• On the Road to Heaven

    poll tax receipt

    An interesting paper written by my colleague Mohamed Saleh, relates the fact that today in Egypt non-Muslims are, on average, better off than the Muslim majority to the imposition of the poll tax on non-Muslims upon the Islamic Conquest of the then-Coptic Christian Egypt in 640. The main mechanism here is self-selection among the Copts, with the poorer converting to Islam to avoid paying the regressive tax.


    In the Middle East, non-Muslims are, on average, better off than the Muslim majority. I trace the origins of the phenomenon in Egypt to the imposition of the poll tax on non-Muslims upon the Islamic Conquest of the then-Coptic Christian Egypt in 640. The tax, which remained until 1855, led to the conversion of poor Copts to Islam to avoid paying the tax, and to the shrinking of Copts to a better off minority. Using new data sources that I digitized, including the 1848 and 1868 census manuscripts, I provide empirical evidence to support the hypothesis. I find that the spatial variation in poll tax enforcement and tax elasticity of conversion, measured by four historical factors, predicts the variation in the Coptic population share in the 19th century, which is, in turn, inversely related to the magnitude of the Coptic-Muslim gap, as predicted by the hypothesis. The four factors are: (i) the 8th and 9th centuries tax revolts, (ii) the Arab immigration waves to Egypt in the 7th to 9th centuries, (iii) the Coptic churches and monasteries in the 12th and 15th centuries, and (iv) the route of the Holy Family in Egypt. I draw on a wide range of qualitative evidence to support these findings.

    This paper is an example of a recent string of contributions, which trace today’s development outcomes to specific historical episodes, such as Melissa Dell’s paper on the Peruvian Mita, or Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon’s paper on the long term impact of the slave trade on trust in Africa.

    Of course, unearthing the channels at play in the long term transmission of the initial determinants, and illustrating them empirically is often the trickiest and more speculative part of these exercises. The development of historical databases, such as the project Mohamed is conducting on Egypt, is an important step in this direction.

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