Taxes and taxation in early Muslim Egypt

By G. Schenke. Version 2.12.2010.

All the bibliographies and lists are works in progress. Feel free to send suggestions and/or remarks to

What went before

In Roman times charges were assessed upon the person, the land, animals, the occupation and services, sales and transfers, movement of goods and people, and real and personal property.
    The most import tax was the poll tax (epikephalaion/laographia), paid by all male inhabitants from the age of 14 to 60, rate varying from nome to nome (at reduced rate in the nome capitals).
    Roman citizens in Egypt, as well as the citizens of the Greek towns (Alexandria, Antinoopolis, Naucratis, Ptolemais) were exempted – since 314 AD fifteen-year indiction cycle for tax payments in use (formerly a five-year cycle existed). Tax collection was liturgical work.
    Salaries of state officials and the maintainance of the army had to be provided for by the population through taxes.
    Under Justinian about 2 million solidi in anual taxes are calculated for Egypt.
    The same tax income of 2 million solidi from Egypt is assumed for the time after the Arab conquest of which about 25 % went to the caliph in Medina. Thus, it would seem that there was no tax increase for the population due to the Arab conquest.
    Taxes after the Arab conquest seem to have been essentially those of Byzantine times, i.e. distinct from the Arab jizyah (poll-tax) and kharaj (community tax).
    Taxes were paid in money as well as in kind, depending on the type of tax.

The main tax demands under Arab rule

  • “public taxes” (δημόσια) or “gold-taxes” (χρυσικὰ δημὸσια) paid in money,

    consisting of 
    - land-tax (δημόσιον) 
    - poll-tax (διάγραφον also called ἀνδρισμός) paid only by men for the current year 
    - expenses-tax (δαπάνη or dapanē nalmoumenin) paid one year in advance, intended for the expenses of the local officials in general, the Muslim army, soldiers and officials, expenses for the governor (dux), and expenses for the caliph
  • xenion-tax (ξένιον) paid in money, also known as xenion of the Emir (xenion mpamira) or ξένιον τοῦ amir al-mu’minin, seems to have been intended for “strangers” or “guests”, most likely to cover the expenses of travelling officials

  • corn-tax (ἐμβολή) generally paid in kind, in wheat or barley

  • trade tax or other special taxes could be levied on people whose income did not derive from holding land, such as 
    - weaving-tax (temosin (δημόσιον) ntale štēn, “garment weaving-tax”). Three documents from Bala’izah, P.Bal. 132–134, attest the payment of this particular tax as a special form of δημόσιον. P.Bal. 132,2 (mid 8th cent., after 740!) has: temosen entale štēn, P.Bal. 133,1f.: temosin ntale štēn, and P. 134,3: temos ïonpsōḥe “weaver/weaving-tax.”
    - new tax (dēmosion nbrre) P.Bal. 214,16
  • Additionally, a number of special taxes and personal services could be required, such as 
    - dyke-service 
    - sailor-service 
    - government service 
    - requisitions in kind or money for public needs, allowences to officials and Arab settlers, provisions for workmen and sailors, naval construction, or public buildings
    could be among the things requested to be performed or paid by particular people of the community

Tax assessment

Taxes could be paid in full or in instalments (ἐντάγιον/κατὰ ἐντάγιον).

Methods of tax assessment and tax collection were likewise essentially those of the Byzantine period and organized not by the central Arab government, but by local officials.
    Duty of the local officials was to keep a register (κατάγραφον) of each χορίον, listing all tax-payers with their amount and type of holding (vine-land, date-palms, acacias) and the amount of taxes they had to pay.
    Size and quality of the land holdings determined the tax amount levied.
    Likewise, lists of craftsmen (τεχνῖται) were part of such a tax register, with the specification of the type of craft (τέχνη) and the tax amount due.
    Gathering and reporting of information on tax payers was carried out and provided from within the community.
    These tax registers were then regularly sent up to the central treasury at al-Fustat (Cairo) where they were used as the basis for the yearly tax demand of all ordinary and extraordinary taxes on each pagarchy as a whole and each village or administrative unit within it in particular.
    Unless major changes took place within a local community, the yearly tax quota usually remained the same.
    The collection of taxes did not happen automatically, rather the governor had to make a requisition for each tax collection

The amount of taxes demanded by the new Muslim rulers seem to have been quite high. One finds people struggling and borrowing money in order to be able to pay their taxes. Also the monastic communities appear to have been heavily levied.

The tax demand was levied on the community as a whole whose authorities then had to break it down into individual tax demands according to what each member of the community was able to pay. Therefore we find this tax varying in amount in the individual tax-receipts. The poll-tax, however, was to be paid only by the non-Μuslim male members of the community after having reached a certain age.

A document from the monastery of Apa Mena relates to the appointment of a superior of a monastery who at this period had to make himself responsible for the payment of its taxes which clearly had to be paid from his own resources to a considerable extent. It seems that the disappearance of many monasteries during the middle of the eighth century was directly due to heavy taxation. P.Bal. 290 shows that the monastery had to pay in one single year more than 88 solidi in taxes alone.

Papyrological evidence

Next to the documents one would expect, such as private and official letters, contracts, complaints, and juridical solutions, the organisation of food supplies and general diakonia, as well as the seemingly overwhelming evidence of the amount of taxation, one can also discover glimpses of a new duality of life for the Egyptian population. Used to frequent changes in oppression, the Egyptian population seems to have coped rather well with the novelties of a different era. The main changes affectively seem to have been administrative and linguistic. Orders were now given in a different foreign language and script.

For the payment of his taxes, the payer would first receive a tax demand (entagion) stating the amount due for his taxes. After handing the money over, he would be given a tax receipt mentioning his full name, the amount he paid for the particular indiction year (tax year circle), as well as the date on which he paid it. A formal signature by one of the known tax-collectors would give this document its authority.

General questions: When were monks taxed with the diagraphon? There seems to be a discrepancy between the litereary and documentary sources concerning a tax exemption for monks on the diagraphon.


For a more extensive bibliography, see here.

H. I. Bell, P.Lond. IV, pp. xxv–xxxii.
S. J. Clackson, P.Mon.Apollo, pp. 23–26.
A. Delattre, P.Brux.Bawit, pp. 101–104.
N. Gonis, "Arabs, Monks, and Taxes: Notes on Documents from Deir el-Bala’izah", ZPE 148 (2004) 213–224.
P. E. Kahle, P.Bal. I, pp. 41–45.
H. Heinen, "Taxation in Roman Egypt", The Coptic Encyclopedia, VII, pp. 2202b–2207a.
F. Hussein, Das Steuersystem in Ägypten von der arabischen Eroberung bis zur Machtergreifung der Tûlûniden 19–254/639–868 mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Papyrusurkunden, Heidelberger orientalische Studien 3, Frankfurt am Main, 1982.
K. Morimoto, The Fiscal Administration of Egypt in the Early Islamic Period, Asian Historical Monographs 1, Dohosha 1981.
J. B. Simonsen, Studies in the Genesis and Early Development of the Caliphal Taxation System with special reference to circumstances in the Arab peninsula, Egypt and Palestine, Copenhagen 1988.
K. A. Worp, "Coptic Tax Receipts: An Inventory", Tyche 14 (1999) 309–324.


Last Modified: 06-02-2015