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 EgyptAn 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].”

For most of its history, ancient Egypt levied taxes on goods, with officials collecting dues in the form of grain, textiles, labor, cattle and other commodities. The amount of taxes owed was often linked to agriculture, with a certain percentage of a field’s harvest earmarked for state-run granaries or administrative storage centers. Interestingly, taxes were adjusted for field productivity—a parallel to modern income tax brackets, with different categories established based on the amount of wealth incurred.

Generally, a field with a more successful harvest would be taxed at a higher percentage, says Juan Carlos Moreno García, a senior researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Diagram of the nilometer on Elephantine Island Diagram of the nilometer on Elephantine Island Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 


“Fields were taxed in different ways, and the rate was dependent on the individual field productivity and the fertility and quality of the soil,” says Moreno Garcia. “But the government was determining the base tax rate dependent on the height of the Nile.”

On Elephantine, an island in Upper Egypt, 19th-century archaeologists discovered a nilometer, a sprawling staircase used to measure the Nile’s flood levels. (Remnants of other nilometers can be found in the ancient city of Thmuis, on Rhoda Island and elsewhere in Egypt.) If the water rose above a marked line, it signaled flooded fields and a poor harvest; if it fell too low, that meant a drought and dying crops.

“Too much water was just as bad as too little water,” says Wilkinson. “Egypt was fundamentally an agricultural economy, and it depended entirely on the Nile. We have records of measurements of the height of the Nile dating back to the time of the unification of Egypt, so we can assume this formed the basis of early taxation.”

Illustration of officials seizing peasants for forced labor due to nonpayment of taxes Illustration of officials seizing peasants for forced labor due to nonpayment of taxes Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


The harvest tax provided a critical source of revenue for the state’s coffers. But the Egyptian state needed more than just grain—it also required labor. This was provisioned under the corvée system, in which all Egyptians under the rank of official could be conscripted by the state to work on public projects, taking on tasks like tilling fields, mining quarries, and building temples and tombs.

In addition to determining tax rates and types of taxes, the ancient Egyptians developed multiple methods of tax collection. During the Old Kingdom, which spanned roughly 2649 to 2130 B.C.E., the crown taxed communities collectively, ordering estate owners to hand over goods contributed by their retainers. Around this same time, the Egyptians pioneered the concept of a central government headed by the pharaoh, with smaller provinces known as nomes under the administration of local authorities.

To ensure that nomarchs (provincial governors) were accurately reporting their district’s wealth, Old Kingdom pharaohs conducted an annual or biannual tour of the kingdom. Known as the Shemsu Hor (Following of Horus), the visits allowed the ruler to collect taxes directly instead of trusting a third-party tax collector or depending on the honesty of local authorities. Additionally, writes Wilkinson in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, the ritual “allowed the monarch to be a visible presence in the life of his subjects [and] enabled his officials to keep a close eye on everything that was happening in the country at large.”

Harvest scenes from the tomb of Menna Harvest scenes from the tomb of Menna Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 


Under the Middle Kingdom (2030 to 1650 B.C.E.), the crown started taxing subjects on an individual level. The pharaoh’s annual tour fell out of favor, replaced by scribes who kept meticulous records of how much was owed and who still needed to pay. This shift in tax collection strategy was only achievable due to a spike in literacy and subsequent increase in the number of available scribes.

Most physical evidence of taxation in ancient Egypt dates to the peak of the civilization’s recordkeeping: the New Kingdom (1550 to 1070 B.C.E.), when a fleet of tax collectors and scribes kept the Royal Treasury’s coffers fully stocked. Many New Kingdom pharaohs used the taxes collected by these officials to erect major monuments and throw grandiose jubilee celebrations.

In another parallel to the present, the Egyptians invented not only the basis of governance but also its pitfalls, pioneering the concepts of tax fraud, evasion and corruption. Scribes and nomarchs would often cooperate to underreport numbers to the state and keep the surplus, or charge peasants more than their fair share. At the same time, taxpayers invented creative ways to avoid paying their dues. Weighted scales used to measure grain, for instance, could be easily manipulated.

Scribe statuettes from a model granary found in the tomb of the Egyptian nobleman Meketre Scribe statuettes from a model granary found in the tomb of the Egyptian nobleman Meketre Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


“People would sneak stones in the grain to meet the taxed weight for their fields,” Wilkinson says. “The problem grew so profuse, there were royal edicts issued telling people not to cheat the system.”

Around the turn of the 13th century B.C.E., the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Horemheb issued an edict stating that both tax extortion and evasion could be punished by removal of the nose and exile. This declaration reasserted the populace’s duty to pay the pharaoh and his kingdom, as everything in the state was understood to belong to the pharaoh.

Despite the fact that their society revolved around unwavering faith in the pharaoh, who was seen as the mediator between mankind and the divine, the ancient Egyptians weren’t overly enthusiastic about taxes. Much like today, citizens publicly protested the practice. Some complaints centered on unfair tax assessments: As a New Kingdom priest wrote in a letter, “You shall go with the standard-bearer Ptahemmaini and report to the vizier concerning the excessive silver that the retainer Iay tells me to give, for it is not my due tax at all.”

Statue of the pharaoh Horemheb (right) with the god Amun (left) Statue of the pharaoh Horemheb (right) with the god Amun (left) Prof. Mortel via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0


Egyptians’ discontent with systems of taxation was compounded by foreign occupation and the introduction of hard currency in the mid-first millennium B.C.E. When the Persians and later the Macedonians occupied Egypt, they introduced metal coinage and proceeded to levy taxes against the native population.

“The introduction of coins as currency was extremely practical,” says Moreno Garcia. “It allowed the state to collect one taxed revenue as opposed to diverse resources. The state could just exchange coins for exactly what [it] needed.”

But Egyptians complained about paying taxes to foreign entities, and they bemoaned corrupt officials skimming off the top. By the time Ptolemy V assumed the throne around 204 B.C.E., the Egyptians were already rebelling against their Macedonian occupiers. Wanting to appease the native population, the Ptolemaic king sought to alter the tax rate for select influential groups, like high priests at major temples.

The Rosetta StoneThe Rosetta Stone Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0


Ptolemy declared the temples tax-exempt to curry their favor. His success in this department is reflected by the Rosetta Stone, which displayed a decree issued by a council of Egyptian priests in 196 B.C.E., on the anniversary of Ptolemy’s coronation. One of the most famous archaeological finds in history, the stone slab allowed scholars to decipher hieroglyphs for the first time, presenting the same statement in hieroglyphic script, Demotic and ancient Greek. But its contents were relatively mundane, simply spelling out the pharaoh’s many accomplishments, among them reinstating tax exemptions for temples and “causing the soldiers and those who live in the country to be prosperous.”

As Edward Dolnick, author of The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, told Smithsonian magazine in 2022, the slab was essentially “a propaganda poster carved in stone,” touting the ruler’s achievements as a way of justifying the priests’ support of him.

“There were plenty of times tax exemptions were used in ancient Egypt as a political maneuver,” says Moreno Garcia. “Throughout history, pharaohs consistently issued decrees saying certain individuals or temples did not have to pay taxes.”

In ancient Egypt, temples dedicated to specific religious cults or gods functioned as lucrative businesses. Temples accumulated vast wealth and resources that the state then taxed—at least until it became politically expedient to declare big (religious) business tax-exempt.

Other parallels between taxation in ancient Egypt and modern societies abound. The wealthy often received tax breaks. Taxes were a tool to win political favor. Corruption ran rampant, and people often griped about taxes. That, too, is ancient Egypt’s legacy.

“This is what is interesting about studying ancient civilizations: You recognize patterns and processes and techniques of governments,” says Wilkinson. “We can recognize how basic techniques of governance developed in the world’s first nation-state are still used in all the nation-states today. We might think we’re living in very modern societies, but in the way that governments exercise control and authority, we’re still living in the Bronze Age.”

Kate McMahon is a freelance journalist focused on science, history and travel. She’s currently based in Egypt.