The Tax Register

In 1243, al-Nābulusī, a high-ranking official in the Ayyubid administration of Egypt, was ordered to travel to the Fayyum and to prepare a report on the agricultural conditions in the province. The exceptional productivity of the Fayyum was renowned since antiquity, but its fiscal revenues were now perceived to be in decline. Al-Nābulusī was therefore sent under direct orders from the Ayyubid sultan al-Ṣāliḥ Najm al-Dīn Ayyūb (r. 1240-1249) to inspect the province and to suggest ways to amend this situation. He produced an extraordinary text, known today as ‘the History of the Fayyum’ Arabic: Ta’rīkh al-Fayyūm), which is the focus of this project.

The Author

Abū ‘Uthmān al-Nābulusī al-Ṣafadī al-Shafi‘ī was Born in Egypt on 27 December, 1192 [his name appears slightly different in the Aya Sofia Manuscript (see below): Sheikh Fakhr al-Dīn ‘Uthmān Ibn al-Nābulusī al-Shafi‘ī]. His father's family had escaped to Egypt following the Crusader occupation of Palestine, and their name indicates that they were originally from Nablus. The family included several learned men: His father was a shafi‘ite judge, and his maternal grandfather was the Hanbalī jurist Zayn al-Dīn al-Anṣārī, who famously denounced Saladin for executing the Yemeni poet ‘Umāra (Becker and Cahen 1958-60: 120).

Al-Nābulusi was recruited to government service by his patron, Fakhr al-Dīn ibn al-Sheikh, the principal advisor of al-Mālik al-Kāmil (r. 1218-1238). He specialized in financial auditing, and in this capacity he traveled through Egypt and wrote reports on the fiscal situation in the various regions of the country. By 1237-8 he had fallen out of favor, due to a conflict with Christian members of the Ayyubid bureaucracy. Possibly as a consequence of this episode, al-Nābulusī wrote a bitter treatise against the employment of Christians in the public service. He regained his position in the Ayyubid administration under the rule of al-Kāmil's son, al-Ṣāliḥ. 

We have no further information about the last decades of his life. He died in relative anonymity on April, 1262 (see Becker and Cahen 1958-60: 121).

Al-Nābulusī was a prolific author – we know of at least five works that he authored, three of which survived:

  • Kitāb luma‘ al-qawānīn al-muḍiyya fī dawāwīn al-diyār al-miṣriyya (a treatise on good financial administration; partial translation in Owen 1955; edited in Becker and Cahen 1958-60)
  • Tajrīd sayf al-himma li-istikhrāj mā fī dhimmat al- dhimma (a treatise against the employment of non-Muslims in state administration; partial edition in Cahen 1960).
  • Ḥusn al-sulūk fī faḍl malik miṣr ‘alā sā’ir al-mulūk (“The Proper Way of Praising the King of Egypt above All Other Kings”). The manuscript did not survive.
  • Kitāb ḥusn al-sarīra fī ittikhādh al-ḥisn bi’l-jazīra (a treatise praising the construction of the new citadel in Cairo by Sultan al-Ṣāliḥ Ayyūb). The manuscript did not survive. 

Iẓhār Ṣun‘at al-Ḥayy al-Qayyūm fī Tartīb Bilād al-Fayyūm (The present work).

The Treatise

Al-Nābulusī was sent to the Fayyum in 1243 in order to inspect the province and to suggest ways to increase its revenues. He stayed there for two months – a period that he describes as very difficult due to his loneliness, the harsh living conditions in the Fayyum, and the rustic character of the inhabitants. Nevertheless, he must have spent his time in the Fayyum wisely, for he was able to gather during these two months plentiful of information, which was later incorporated in his work.  

Al-Nābulusī had literary aspirations: He preceded the cadastral survey with nine introductory chapters elaborating the history, geography, climate, irrigation systems and population of the province. The inclusion of these chapters in TF turned the manuscript from an ordinary cadastral survey into a literary text. It is probably this unique attribute of the text which is responsible for its survival.

The bulk of the text (about 80%) is devoted to the cadastral survey itself, listing the taxes, fees and levies for more than 120 villages. In addition to the taxation data, al-Nābulusī also provides some general information for every village, such as the size of the village, its geographical location, the tribal or religious identity of its inhabitants, and more. See the database section for more details.

The Manuscripts

Three copies of the original treatise survive today: 

  • A printed version published in 1898 by B. Moritz, under the title Ta’rīkh al-Fayyum wa-bilādihi (Cairo: Publications de la Bibliothèque Khédiviale). The publication was prepared on the basis of a manuscript composed by Muḥammad Ibn Yūsuf al-Baṭāṭī al-Mālikī in AD 1447 . This manuscript was available to Moritz at the end of the 19th century, but it is now lost.
  • A hand-written manuscript prepared by Moritz in 1898 on the basis of the above-mentioned 15th-century manuscript. This modern manuscript is in the Dār al-Kutub Library in Cairo (MS Taʾrīkh 1594).
  • An independent manuscript copy held at the Aya Sofia library in Istanbul (MS no. 2960). This copy was prepared at the orders of an inspector of irrigation in the Fayyum and al-Bahansā, an amir called Jānim min Qaṣrūh, during either the fifteenth or the sixteenth century.  The claim by B. Moritz that this manuscript dates to 691 AH (AD 1292), is based on a catalog entry and is not confirmed by the evidence of the manuscript.  

In the translation and the database, we have used all three copies.  The published edition by Moritz is the most reliable, and it has been checked against the independent Aya Sofia copy, which dates from about the same time.  Typographical mistakes in the published edition were corrected by the use of the Dār al-Kutub modern manuscript.

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