Physical Labor is Like Water…

it flows down – down to the weakest and the most disadvantaged section of the society.  The edifices of the past that make us gasp with awe, extracted the labor from the susceptible either through force, or through collective psychological manipulation.

Think of a mammoth building project, that a king wishes to complete in his life time. It could be the city of Akhetaten at Amarna or the Tajmahal in India, and imagine how it might have come into existence. We say now, that Akhenaten built the city at Amarna, and that Shahjahan built the Tajmahal – but the statement is erroneous. The men we attribute the building of these huge monuments were merely the financiers – in cash and in kind (and in Ancient Egypt, it was mostly in kind – beer, bread, linen, grains and so on.)

These monuments were built by the poor – the peasant class. In Ancient Egypt, the men were rounded up for their essential service to Pharaoh’s building projects – this happened before the floods, for at that time, there was nothing else the poor could do. In medieval India, there were huge colonies of craftsmen who lived in low huts and worked around the year on the Emperor’s projects.

Scholars of Ancient Egypt stand divided on the question of slave labour. Some say, there was; others say, there wasn’t.

As a student of human psychology, I find it difficult to believe that they didn’t use slaves on their building projects. We love our DNA and we’ve loved it ever since we first walked the earth. This is why we love our children the most – this is why we have communalism and nationalism both – because we like to be with our “kind,” and we looking for a unifying similarity.  To extend this love further and thinner – we don’t eat our kind but would eat all other kinds; and the animals we are closest to, are mammals. And yet, the more the differences; the less we care and the more we exploit.

Class-difference is one important fallout of our love for our DNA and our instinctive ability to recognize the differences. Imagine a household of a medieval rich nobleman. His fourteen-year-old daughter is the mistress of her sixteen-year-old slave-girl. The mistress doesn’t do manual labor, the slave-girl does. Why?  The slave-girl is required to carryout her mistress’s orders, without questioning her. Why? And why the nobleman doesn’t expect his daughter to heat the bathing water or clean the chamberpots, while he expects the slave-girl to do the same?

Because his DNA is closer to his daughter’s and far-removed from the slave-girl’s. When you extend this reasoning further, you’ll see why slavery existed in the ancient and medieval cultures. Those who wield power would always discriminate between those they perceive to be more like them and those that appear different.

In ancient times, the only way to differentiate humans from humans were their looks. Now we know that we all are the same, but then, with their limited knowledge of science, and their reliance on religion, I would imagine the Ancient Egyptian bringing in slaves from Nubia in the south and from across the mediterranean from the North – I’d think they’d put them to work on the public projects, while giving all the supervisory roles to Egyptians.

Historians don’t find a lot of evidence to support slavery. I’d say, why would they? Do we expect the prudent Egyptians to raise tombs to commemorate the slaves? Would they waste a whole week work’s effort of a sculptor or a painter, in painting the slaves? If there were slaves, they lived on the margins of the society – and they probably had their own social structure.

Yes. I think its highly plausible, that slaves labored on the grand Egyptian edifices that we see today – and I also think that many of these slaves were children – for what would the Egyptians do with the children of the slaves? Educate them to be scribes…or adopt them into their own families? And even for fresh recruits (from the raids in south or north,) children form a more susceptible group.

So it doesn’t surprise me that at Amarna, they’ve dug out graves of children. These children, as I expect the DNA Analysis to prove, wouldn’t turn out to be Egyptian children. Some of these graves have turned up skeletons of up to six children. In my opinion, these were the children of the slaves. From 2006 to 2013, the archaeologists had dug out the graves of about 6000 individuals in Amarna, in what they call the “South Tomb Cemetery.”

The study of these burials and their human remains has opened a new research window on life and death in the lower echelons of Egyptian society. They paint a picture of poverty, hard work, poor diet, ill-health, frequent injury and relatively early death.

Slavery and child-labor still exists in this world – in our “modern” world, where we know that regardless of how we look, we all belong to the human race.

While we hope with our fingers crossed, expecting that the empowered will stop exploiting the weak is to fool ourselves – for history has this irritating habit of repeating itself. Cultures die, new cultures are born; but human nature remains the same. And this constancy of the human nature is also the reason why we crave historical fiction. It allows us to explore the limits of human nature without putting us there in the middle of the action; without making demands on us to act.

Instead when we read about the same atrocities when committed in the world of today, we feel torn between morality and practicality. We gasp at the horrors that we read or hear about, and say that it’s a shame that such things should happen in the world of today. We tweet, post, and march with candles – it assuages our conscience. But when we take a step back into history, we see that human nature has always been the same – and every culture, at the time of its existence, had considered itself modern.

In one of my future posts, I’ll talk about “Imhotep’s Secret Drawer,” one of the five novelettes in “Mysterious Kemet – Book I,” and discuss why the shock and horror you experience at what you discover in the story has its roots in something that’s very real and isn’t all that uncommon, even in the world of today.

Image Credits:
By Kurohito (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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