Following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 CE (or Islamic conquest, it’s frequently referred to as both or either), a new tax was added to the growing list of impositions placed on the country’s population: the poll tax, payable by all non-Muslim adult males. For over two centuries after the conquest, the majority of Egyptians were Christian, creating at least in theory a considerable body of men liable for paying this tax.
A large body of documentation survives concerning how taxes were managed, including registers, demands, and receipts. Letters from or to tax officers also reveal different aspects of the system, especially problems. Of the Coptic evidence from the eighth century, one letter in particular stands out. It was written from a Muslim official, Ibrāhīm ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān to a Christian man, Theodore, from the village Titkooh (closely linked with the monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit near Hermopolis).
“So that you know that I have appointed Serenos over you to [collect? the] tax. I have not appointed him over you so that he may pay anything for you. So then, pay the stipulated amount as your instalment. Collect and bring it to this person (i.e., Serenos). If you seek to break anything in it, I will send one who will extract it from your bones.” (P.Mich.Copt. 15)
Chilling stuff. The threat is not subtle. The content is direct, without any framing that is typical of letters. How should we understand this short text? Is its tone reflective of increasing tensions between the minority Muslim rulers and the Christian majority? Or was religion not a factor and the harsh warning is issued from a frustrated tax official to a non-paying citizen? Threatening tax officials aren’t exactly unfamiliar nowadays, and neither is tax evasion, for which the evidence in the ancient world is ripe (and if the tax man can bring down Al Capone …).
Other letters from the same period show much more conciliatory language between Muslims and Christians. A roughly contemporary letter (it, like the previous one, is not dated) from Ṣāliḥ to Chael son of John concerns an instruction for the latter to collect and deliver money. However, the tone is much gentler and polite, and Ṣāliḥ calls Chael ‘my beloved brother’ (CPR II 237). Taking each letter in isolation seems to present very different pictures of relationships between Muslims and Christians. Yet, religion is just one part of the story and the true nature of relationships are more complex: do the parties know each other, what are their respective roles in the situations, where does power lie? Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, but that’s only one way to look at things.
Provenance: Titkooh, Hermopolite nome. Egypt.
Date: 8th century.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Papyrology collection, University of Michigan (inv. 6861).
Bibliography: A. Delattre (2015) ‘Le monastère de Baouît et l’administration arabe’, in Documents and the History of the Early Islamic World, edited by A. T. Schubert and P. M. Sijpesteijn, pp. 43–49 (Leiden: Brill).