An ancient worker’s village: Deir el-Medina in Luxor, Egypt

(Last Updated On: March 10, 2021)

The craftsmen who built tombs for Egypt’s pharaohs lived near their workplace. Today, visitors to Luxor’s West Bank can see the remains of the Village of the Workers (Deir el-Medina) and the colorful tombs these talented workers built for themselves.

painting of Anubis tending to the mummy of Amennakht in an Egyptian tomb

The Necropolis of ancient Thebes

Across the Nile from modern Luxor, the ancient floodplain is a sea of green fields. But drive further and the land becomes higher and drier as you approach the Western Desert.

All of this was part of ancient Thebes. For about 500 years between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, Thebes was the center of Egyptian spirituality, power, and wealth. On the eastern bank of the Nile, the temples of Karnak and Luxor hosted the kingdom’s most important rituals. Across the river, the Nile’s west bank was lined with palaces and administrative complexes. Mortuary temples were located here too, filling the area between the palaces and the desert. And, beyond them, the rocky hills and dry valleys at the edge of the desert were filled with tombs.

The palaces and administrative buildings are long gone. However, a few temples, an enormous network of tombs, and the ruins of one village remain.

Sometimes the entire area is referred to as the Valley of the Kings. In reality, only two valleys contain the tombs of Egypt’s kings. Egyptian queens and other members of Egypt’s elite, as well as the workers who built their tombs, were buried in other arid valleys at the edge of the desert.

Who built Luxor’s royal tombs?

The workers who constructed these tombs in the hills west of Luxor were highly-skilled craftsmen. As such, they were middle-class government employees paid in goods (ancient Egyptians didn’t have money) with the freedom to take side gigs as time allowed. Thus, they lived much better than many other ordinary Egyptians.

Tomb building required a wide range of skills. Engineers determined where and how to cut into the hillside. Masons cut the stone to shape walls, floors, and ceilings as directed by the engineers. As the tomb began to take shape, other workers finished the walls so artists could sketch detailed scenes for sculptors and painters to embellish. And all of these workers were overseen by supervisors and supported by carpenters, tool makers, and manual laborers, as well as teams that brought in food and supplies.

But they were working on top-secret projects.

Rampant tomb-robbing led Egypt’s rulers to hide their tombs in these uninhabitable valleys at the edge of the desert. They needed more than a highly skilled workforce. They needed skilled craftsmen who would keep their work and workplace secret.

Hiring a skilled workforce wasn’t a problem. But how do you ensure their work remains secret?

What is the Village of the Workers?

To ensure both secrecy and a steady workforce of talented craftsmen and artists, the pharaohs of Egypt’s New Kingdom built and maintained a village specifically for the families of men working on the tombs. But this was no ordinary village or ancient man camp.

Designed as a permanent home for the workers and their families, the worker’s village at Deir el-Medina offered everything needed for daily life. Each family was given a small house and servants to run it. Water carriers hired by the government hauled water to the village from the Nile. The government also supplied materials needed by the workforce and paid the workers in food and other goods. (Food and water were critical, because the village was in the desert. Delayed food shipments led to a strike in 1152 BC and others in later years.)

But payments to workers went beyond basic necessities. Workers were compensated based on their job, rank, and skill. Highly skilled, high-ranking workers were paid with a larger and more valuable allotment of goods of all types. This brought a wide range of goods and services into the village, ensuring most residents had no reason to leave the village except to go to work.

At its peak, the Village of the Workers housed up to 500 people. Of these, 60 or 70 were skilled craftsmen and artisans working on the tombs. The rest were their wives, children, and servants, as well as police, scribes, physicians, spiritual healers, water carriers, fisherman, the water carriers, and any other workers, including slaves, needed to keep a middle-class village running.

The tombs of the workers

When they weren’t creating a tomb for the pharaoh or another member of the royal family (or on a private job for some other important Egyptian), these ancient craftsmen worked on their own tombs.

While the hills around Deir el-Medina weren’t ideal for tomb buildings, they were useable. Likewise, while they had limited access to the fine materials used to decorate the tombs of the pharaohs, they could get enough materials to get the job done. And what they lacked in materials, they more than made up for in passion. After all, these were their own tombs. Their own eternal lives were at stake.

Larger tombs of the workers came to follow a similar plan:

An open courtyard was located in front of a chapel of one or more rooms. The interior of the chapel was usually vaulted and sometimes decorated. Many were surrounded by a mud brick and stone pyramid.

mud brick pyramid in Deir el-Medina Luxor Egypt

Reconstructed pyramid over a tomb’s chapel in Deir el-Medina, Theban Necropolis, Egypt (2009) Photo: I Rémih via Wikimedia Commons

Stone markers (stelae) in the courtyard offered prayers for the deceased.

The tomb itself was entered through a shaft in the courtyard or, occasionally, the chapel floor. Once opened, this shaft connected to an underground passage and one or more vaulted chambers.

illustration of a tomb layout

Labeled diagram created from an illustration posted by Hotepibre, resa vettoriale da Stains, CC BY-SA 2.5

The burial chamber itself was usually vaulted, plastered, and painted. Other chambers and corridors were more varied in both their construction and decoration. However, while most tomb and chapel combinations had at least one painted room, it wasn’t always the burial chamber.

A few tombs were built with several chambers. Others began as a single burial chamber, but expanded over time to include burial chambers for other family members.

Inside the burial chamber

Each burial chamber housed the sarcophagus of the owner, as well as those of any others entombed there. These coffins were elaborately decorated and usually included several layers nested together.

set of Egyptian sarcophaguses

Khonsu’s mummy was covered by a mask and placed in a series of intricate wooden coffins. (Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As family members often shared a single tomb, some burial chambers contained many coffins of varying complexity and decoration.

But burial chambers contained more than the coffins. Like the pharaohs, regular people also stocked their tombs with everything necessary for a comfortable afterlife. That included miniature figures of the deceased that could be called on when eternal life required manual labor!

miniature figures from an Egyptian tomb

Shabti box and shabtis from the tomb of Sennedjem (Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art) These figures substituted for the deceased whenever manual labor was required in the afterlife.

Of course, most villagers, like most Egyptians, weren’t buried in elaborate tombs like these. These are the burial places of a rather unusual group of ordinary Egyptians.

The village and tombs of the workers today

The Deir el-Medina’s village and tombs of the workers are unique in Egypt. This is the only site that offers a good look at the lives of ordinary Egyptians. Combined, the extensive ruins of the village, the tombs, and a wealth of ancient documents from the site tell us a lot about the people who lived in this village and their lives.

Walk through the ruins of the village

The strikes of 1156 BC were a sign of things to come. As the New Kingdom collapsed, the supply lines that supported the Village of the Workers failed. Many villagers left in search of work elsewhere. Others turned to robbing the royal tombs their ancestors built. When burials in the Valley of the Kings ended, the village was abandoned.

Although villagers returned for some time to visit the tombs and temples, no one lived there again for over 1000 years. Then, sometime in the 4th century, Coptic monks moved in.

Today the layout of the entire walled town and its streets are visible.

low ruins of a town in front of a desert hill/mountain

Village houses were built with mud brick set on a stone foundation. They varied in size, but generally had four or five rooms, including a kitchen and cellar. Stairs led to the roof, which may have been used for gardening, since the houses had no yard. While the mud brick walls and stairs are long gone, the stone foundations remain. They preserve the general layout of each house and the street.

The tall ruins behind the village are the remains of Temple of Hathor. It’s a much later addition to the site, built in the 3rd century BC to replace an earlier chapel. The temple became a Christian church while the Coptic monks were here.

The village’s modern name, Deir el-Medina (Monastery of the Town) comes from this temple-turned-Christian-church. (The village was called Set Maat – the Place of Truth – by the ancient Egyptian officials responsible for it. It’s residents just called it “the town.”)

Today visitors can walk around the site and visit the remains of the temple/church.

Tombs of the Workers

The workers built their tombs in the hills above their village. Today the locations of most are marked not by the towering mud brick and stone pyramids that once stood over each tomb’s chapel, but by modern porches designed to provide shade for visitors, guides, and the site’s security guards!

panorama of a hillside with tombs and covered patios

(The valley heats up a bit like an oven in the sun, with heat radiating into it from hillsides that also block any breezes. Temperature-wise, this could not have been a pleasant place to live, even with houses designed to deflect and minimize the heat as much as possible.)

Tombs open to the public have slightly modified entrances to make them more accessible. Still, getting into them involves at least one narrow, and often steep, set of stairs. Unlike the tombs of the pharaohs, there are no monumental corridors with gently sloping floors here!

looking down into a tomb entrance

But it’s well worth the extra effort, as the inside is usually awash with bold patterns and colors.

interior of a small tomb with a man sitting inside

Not surprisingly, there are variations in the decoration of each tomb. But there are two very distinct styles here.

About half the tombs are decorated in a full range of colors and include long texts from the books of the dead.

brightly painted interior of a tomb

They look like a simplified version of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

But a number are decorated in an unusual monochrome style. These also rely more on images, rather than text, to reference formulas from the books of the dead.

painted interior of a tomb

With only a couple of exceptions, this style of decoration is found only in the tombs the workers built for themselves in Deir el-Medina. But it accounts for about half the tombs here.

These “monochrome” tombs were decorated using only four colors: yellow, white, black, and red. All of which were made from materials that were inexpensive and easy to obtain.

Blue and green were both more difficult to source and more expensive. That could explain why the monochromatic color scheme became popular. But the colors are used differently too, particularly the background colors and reds. Combined with the change in how the books of the dead are presented, it seems likely that this change was more than just a cost-saving measure.

Although at least a few tombs were discovered intact, complete with coffins and other goods, none of these items are on displayed in any of the tombs today.

Plan a trip to Luxor’s Village of the Workers

Deir el-Medina goes by a number of different names in English, including the Village of the Workers, the Village of the Workmen, the Village of the Artisans, and the Workmen’s Village. All refer to the same village where the men who built tombs for the pharaohs lived with their families.

The village and its tombs are part of the Ancient Thebes UNESCO World Heritage site. That site also includes the Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, Karnak and Luxor temples, and several other sites in in the area.

While all tours of Luxor’s West Bank stop at the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s temple, the standard Luxor group tour will NOT include a visit to the Village of the Workers. (That means it’s never very crowded, making a visit here all the more enjoyable.) If you are on a package tour and want to visit the workers’ village, see if your tour guide or hotel will help you arrange a side trip here.

Learn more

An excellent private website, Images of Deir el-Medina: Past & Present has information on seemingly everything related to the workers village and tombs at Deir el-Medina.

Osirisnet focuses on the tombs of ancient Egypt, and has a lot of information on the tombs of Deir el-Medina. This is a privately run site by a respected Egyptologist with tons of detailed information and photos.

French archaeologist Bernard Bruyère spent 30 years studying and documenting Deir el-Medina in the first half of the 20th century. An archive of his work is available online. All journal entries are in French, but the index can be viewed in English and there are many drawings.

painting with text "Tombs in the Village of the Workers Luxor Egypt"

decorated interior of a tomb with text "Valley of the Kings" small boat tied to a tree with large dunes behind and text "Cruising the Nile in Egypt"

camel by the pyramids with text "Egypt"

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