Malthus in the Middle East

Using the 1848 and 1868 Egyptian population censuses, this paper shows that Egyptian rural families were barely regulating fertility in the mid-19th century, and that the rural population was controlled instead via (very) high child mortality rates. Rural middle-class men (mainly village headmen) had higher fertility than unskilled workers, because of their higher polygyny rates, and not because of greater fertility within marriage.

A common explanation for the transition to modern economic growth is the fertility transition, which lead to greater investment in children, lower population pressures, and increased female labour force participation. Therefore, capturing the demographic dividend by decreasing fertility via family planning in developing regions such as the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia has often been a key goal in recent development programs. However, the fertility transition is not the only historical change in fertility patterns.

The Middle Eastern marriage pattern 

Preceding the transition, few societies were successfully regulating fertility well below natural fertility with important implications. For example, Hajnal (1965) documented a (Western) European Marriage Pattern (EMP) as a consequence of late marriage and high celibacy that restricted fertility at the extensive margin. The reduction of fertility, and therefore population pressure, via the EMP has been used to explain the rise of Western Europe during the early modern period owing to factors such as greater female labour force participation and human capital formation. By way of contrast, East Asia had a pattern of low marital fertility (via longer breastfeeding and infanticide), early marriage, and low celibacy, suggesting fertility regulation within marriage. Both cases enabled the regulation of fertility leading to lower population pressures.

Was fertility regulation a common phenomenon across the pre-transition world? A surprising finding from our study on rural Egypt in the mid-19th century — the first detailed study from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) — is that Egypt was barely regulating fertility. The female total marital fertility rate (TFMR) at age 21-45 was 7.2 percent in Egypt, which is comparable to the 7-9 percent found in Western Europe, and much higher than the TFMR of 5.7 percent in Japan during 1665-1871, and 3.8-4.76 in northeast China during 1789-1907. Therefore, Egypt had a high level of fertility within marriages. Simultaneously, all but six percent of Egyptian women were marrying by the mean age of 18 years. This contrasts with pre-transition Western Europe where women married at the mean age of 25 years while over 11 percent of women remained celibate. Consequently, Egypt had a uniquely high fertility regime, but we also find suggestive evidence that relatively high mortality partially counteracted this. 

Table 1. International Comparisons of Marriage and Fertility

Beyond aggregate fertility

The patterns of fertility at the household level may also play a role in economic development. For example, we now know of a positive income elasticity in fertility generated by earlier age at marriage of wives among the rich (Clark and Hamilton, 2006; De La Croix et al., 2019; Cummins, 2020). However, it is unclear whether these past findings, mainly from Western Europe and East Asia, will apply to the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa where polygyny rates were high.

In the case of Egypt, we find that rural white-collar men – mainly village headmen who were medium landholders and not the urban upper class – had significantly higher fertility than men in lower occupations, as has been found for other populations. Furthermore, white-collar workers’ higher fertility was not driven by their higher marital fertility (see Figure 1c). Instead, we show that they had a higher marriage rate, lower wife’s age at marriage, and a higher polygyny rate. These findings are consistent with the findings from pre-industrial Western societies showing the lack of targeting in marital fertility (Clark et al., 2020), and the use of the timing of marriage to regulate fertility.

Figure 1. Male general fertility by category

However, unlike Western societies, we find that polygyny functioned as a powerful mechanism in generating positive income elasticity in Egyptian fertility. This is not surprising given that 12 percent of white-collar men were polygynous, as opposed to 5 percent in the whole male population. We show this by comparing fertility among only monogamous men and both polygynous and monogamous men (see Figure 1). As explained earlier, monogamous men had similar marital fertility across classes. However, once we account for polygyny in Figure 1b, we find that white-collar men have significantly higher fertility. This seems to explain 70 percent of the fertility differences across occupations when we estimate fertility among all men (both married and non-married) while the remainder is likely explained by differences in marriage age and marriage rates. Therefore, polygyny was the major channel by which the Egyptian rural bourgeoisie could out-breed the poor.

We believe these findings may have important implications for the region as a whole. At the aggregate level, the region may have had a similarly high fertility pattern which could explain the region’s relatively low wages (Ozmucur and Pamuk, 2002; Pamuk and Shatzmiller, 2014). At the individual level, polygyny was practised widely in this region ranging from four to 15 percent among married men. As polygyny was generally practiced by the rich, it may have played an important role in driving the fertility differentials between the rich and the poor.


Clark, G., Cummins, N., and Curtis, M. (2020). Twins support the absence of parity-dependent fertility control in pretransition populations. Demography, 57(4):1571- 1595.

Clark, G. and Hamilton, G. (2006). Survival of the richest: the Malthusian mechanism in pre-industrial England. Journal of Economic History, 66(3):707–736.

Cummins, N. (2020). The micro-evidence for the Malthusian system. France, 1670- 1840. European Economic Review, 129, 103544.

Kumon, Y., Saleh, M. (2023). The Middle-Eastern marriage pattern? Malthusian dynamics in nineteenth-century Egypt. The Economic History Review, 76(4): 1231-1258.

De La Croix, D., Schneider, E. B., and Weisdorf, J. (2019). Childlessness, celibacy and net fertility in pre-industrial England: the middle-class evolutionary advantage. Journal of Economic Growth, 24:223-256.

Hajnal, J. (1965). European marriage patterns in perspective. In D. V. Glass & D. E. C. Eversley (Eds.), Population in History. Essays in Historical Demography. Volume I: General and Great Britain. Routledge. 

Ozmucur, S. and Pamuk, S¸. (2002). Real wages and standards of living in the Ottoman Empire, 1489-1914. Journal of Economic History, 62(2):293-321.

Pamuk, S¸. and Shatzmiller, M. (2014). Plagues, wages, and economic change in the Islamic Middle East, 700–1500. The Journal of Economic History, 74(1):196–229.

Feature image: Cairo in the 19th century.

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