Those words, carved on the lintels of post offices across America, once capsuled a spirit that was the foundation of today's sophisticated network of global communications—a spirit that sent Western Union boys pedalling into the rain with telegrams, urged pioneering pilots to fly the early airmail letters through wintry skies to Chicago and spurred the Pony Express across the untamed plains with mail for Sacramento.
But those inspiring words are much older than airmail pilots, Western Union boys or Pony Express riders. They were written by Herodotus, the father of history, in 430 B.C., and described the communications network of Xerxes, ruler of Persia in the fifth century, B.C. It was a remarkably efficient network, but even then was a relatively late development in the history of communications.
The need for an efficient postal system goes back to the ancient need of a ruler for swift and accurate information, a need clearly described by Nizam al-Mulk, a prime minister under Seljuk Turkish sultans in the ninth century:
It is the king's duty to enquire into the conditions of his peasantry and army, both far and near, and to know more or less how things are. If he does not do this he is at fault and people will charge him with negligence, laziness and tyranny, saying, "Either the king knows about the oppression and extortion going on in the country, or he does not know. If he knows and does nothing to prevent it and remedy it, that is because he is an oppressor like the rest and acquiesces in their oppression; and if he does not know then he is negligent and ignorant." Neither of these imputations is desirable. Inevitably therefore he must have postmasters . . .
Long before al-Mulk set that down for the instruction of Seljuk princes, rulers in other empires had already come to similar conclusions and acted on them.
As early as 2000 B.C. the Egyptians had developed a primitive postal system, by about 1000 B.C. ancient China had worked out a system not unlike the one developed by America's Pony Express, and by the time of Islam other peoples—Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Sasanians—had refined and polished elements of the earlier systems into relatively sophisticated operations.
As the new Islamic state expanded, its leaders were quick to adapt and elaborate on what had been learned before. Indeed, the Arabic word for "post" (barid) is derived from the same Sasanian chancery term that gave the Greeks beredos and the Romans their veredus, meaning "post-horse." Both are derived from a Persian word meaning "crop-tailed mule," the mount the Sasanians used to carry the mail.
In the Islamic state, as Nizam al-Mulk's description suggests, the postal service was an information agency as well as a means of communication with the provinces. By the ninth century, as a result, the Diwan al-Barid—the Ministry of Posts and Communications—was probably the most important arm of government. Its postal inspectors, stationed along major roads, not only saw that the mail got through, but gathered information for the central government and sent periodic reports to it. Those reports ranged from the state of the roads to the condition of crops and included notes on political problems, social unrest and even the efficiency of the regional governor.
The barid was organized in exactly the same way as the Pony Express in the American West—except that it used camels and mules instead of horses. Every four to six miles throughout the empire was a post house with quarters for the couriers and stables for the camels and mules. At each post house the couriers would switch mounts and at stated intervals the riders themselves would be changed to avoid exhaustion. Even the back-up organization was similar: the central government had to keep the roads open at all times, provision the post houses and pay the wages of thousands of postal inspectors.
There were limitations: only government communications could be sent along its network. Ordinary citizens either sent messages by caravan or, in urgent cases, hired special couriers. Yet the system proved to be remarkably efficient. A letter took four days to reach Damascus from Cairo—just about what it takes today—and Cairo could communicate with Spain in a week. The system also survived longer.
Whereas the Pony Express collapsed after 16 months, the barid flourished for centuries and spread to India where Muslim rulers maintained its efficiency—as traveler Ibn Battuta indicated after a trip to Sind in 1333. From the frontier of Sind to Delhi in India, he wrote, is a 50-day march, "but when the intelligence officers write to the Sultan . . . the letter reaches him in five days by the postal service."
India also added an innovation. In addition to mounted couriers, they introduced foot couriers. These runners were often faster than the mounted postmen and always, as Ibn Battuta describes them, more colorful:
Every third of a mile there . . . are three pavilions. In these sit men girded up ready to move off, each of whom has a rod a yard and a half long with brass bells at the top. When a courier leaves . . . he takes the letter in the fingers of one hand and the rod with bells in the other, and runs with all his might. The men in the pavilions, on hearing the sound of the bells, prepare to meet him and when he reaches them one of them takes the letter in his hand and passes on, running with all his might and shaking his rod until he reaches the next station, and so the letter is passed on until it reaches its destination.
By such swift—and musical—couriers, Ibn Battuta goes on, the sultans not only accumulated intelligence and news, but also obtained fruits from far-away Khurasan, drinking water from the Ganges and, during the sweltering Indian summer, snow from the Himalayas to cool their beverages.
If efficient, however, the Islamic postal service was also vulnerable. Like their counterparts today, invaders knew that a government deprived of trustworthy information was powerless to act. By blocking roads and ambushing couriers they could disrupt communications and insure victory.
In some parts of the empire this strategy succeeded. But in others Islamic rulers came up with ingenious alternatives. One was an early warning system set up by the Mamluk sultans of Egypt when Hulagu Khan led his Mongol hordes across Persia in the middle of the 13th century. Fearful that the Mongols would cross the Euphrates and sweep across Iraq and Syria to Egypt., Mamluk engineers erected a chain of watchtowers along the postal routes between Iraq and Egypt. On top of each tower the prepared beacon fires—green wood for smoke signals in daylight, dry wood for bright fires at night—and assigned a corps of watchmen to 24-hour duty.
The system had faults and it could transmit just one basic message: the enemy has attacked. But it was astonishingly fast. News of a Mongol invasion could reach Cairo in eight hours—about the time it now takes to receive a telegram there from the same distance. More to the point, it worked. When the Mongols finally did sweep into Iraq the watchmen on the Euphrates lit their fires, the watchmen at the next tower lit theirs and, tower by tower, the alert flashed to the Mamluks. By the time the Mongols cut their way through Iraq, Syria and Palestine the Mamluks had had ample time to mobilize and were able to inflict a crushing defeat upon them—the first ever suffered by the Mongols in open combat.
During the Crusades, when even special couriers were intercepted or blocked, Mamluk leaders turned to courier pigeons.
They set up relays of dovecotes from Egypt to Iraq that could get a message from Cairo to Baghdad in two days. The pigeons were so efficient that the Crusaders themselves adopted the idea. One Crusader prince used them to announce his capture of Beirut and others carried pigeons back to England and Europe where, in 1850, Baron von Reuter used them to carry bulletins from Germany to Belgium and help found Reuters News Agency.
Under the Mamluks, only the Sultan himself could open a letter delivered by pigeon. All the pigeons bore the Sultan's mark, either on their beaks or on their feet, and the letters they carried were immediately brought to the Sultan even if he were asleep. At one point they became so numerous that they were divided into companies, each with its commandant, and lodged in special dovecotes near the Citadel. In the year 1300 the Mamluk postal service employed 1,900 pigeons whose careful training led a German soldier of fortune named Johan Schiltberger to compose a lengthy description:
It is also to be noted, that the [Mamluk Sultan] also sends letters by pigeons, because he has many enemies, and is afraid that they might stop his messengers. They are sent mostly from Archey to Tamasgen, between which places is a great desert. It is also to be noted, how the pigeons are sent to any city to which the Sultan wishes to have them sent. Two pigeons must be put together, and sugar must be put into their food, and they are not allowed to fly; and when they know each other well, the hen-pigeon is taken to the king, and he keeps it, and marks the cock-pigeon that it may be known from which city it is; it is then put into a separate place that is prepared, and the hen-pigeon is no longer allowed inside. They no longer give him so much to eat, and no more sugar as he used to have; this is done that he may wish to return as soon as possible to the place where he was before, and where he was trained. When they wish to despatch him, the letter is tied under a wing and he flies straight for the house where he was trained. There he is caught and the letter taken from him, and they send it to whomsoever it belongs.
Like the runners in India, and their heirs with Parcel Post, the carrier pigeons were not used exclusively for military communications. There is a story, for example, that one day a Fatimid caliph in Cairo expressed a desire for the sweet plums of Baalbek in today's Lebanon. His vizier immediately dispatched a pigeon to Baalbek ordering plums by return post. The ingenious postmaster at Baalbek at once complied, and before the day was out a flock of pigeons delivered a bowl of plums to the caliph. Each pigeon had carried a single plum tied to its leg.
Paul Lunde, who studied Arabic and Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, now lives and writes in Saudi Arabia.