicted with elongated heads, long necks and narrow chests. They generally had spindly limbs, but heavy hips and thighs, with a pronounced paunch. Literary developments of the period include a revision of the written script to more closely reflect the spoken language of the time, and the replacement of funerary texts with a hymn to the Aten.
Ramesside Period (19th and 20th Dynasty, 1295-1069 BC)
The period is named after the eleven kings with the name Ramesses, who ruled in the 19th and 20th Dynasties. Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC) faced the armies of the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh and became a role model for his successors. He founded a capital in the Nile Delta, known as Pi-Ramesse.
The period was characterised by efforts to ward off migrating tribes known as the 'Sea Peoples' who, by the reign of Ramesses III (1184-1153 BC) had joined forces with Libyan tribes. During this period the struggling Egypt lost its hold on the empire. After the dead of Ramesses III , possibly by assassination, the internal economy began to crumble, resulting in administrative corruption and political strife. The succession of kings failed to live up to the achievements of their famous predecessor.
Ramesses II left more monuments than any other king was the model for the Ramesside Period. The literature of the time includes accounts of great battles, but also letters and documents relating to everyday life, including the trial of the Ramesses III assassins, trials of tomb robbers and records of strikes by tomb workers at Deir el Medina.
Egyptian Towns and Cities, Eric Uphill, Shire Publications
Pharaoh's Workers, Leonard Lesko, Cornell University Press
The complete Valley of the Kings, Nicholas Reeves and Richard Wilkinson, Thames & Hudson
The complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, Richard Wilkinson, Thames & Hudson
The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, Dieter Arnold, I B Taurus
Guide to the Valley of the Kings, Alberto Siliotti
Art el archéolgie: l'Égypte anciene, Ecole du Louvre
Ancient Egypt, David Silverman