The Fiscal-Commercial Complex: Taxation and Capital in Fatimid Egypt

This paper analyzes the intertwining of land taxation and merchant capital at a time when the Fatimid Caliphate was the regional hegemon of Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. The Fatimids’ powerhouse was Egypt, among the most fertile and densely populated regions of the preindustrial world, and strategically positioned to monopolize transit trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

The relevance of Fatimid Egypt is further enhanced by the availability of the Cairo Geniza. An extraordinary repository of more than 400,000 discarded leaves, the Geniza preserved hundreds of merchant letters, accounts, administrative documents, state decrees, and tax receipts, affording a quantity and quality of evidence unmatched until Ottoman era archives.

Triangulating between Geniza documents, Arabic papyri from the Egyptian countryside, and fiscal manuals penned by Fatimid bureaucrats, this paper will chronicle the unfolding of a profound transformation in the political economy of Egypt, arguing that Fatimid taxation policies opened the way for the rise of new class of merchant capitalists who combined super-profits from the spice trade with massive investments in agricultural production.