A slightly less visited but endlessly fascinating site in Egypt is Deir el-Medina, the New Kingdom village of the workers that constructed and decorated tombs for pharaohs, queens and nobles in the Theban necropoleis. It is a startling place that feels utterly remote and desolate, especially now that the colours of the houses blend with those of the desert. However, if you look in the other direction from where the above photo was taken, you would see the green fields by the Nile and the Mortuary Temple of Ramses II. The excavation of the village in the first half of the 19th century provided fabulous insights into the lives of the village dwellers and tomb workers over 3000 years ago.
Many of these insights are based on the extensive evidence from the site for individual inhabitants. In a number of cases, the name of a house’s inhabitant is known as well as the location of that individual’s tomb. John Romer has written a good introduction to some of the people that once lived in Deir el-Medina (1984). The site has further been explored in exciting new ways by Lynn Meskell in several books and articles (e.g. 1999, 2002). Scholarship focusing on the village has also produced a book with one of the most catchy yet precise academic titles that I’ve ever seen: Donkeys at Deir el-Medina (Janssen 2005). It is a good demonstration of the wealth of information that the village provides on all sorts of topics.
For the afterlife, the inhabitants were buried just outside the village enclosure, both to the east and west of it. The three tombs that can be visited today are all in the western necropolis. Among these is one of my favourite tombs in Egypt, that of Sennedjem, dating from the 19th dynasty. The paintings in the tomb are wonderfully preserved and its yellow background is especially striking.
My main reason for visiting Deir el-Medina was the Ptolemaic Temple of Hathor which stands to the north of the village. Although the village was deserted at the end of the Ramesside period, it continued as a place of worship and burial (Montserrat & Meskell 1997). In the Coptic period, the enclosure was used by a monastic community as is so common in the Theban region. A large part of the temple’s relief decoration has been mutilated in various ways, and it’s tempting to see the destruction as related to this phase of its history.
Dominic Montserrat & Lynn Meskell. 1997. “Mortuary Archaeology and Religious Landscapes at Graeco-Roman Deir el-Medina”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 83: 179-197.
Lynn Meskell. 1999. Archaeologies of Social Life. Age, Sex, Class et cetera in Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lynn Meskell. 2002. Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jac Janssen. 2005. Donkeys at Deir el-Medina. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.