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HomeAfricaStressed About Taxes? Blame the Ancient Egyptians

Stressed About Taxes? Blame the Ancient Egyptians

The civilization developed the world’s first known tax system around 3000 B.C.E.

Kate McMahon

April 3, 2024

Facsimile of an agricultural scene found in the tomb chapel of Nakht, a scribe and astronomer who probably lived during the reign of Thutmose IV Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From mummified pharaohs to the Great Pyramid of Giza, ancient Egyptian iconography dominates the modern world. But few realize that the Egyptians also left behind a more practical legacy: taxes and the principles of administrative government.

The world’s earliest known system of taxation emerged in Egypt at the dawn of civilization itself, around 3000 B.C.E., when the First Dynasty unified Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt. Ancient Mesopotamia soon followed suit. The practice persisted for millennia, continuing after the fall of ancient Egypt in the first century B.C.E. and into the present day. But while Egypt’s tax systems evolved and diversified over the course of the civilization’s existence, the basic concept remained the same: The state levied taxes to pay for its operations and maintain social order. After all, the Egyptians always had royal building projects and foreign wars to fund.

The legacy of ancient Egyptian administration and diverse systems of taxation, from income taxes to custom taxes, is highly visible in modern forms of government, says Toby Wilkinson, an Egyptologist at the University of Cambridge in England and the author of The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.

An illustration of the threshing of grain in ancient Egypt Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“The fundamental basis of human society has not shifted in 5,000 years,” Wilkinson explains. “You can recognize a variety of techniques of government invented in ancient Egypt that haven’t changed [today].”