I still remember the day I received my first paycheck–the sense of pride, the accomplishment. I also remember the shock as I realised for the first time just how much tax the government had taken out of my earnings before the money had even reached my hands.
It’s an old adage that death and taxes are the two constants we can expect from life, but some taxes throughout history have been decidedly worse than others. The 14th century Middle East illustrates the point. At the time, the region had suffered not only the turmoil of failing governments, but also the fear of conquest as the warrior Timur gobbled up more and more territory for himself.
A city besieged by Timur had two choices: to surrender, or to resist. Timur himself preferred surrender, and gladly offered protection to cities who chose to do so, but there was a catch. He would accept your surrender and guarantee your safety only if you agreed to the payment of an extensive ransom. This payment would be gathered by a group of Timur’s tax-collectors, who went from house to house in order to strip the city’s valuables.
Accompanying the tax-collectors was a squad of torturers. If they suspected you were holding out on them, or someone else had told them you were hiding your valuables, they were ordered to torture you until you revealed the location of your hidden wealth. As if this weren’t bad enough, any city whose people harassed the tax collectors, or refused to pay, would suffer a terrible and absolute reprisal.
Such was the fate of Isfahan, a city captured by Timur that rebelled against the tax collectors in 1388. What ensued was the slaughter of the men, the violation of the women, the enslavement of the survivors, and the starvation of those left behind. Tens of thousands were estimated to have been killed, and contemporary chroniclers have reported that Timur left pyramids of skulls outside the city as a testament to its fate.
Compared to his acts, which were only the worst of the atrocities committed in his time, the IRS seems positively benevolent.
Further examples of Timurid coins, art, and architecture can be found online at The David Collection.