Throughout Egyptian history, pharaoh's government taxed individual producers and officials alike in all sectors of the economy in a complex system of economic interdependency. As the incarnation of Horus, the king was the undisputed owner of all the land of Upper and Lower Egypt and was therefore entitled to bestow land and other property on whichever institutions, settlements, and individuals he chose. In return, the king reserved the right to require that the beneficiaries pay to the state various kinds of imposts, which might include a share in the produce of the land, cattle, and assorted products, as well as human labor for state projects.
Evidence for taxation is derived from administrative texts, literary texts, letters, and scenes from tombs that span the whole of pharaonic history and continue into Greco-Roman times. Administrative texts are often fragmentary and lack a clear context, and literary texts cannot always be taken at face value. To complicate matters, the Egyptians employed a variety of vague, nearly synonymous terms for “tax” more or less interchangeably. Moreover, they often used the same term with both a general and a technical meaning, sometimes in the same document. Taxes should be understood as contributions from individuals and institutions imposed by the state in fulfillment of its obligations to its own people, as well as to foreign countries, and to provide for the maintenance of pharaoh as head of state.
The fifth dynasty Palermo Stone provides the earliest details of taxation. These royal annals record, year by year, the reigns of individual kings nearly to the end of the fifth dynasty. Entries for the regnal years of pharaohs as early as the first dynasty identify a biennial event known as the “Following of Horus,” a royal tour of inspection during which the king appeared before his people and collected revenues due him as the incarnation of Horus and head of state.
In the reign of Ninuter (second dynasty), the entries for the Following of Horus include references to what was evidently a biennial census or enumeration. In two instances late in the dynasty, this census is described as an “enumeration of gold and land.” Therefore, toward the end of the second dynasty, the royal tour had become biennial and had expanded to include the counting of gold and land. In the reign of Sneferu (fourth dynasty), cattle are first mentioned as the subject of this count. By the reign of Neferirkare in the fifth dynasty, oxen and small livestock are included.
Supervision of the national revenue as early as the Predynastic period was under the authority of the chancellor in charge of the treasuries of Upper and Lower Egypt. By the reign of Ninuter, this responsibility included the biennial census as well as the collection and distribution of various commodities levied as taxes in kind in a nonmonetary economic system. Different commodities were under the charge of the appropriate departments. Grain, for example, was administered through the granaries, second in importance to the treasuries. Redistribution of tax revenues to their beneficiaries was handled by the “house of the master of largesse” linked to the palace.
Although these revenues funded ambitious royal building programs that often included temples, the temples and funerary endowments frequently sought exemption from dues imposed on them, especially compulsory labor. Royal charters of immunity which shelter the property and staffs of temples and foundations are first attested in the fourth dynasty with the fragmentary Exemption Decree of Shepseskaf, issued to protect the estate and staff of the pyramid of Menkaure. The fifth dynasty Decree of Neferirkare exempts staff and employees of the temple of Osiris at Abydos from compulsory labor and corvée in perpetuity under penalty of forfeiture of all property and freedom. The sixth dynasty Exemption Decree of Pepy I, concerning the ka-chapel of Queen Iput in the temple of Min at Coptos, protects the royal chapel and all its employees from the imposition of dues levied for the royal residence and from contribution to the Following of Horus.
Charters of immunity probably contributed to the demise of the Old Kingdom by reducing tax revenues and manpower available for public works projects. There is some evidence, however, that programs of government reforms at the end of the fifth dynasty and throughout the sixth attempted to address economic problems affecting the fiscal well-being of the state. Since exemption decrees continued to be enacted throughout Egyptian history, and it is not known to what extent or for how long they were enforced, the impact of these decrees on the economy has yet to be determined.
Scenes in the sixth dynasty Saqqara mastaba of the vizier Khentika reveal what could happen when officials failed to deliver their quota of taxes. One remarkable scene depicts the judgment and corporal punishment of five district governors brought before the vizier and charged with corruption in tax collection. Misappropriation of tax revenues was inexcusable, and punishment both swift and harsh.
Knowledge of taxation during the Middle Kingdom is extremely limited. The Beni Hasan tomb autobiography of Amenemhat, a Middle Egypt nomarch in the reign of Senwosret I, identifies him as responsible for all dues (bʒkw, “works”) levied annually for the king's house, including the cattle census and taxes in grain. Amenemhat records that after “years of hunger,” when he preserved his people from starvation, he refrained from exacting “the arrears of the land-tax.”
A Middle Kingdom tax-assessor's journal from Harageh in the Faiyum details the measurement of agricultural land in the second month of the inundation. The assessor details time spent “measuring(?)” and “writing for him(?) the exaction of dues,” as well as the registering of tenants or land-owners under the authority of the “royal treasurer and overseer of the land of the northern district.” The date of these activities suggests the application of a fixed tax, which simplified work for the administrators but placed a heavy burden on the taxpayer in a year of poor harvest.
This journal recalls a later scene in the Theban tomb of Menna, scribe of the fields of the lord of the Two Lands under Thutmose IV, which depicts surveyors measuring a field in the company of scribes and an inspector. Scenes in the Elkab tomb of the mayor Paheri in Upper Egypt in the reign of Thutmose III depict the “scribe of counting grain” recording the harvest of Paheri's own estate with a coworker who tallies filled measures of grain. In another scene, laborers carry sacks of grain to barges in payment of the harvest-tax.
The recto of a late Middle Kingdom document (Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446) concerns compulsory labor for state enterprises and lists seventy-six Upper Egyptian peasants who fled the compulsory labor they were required by the state to perform at regular intervals: tilling the fields, digging and repairing at irrigation channels, and harvesting crops. When these men deserted their jobs, they became fugitives in violation of the corvée. Dereliction of duty could be punishable by permanent compulsory labor on government lands.
Throughout the New Kingdom, temples were major beneficiaries of tax revenues generated by the general annual levy. Other beneficiaries were military garrisons and foreign settlements where war captives and mercenaries were quartered. Workers in the quarries and the accomplished artisans of the royal necropolis also required support from the general levy. In addition, the general levy had to provide for the upkeep of royal palaces and harems.
To raise the necessary revenues, a complex bureaucracy labored under the overseer of the granary of pharaoh, collecting taxes in grain, and the overseer of the treasury of pharaoh, collecting taxes on all other products. The vizier (or viziers, when there were two) coordinated these operations to ensure the efficient collection and redistribution of tax revenues.
A detailed account of the administration of tax collection and redistribution under the charge of the vizier is provided in the Theban tomb-chapel of Rekhmire, vizier of Upper Egypt under Thutmose III and Amenhotpe II. Prominent among the inscriptions is an enumeration of the duties of the vizier, together with the ethical principles that guided him in the execution of his office, material that goes back to a late Middle Kingdom original. Among Rekhmire's many responsibilities were the general maintenance of government records, the receipt of tax payments and foreign tribute from the officials responsible for their delivery, and supervision of the storehouses and estates of the temple of Amun. Scribes, heralds, and retainers served as his liaisons with provincial mayors, who were responsible for the collection and transport of taxes in grain and other products levied on their towns, outlying rural districts, and any harbors in their jurisdiction. Mayors also bore responsibility for the revenues of local temples.
There were also ad hoc levies that could be imposed when expenses of the state—such as those arising from military campaigns, the equipping of garrisons, or even work on the royal tomb—demanded more revenue than the general levy raised. The vizier was empowered to demand payment of ad hoc taxes wherever revenues could be obtained. It was not unusual for him to order the peremptory seizure of surplus revenues of one institution to meet a shortfall elsewhere in the system. This required familiarity with the budgets of all departments and institutions in the system and deft handling of their separate administrations.
Evidence for the abuse of authority and the unlawful expropriation of tax revenues comes from the late eighteenth dynasty Edict of Horemheb, a collection of royal decrees enacted by Horemheb to restore law and order following the troubled Amarna period. The edict addresses specific abuses on the part of soldiers and government officials who unscrupulously enriched themselves at the expense of the general populace and jeopardized state interests. It confirms the absolute right of the state to tax its citizens in both goods and services, in defiance of which it sets out harsh punishments. It is evident, however, that the edict is a set of ad hoc decrees necessitated by the fact that there was no codified system for revenue collection.
Although there are many New Kingdom documents concerning taxation, the terminology can be problematic. The common term šmw could have the meaning “harvest,” “harvest-tax,” or even “crop as rent,” depending on context. The Wilbour Papyrus, a document detailing the assessment of agricultural land in Middle Egypt under the administration of temples and secular institutions in year 4 of Ramesses V, enumerates plots apportioned for small-holders, giving data that allow the calculation of a tax in grain (šmw) owing on their crops. These smallholders were assessed a tax calculated on only a very small portion of the plots at a fixed rate of one and one-half sacks per aroura. Most of their plots were either 3 or 5 aroura (1 aroura equals 0.27 hectare or 0.66 acre) of what was usually normal arable land in the “apportioning domain” of an institution.
The Wilbour Papyrus also provides data that enabled authorities to calculate the gross yield of relatively large plots of land, ascribed to temples and some secular institutions and cultivated by field laborers. These larger tracts, in the “normal domains” of institutions, were liable for a tax of 30 percent of their harvest based on a yield of five sacks per aroura of normal arable land. The remaining 70 percent was returned to the actual cultivators for their support. Rates of seven and a half and ten sacks per aroura also occur in these paragraphs levied on ṯnἰ (“elevated?”) land and nḫb (“fresh”) land, respectively.
The Wilbour Papyrus has been interpreted as evidence of an agrarian regime wherein temples and secular institutions (treasury of pharaoh, harems, or landing-places of pharaoh) administered land for cultivation as dependencies of the state. Temple-owned and administered fields were simply a special category of state land. It is irrelevant to debate whether the assessments detailed in the document should be understood as taxes payable to the state or rents accruing to institutions, since it would not be valid to distinguish temple property from state property. The temples constituted, in effect, a specialized department of the state organization. As a result, the “apportioning domains” of temples that enumerate plots of smallholders were often administered by local state officials, just as some of the “normal domains” were under the charge of high government officials. Temple lands and revenues accruing from them were at the disposal of the king, both as head of the state and as the chief high priest.
There are a number of Ramessid texts that detail the collection and transport of grain revenues as income accruing to the state from both temples and individuals for storage in both temple and city granaries for later redistribution. These include the Turin Taxation Papyrus, Amiens Papyrus, Papyrus Louvre 3171, British Museum Papyrus 10447, the Turin Indictment Papyrus (Papyrus Turin 1887), the Gurob Fragments, Turin Papyrus 1882 (verso), and the texts from the verso of Papyrus Sallier IV. The Turin Taxation Papyrus exemplifies the overlap in the activities and jurisdiction of temple and civil authorities. It records the collection of grain from crown land, temples, and individuals, by the scribe of the necropolis, in partial payment of the overdue wages of the necropolis workmen, and the receipt of the grain by the mayor of Thebes and chantresses (šmʿyt) of Amun for deposition in Theban granaries.
Not all taxpayers accepted responsibility for the taxes for which they were held liable. Papyrus Valençay I (c. reign of Ramesses XI) is a letter of complaint from Meron, mayor of Elephantine, to the chief taxation master, concerning taxes the mayor allegedly owes on crown land in his charge. Meron denies all responsibility, ascribing liability to persons described as nmḥw—“private persons” or “freemen”—“who pay gold to the treasury of pharaoh.” Thus, mayors were not responsible for the collection of taxes from nmḥw who remitted their taxes directly. Meron's complaint was not unique. In a model letter (Papyrus Bologna 1094), a priest protests “the excessive monies” (literally, “silver”) he was ordered to remit, saying, “It is not my due tax at all!” If the responsible party failed to remit his taxes, he stood to forfeit his property, as depicted in the Theban tomb of Menna. Those with no property to forfeit were sentenced to compulsory labor.
The fragmentary tax lists on the recto of the Royal Canon of Turin may have been records of deliveries of various levies to the treasury, the temple of Amun, or a royal residence from a variety of persons, groups of individuals, institutions, and towns. Technical terms for different types of exactions include bʒkw, šʒyt, šdyt, ḥtrἰ, and tp-ḏrt. Bʒkw (“works,” “labor,” or even “dues”) here applies to taxes on products outside of the agricultural sector of the economy, including the products of fishermen, natron-workers, and mat-makers, paid in kind. The many occurrences of tp-ḏrt (“head-hand”) suggest a tax obligation incumbent on various lower officials. Šdyt occurs in the phrase “the precise exaction.” Šʒyt (“dues”) occurs in such phrases as “dues of the staff” and “the exact dues.” Occurrences of the term ḥtr/ḥtrἰ include “exact levy” and “the levy that is upon them.”
The badly damaged Bilgai Stela, which concerns a chapel dedicated to Amun of Usermare Setepenre (Ramesses II), provides evidence of the zeal with which some administrators executed their duties. An administrator of the estate connected with the chapel proudly boasts to Theban officials: “I am an officer advantageous to his lord, paying [his] harvest-tax (šmw) in full and [his] dues (šʒyt) in full. Great was my surplus of harvest-tax and dues, ten times greater than my [annual] levy (ḥtrἰ) of šmw and šʒyt.” Also mentioned are payments of honey and wine, the latter described as “the [assessed] labor (bʒkw) of my people.”
Bʒkw and šʒyt also occur together in the Great Harris Papyrus (12a,1; 32a,7; 51b,3) in the headings to sections of the document that enumerate items of the income of the separate and independent estates of Amun, Re, and Ptah. The headings read: “Property (ḫt), dues (šʒyt), and labor (bʒkw) of the people of every staff (sdmt) of (temple name) which [Ramesses III] gave to their treasuries, storehouses, and granaries as their annual levy (ḥtrἰ).” The list that follows provides a precise accounting of all the metals, materials, agricultural produce, birds and animals, and ships accruing to the god's estate as the obligation of all who labored for or on behalf of the estate. These endowments may have been made by Ramesses III to compensate the temples for their contributions to his costly military campaigns in terms of men, cattle, and other necessities.
In the autobiographical inscription of the high priest Amenhotpe (c. reign of Ramesses IX), the terms šmw, šʒyt, and bʒkw occur together and appear to signify the most important revenues payable to the state as taxes under the authority of the high priest: “The harvest-tax (šmw), dues (šʒyt), and labor (bʒkw) of the people of the house of Amun-Re, King of the Gods, shall be under your authority.…” Also mentioned is the rarely occurring tp-ḏrt, which the high priest is said to have caused to be delivered to the estate of Amun. Thus, by the end of the twentieth dynasty, the high priest of Amun—whose family occupied many of the highest offices of the state including chief taxing-master (ʿʒ n št)—had some authority over tax revenues.
The right of the state to demand human labor is reflected in the term bʒkw, which can mean a person's “work” or “labor.” There is also the term bḥ, mentioned in the Nauri Exemption Decree of Sety I to denote compulsory labor, specifically for cultivating and harvesting fields. Bḥ might also apply to the work of weavers of a state institution, as well as quarry workers and construction laborers. The Nauri Decree also mentions brt as a type of compulsory labor. Brt also occurs in a model letter (Papyrus Anastasi II) where the plight of a stablemaster's maidservant made to serve in the bryt “hired gang” (?) suggests some kind of compulsory labor. In the same text, the stablemaster's retainer labors in Troia (modern Turah), where limestone was quarried, possibly in fulfillment of the corvée.
The term ἰnw is usually translated as “tribute”—that is, the obligatory contribution of subject foreign governments to the annual general levy. Ineni, architect of Thutmose I, refers to “ἰnw of all foreign lands which His Majesty gave to the temple of Amun as an annual levy.” Although ἰnw had flowed into Egypt as far back as the Old Kingdom, references to it as a rich source of revenue multiply during the New Kingdom, when the conquests of warrior pharaohs brought more and more foreign territory under Egypt's sway. Foreign lands were increasingly treated as part of Egypt herself, and their towns as Egyptian cities with an obligation to contribute to the annual levy administered by mayors and other officials. ἰnw might consist of silver, gold, lapis, precious stones, chariots, horses, and cattle, as well as people to labor as servants and serfs; however, the word can also denote the “gift” or “special addition” given by kings or nomarchs to towns, as in the case of the nomarch Kheti I's gift of an irrigation system to Asyut in the First Intermediate Period.
Third Intermediate Period and Late Period
For the Third Intermediate Period there is sparse documentation of taxation. The annual general levy is described, however, in a stela of Sheshonq I, founder of the twenty-second dynasty, that celebrates the king's offerings to the temple of Harsaphes in Herakleopolis. Sheshonq restored the annual levy for the daily ox-offering on the towns and villages of the Herakleopolitan nome after the cult had fallen into neglect. A perpetual annual “quota”(?) of the levy (tp n ḥtr) consisting of 365 oxen is identified as the responsibility of individual Herakleopolitan towns and officials. The system of provisioning the temple bears striking similarities to that employed by Solomon, a near contemporary of Sheshonq I, and suggests that the Hebrew king utilized the system long employed by Egyptian kings to maintain various institutions under government authority.
Another reference to taxation comes in the twenty-fifth dynasty Piya Stela in the context of the offer by Peftjawybast, Libyan ruler of Herakleopolis in Middle Egypt, of his allegiance to the conquering Kushite pharaoh. This inscription, from Piya's temple at Gebel Barkal in Nubia, pledges that Herakleopolis will be taxed for the benefit of the house of Piya. This is an example of the use of the general annual levy for the maintenance of royal residences.
When the Kushite pharaoh Taharqa was crowned at Memphis, he restored the temples of Kawa in Nubia dedicated to Amun-Re, giving them gifts of “the wives of the princes of Lower Egypt” and the “children of the princes of the Tjehenu” to function as temple servants. Thus, conquests in the Nile Delta may have brought Libyan and other Lower Egyptian captives to the service of a Kushite pharaoh, much as pharaohs of the New Kingdom brought their foreign war captives to Egypt as prisoners to be supported by the general annual levy.
The Louvre Stela of Psamtek I, founder of the twenty-sixth dynasty, provides evidence of the levy placed on officials of occupied foreign territories for the benefit of the royal residence; it may be compared with the taxing of Herakleopolis for the benefit of the house of Piya. Both texts recall passages in the Edict of Horemheb where certain levies supplied royal residences, including harems, and the nineteenth dynasty Gurob Fragments, where levies may have supplied the harem of Mi-wer.
The Naukratis Stela of Nektanebo I, founder of the thirtieth dynasty, documents a 10 percent tax levied on imports from the Aegean to Naukratis, a city in the western Delta, for the benefit of the temple of Neith at Sais. The Saite pharaoh Amasis had shrewdly confined the activities of Greek merchants to Naukratis to exclude them from Egyptian-controlled ports in the eastern Delta. Revenue from a 10 percent tax on profits from the Greek monopoly at Naukratis was also given to the temple of Neith as payment for daily offerings. The Ptolemaic “Famine Stela” from the island of Sehel, at the First Cataract of the Nile, attributed to the third dynasty pharaoh Djoser, also describes a transit tax of 10 percent. The stela claims that after a seven-year famine, Djoser gave Khnum of Elephantine the gift of a large tract of land in Lower Nubia subject to various taxes, which added value to the donation. A 10 percent transit tax is also mentioned as levied on all gold, ivory, timber, and other goods imported into Egypt from southern regions and on any persons accompanying them.
The conquest of Egypt by Alexander in 332 BCE put the power to levy taxes in Egypt into the hands of Kleomenes of Naukratis. With the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, the administration of Egypt came under the Greek general Ptolemy, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemaic kings, who styled themselves pharaohs, won the support of the ancient priesthoods with donations of land and other wealth, the building of new temples, and the restoration of old foundations. These were wise policies in light of periodic rebellions against the foreign rulers. These donations and building activities, however, required the raising of sizable tax revenues.
Rulers such as Ptolemy II Philadelphus made certain that the monarchy benefited from the lucrative concessions and monopolies that privileged temples enjoyed, as well as from protective tariffs. The contemporary Zenon Archives provide figures for the port of Pelusium in the eastern Delta which indicate that protective tariffs on such imports as wool, oil, and wine, ranging from 20 to 50 percent, generated sizable revenue. A tax on ferries, one of the oldest sources of revenue for nomarchs, also enriched the central government.
When Egypt came under Roman rule in the time of Augustus, a complex array of old and new taxes levied on such items as land, persons, occupations and services, sales and transfers, real and personal property, and the transit of goods and people was exacerbated by an increase in the efficiency of the system of tax collection. This system provided ample opportunity for rapacious officials to gouge a population resentful of corrupt administration but powerless to alter it. Finally, in 313 CE, following on the administrative reforms of Diocletian, a new system of calculating and collecting tax revenue was introduced that brought Egypt closer to the administrative structure of the Roman Empire.
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Sally L. D. Katary