Revolt on the Nile: Economic Shocks, Religion, and Political Power


  • Eric Chaney

    1. Dept. of Economics, Harvard University, Littauer Center, Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.;
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    • I thank CREI and IAS, Princeton for hosting me while part of this project was carried out, and I thank numerous individuals and seminar participants for helpful suggestions. I particularly thank a co-editor and four anonymous referees for detailed suggestions and comments that significantly improved the paper. The library staff at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Manuscripts Orientaux greatly facilitated the Nile data transcription. An appendix that provides a detailed description of the data, additional results, and sensitivity checks is available in the Supplemental Material (Chaney (2013)). I am responsible for any remaining errors.


Using centuries of Nile flood data, I document that during deviant Nile floods, Egypt's highest-ranking religious authority was less likely to be replaced and relative allocations to religious structures increased. These findings are consistent with historical evidence that Nile shocks increased this authority's political influence by raising the probability he could coordinate a revolt. I find that the available data provide support for this interpretation and weigh against some of the most plausible alternatives. For example, I show that while Nile shocks increased historical references to social unrest, deviant floods did not increase a proxy for popular religiosity. Together, the results suggest an increase in the political power of religious leaders during periods of economic downturn.