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Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt: A Study of al-Nabulusi’s Villages of the Fayyum

Author(s):Rapoport, Yossef
Reviewer(s):Saleh, Mohamed

Published by EH.Net (July 2019)

Yossef Rapoport, Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt: A Study of al-Nabulusi’s Villages of the Fayyum. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers. 2018. xxix + 285 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-2-503-57518-6.

Review for EH.Net by Mohamed Saleh, Toulouse School of Economics (TSE).

Only a few locations around the world have a well-preserved record of their human settlement since antiquity, with a level of detail, length of time period, and quality, that is comparable to that of Fayyum. This fertile depression in Egypt’s western desert, which has been irrigated via a canal stemming from the Nile River since antiquity, has a fascinating wealth of archeological, papyrological, and archival records, spanning the ancient Egyptian, Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine, medieval, and modern periods.

While the archeological and papyrological evidence typically has not survived in full, one source stands out as an unusually comprehensive source on medieval Fayyum. It is al-Nabulusi’s thesis, Villages of the Fayyum. The uniqueness of this thesis stems from its level of detail. The author, who was a high-level bureaucrat from Cairo and who visited Fayyum in the mid-thirteenth century, had access to the province’s detailed tax registers. What he did with these registers was pretty unusual compared to other bureaucrats from the period, though: He published the village-level tax tabulations in his thesis! And given the literary character of his book, it survived.

In this fascinating book, Yossef Rapoport, a leading historian of the medieval Middle East, draws on a detailed analysis of al-Nabulusi’s book, and in particular his tax data, in order to draw a picture of the economy of Fayyum under the Ayyubids (1171-1250). In the second part of the book, Rapoport employs the data, along with other primary and secondary sources, in order to construct a novel revisionist narrative of the ethnoreligious composition of Fayyum’s population in the thirteenth century.

The first part of the book is about Fayyum’s economy. After an introduction in Chapter 1 on Fayyum’s geography and on al-Nabulusi (which is important to appreciate the direction and degree of bias of the data source), Chapter 2 provides a brief survey of the history of Fayyum since the Ptolemaic period. Chapter 3 describes Fayyum’s cultivated area, irrigation system, and population size, based on al-Nabulusi’s narrative. Chapters 4 and 5 estimate the size of subsistence versus commercial agriculture. The most important subsistence crop was wheat, but there were also barley and fava beans. Cash crops included rice, cotton, flax, and most importantly, sugarcane. The main question that Rapoport addresses is: Did the Ayyubids’ attempts to expand on the cultivation of sugarcane in their crown estates crowd out wheat? It has been suggested that the state expansion of sugar plantations forced farmers to leave their land and reduced the area of subsistence agriculture. But Rapoport’s answer based on the tax figures, is that it did not. Chapter 6 describes the iqta‘ system of land tenure. Under this system that emerged under the Ayyubids, the Sultan granted each military leader the tax collection rights of a certain village (or a set of villages), as a method of payment instead of salaries. In return, iqta‘ holders were required to provide the Sultan with soldiers and equipment at war times. By the time of al-Nabulusi, iqta‘ grants became fragmented, which presumably inhibited investment on the part of iqta‘ holders.

The second part of the book deals with the ethnoreligious composition of Fayyum’s population. Chapter 7 describes the tribal affiliation of Fayyum’s population according to al-Nabulusi. Interestingly, thirteenth-century Fayyum was entirely tribal (Arab). Every (settled) village either had an Arab (Bedouin) tribal affiliation or was under the protection of an Arab tribe. Here, Rapoport rejects the usual dichotomy of farmers versus Bedouins, which often appears in the historical literature, by demonstrating that Fayyum’s sedentary farmers were tribal, i.e. Bedouins. Chapter 8 moves on to the religious composition of Fayyum by showing that Coptic Christians were a small minority in the province, judging from the small number of poll-tax payers in al-Nabulusi’s account. Chapter 9 presents Rapoport’s central thesis: Fayyum was a Coptic-majority province until the eleventh century. How was it transformed into a Muslim-majority (and Arab-majority) province by the thirteenth century? This can be explained by Arab immigration to Egypt. But Rapoport persuasively rejects this narrative, because it is not realistic. Even if there were Arab immigration (a narrative that Rapoport rejects as partially mythological), where did the local Coptic population go? Did it simply “vanish” over the course of one century? Rapoport argues instead that the process that explains the rapid Islamization and Arabization of the Fayyum is that its Coptic population converted to Islam and adopted an Arab tribal affiliation, perhaps because of the high poll tax burden.

This is an important book and provides a novel revisionist narrative. It also builds a needed bridge between historians and social scientists who are interested in Middle Eastern history. It challenges the notion of a fixed identity or group membership (e.g. Muslim or Arab), which is an implicit assumption of much of literature on cultural economics and the economics of religion. My own work on taxation and conversions in medieval Egypt (Saleh 2018) is very much in line with Rapoport’s thesis and earlier work. His book further provides an in-depth micro-historical analysis of an important province, and is able to trace not only Islamization, but also Arabization. While economists of culture and religion admit the endogeneity of both, they tend to focus more on the causal impact of culture and religion on economic outcomes, often assuming that belonging to a culture or a religion is a fixed trait. They also tend to model cultural evolution as an endogenous process of vertical or horizontal transmission, rather than a historical outcome that can be affected by deliberate policy interventions, such as taxation. However, culture, religion, or the ethnoreligious identity of one’s ancestors may itself be an imaginary social construct and a historical outcome. Converts of Fayyum adopted an Arab and Muslim identity and “denied” their Coptic and Christian past.

The book opens new and exciting areas of research. First, the discussion of the distribution of water rights in Fayyum makes one wonder if access to water rights may have been an important factor in determining the conversion and Arabization decision of villages, in addition to that of taxation. Second, the timing of Fayyum’s conversion to Islam is a fascinating topic. Rapoport suggests that this happened in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Saleh (2018) suggests that most conversions in Egypt happened by the twelfth century, based on Abul-Makarim (1200)’s list of churches and monasteries. Perhaps, the combination of Abul-Makarim’s list, the papyrological records on taxation for Fayyum in 641-1100, and al-Nabulusi’s data, may shed light on this point. Third, the subsequent cadastral surveys for Egypt under the Mamluks in 1375 and 1477, the sixteenth-century Ottoman cadaster (Nicolas 2015), and the modern population censuses from 1848 and 1868 (Saleh 2013), provide additional data points for Fayyum, which will be interesting to combine with al-Nabulusi’s account.


Abul-Makarim, G. (1984 [1200]). Tarikh al-kana‘is wa al-adyira (History of Churches and Monasteries). Dar-Al-Na‘am, Cairo. Anba-Samuel (Ed.).

Nicolas, M. (2018). L’Égypte des villages autour du seizième siècle. Peeters, Louvain.

Saleh, M. (2013). “A Pre-Colonial Population Brought to Light: Digitization of the Nineteenth-Century Egyptian Censuses.” Historical Methods, 46 (1): 5¬–18.

Saleh, M. (2018). “On the Road to Heaven: Taxation, Conversions, and the Coptic-Muslim Socioeconomic Gap in Medieval Egypt.” Journal of Economic History, 78 (2): 394–434.

Mohamed Saleh’s other publications include “Public Mass Modern Education, Religion, and Human Capital in Twentieth-Century Egypt,” Journal of Economic History (September 2016) and “Occupational Structure in Egypt in 1848-2006”, in Occupational Structure and Industrialization in a Comparative Perspective, Osamu Saito, and Leigh Shaw-Taylor (eds.), Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval