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Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World pdf

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 Postal Systems In The Pre Modern Islamic World
  • Book Author:
Adam J. Silverstein
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True to its title, this book is about postal systems in the pre-modern Islamic world. Although the terms ‘postal system’, ‘pre-modern’, and ‘Islamic world’ may seem self-explanatory, they deserve our attention here nonetheless, for they can be deceptively ambiguous.

Postal systems of the sort described in this book differ from modern ones in three ways. First, a modern postal system is defined by its role as an organisation that transports items for a fee. Pre-modern systems, by contrast, were defined by their method of transportation. The term ‘postal’ refers to the fact that people and riding-mounts were posted at convenient intervals along a route in order to allow couriers to rest periodically and obtain fresh mounts for the next leg of their journey.1

Hence, whereas modern postal systems can deliver mail by aeroplane, ship, or road, pre-modern systems were – strictly speaking – exclusively road-based networks of mounted couriers.

Second, owing to the fact that pre-modern postal systems were not defined by their function, they served in a number of capacities that would not be expected of their modern counterparts. For instance, whereas in the pre-modern world privileged people such as envoys and ambassadors could be transported to their destination by post, in the modern world such practices would probably be considered a moderate form of torture rather than a privilege.

Furthermore, the fact that pre-modern systems were almost always the speediest method of communication available meant that they were the most effective way of transmitting important information or intelligence reports from afar. Indeed, any history of intelligence systems almost inevit- ably becomes a history of postal systems, and vice versa.2 Vestiges of the fact that news in Antiquity was closely associated with the method of its transmission are apparent in current newspaper titles, where the words ‘Post’, ‘Mail’, and ‘Courier’ are ubiquitous.

Even in the Arab world, where postal systems from the seventh century until modern times have been labelled ‘al-Bar ıd’, newspapers have included the word Bar ıd in their title.3

Third, the facilities of pre-modern postal systems were reserved for the ruling authorities in a way that modern systems are not. In fact, most pre-modern systems were governmental institutions whose services were officially inaccessible to even the wealthiest of private citizens.

 The pre-modern world was not characterised by the literacy rates of the modern West, and the tightly knit social structure of traditional societies did not encourage the dispersal of close acquaintances that is commonplace nowadays. For these reasons, most pre- modern people would have had no need to write and send letters to distant lands (assuming they could write at all). When ordinary people – pilgrims and merchants, for instance – wanted to communicate with distant acquaintances, they would resort to relatively haphazard methods of communication such as entrusting letters to passing caravans or, in the case of wealthy individuals, to privately arranged couriers.

On occasion, well-organised interest groups could even establish their own, independent postal systems, and numerous examples of such institutions are attested for medieval Europe, where universities, mer- chants, and even butchers developed private courier systems.4 But the postal systems that interest us here were governmental organisations the likes of which existed in most periods and regions of the pre-modern Islamic world.

The definition of ‘pre-modern’ in this context is dictated by two factors. The first is the emergence of modern techniques of telecommunication, paticularly the telegraph, during the Ottoman period.5 The telegraph was to pre-modern systems of communication what gunpowder was to ancient war- fare: the beginning of a new chapter (or in this case, a new book) of history.

 The second is the privatisation of Near Eastern postal systems in the sixteenth century. Privatisation could entail either the devolution of control of the postal system to non-governmental bodies or the formal acceptance by the government that civilians might use the system’s services for a fee.6

These factors contributed to the erosion of traditional, pre-modern postal systems

and set the chronological limits adopted here accordingly. The phrase ‘Islamic world’ is slightly more problematic, and the regions and periods of Islamic history that are treated here are not merely those in which the general population or ruling authorities were Muslim. Rather, by necessity only those Muslim states that possessed complex postal systems (excluding e.g. Muslim Spain and Sicily) are covered, and by choice only those regions that were ‘Islamic’ throughout the formative and classical periods of Islamic history (excluding e.g. South-East Asia and Ottoman Europe) are considered.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I (chapter 1) deals with the postal systems employed in the pre-Islamic Near East, focusing on the East (the Persian empires from the Achaemenids to the Sasanids), the West (from the Romans to the Byzantines), and Arabia (until the Umayyad period).

Part II covers the early caliphal phase of Islamic history, specifically the Umayyad (661–750) and early Abbasid period until 847 CE (chapter 2), and the Middle Abbasid period until 1258 (chapter 3), through which the postal systems of the Buyids, Seljuks, Fatimids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, international merchants, and Muslim philo- sophers are also encountered. Part III considers the postal systems employed in the Near East during the Mongol (chapter 4) and Mamluk (chapter 5) periods.7

 Parts II and III are referred to as ‘Conquest and centralisation – the Arabs’ and ‘Conquest and centralisation – the Mongols’ respectively, as they repre- sent pivotal moments in world history generally and in postal history parti- cularly. When the Arabs and Mongols burst onto the international stage in the seventh and thirteenth centuries, they encountered settled and politically sophisticated states with deeply entrenched administrative traditions. It is well-known that both the Arabs and the Mongols came to draw heavily on the bureaucratic experience of their conquered populations.

But what has hitherto eluded scholars is the fact that both conducted centralised campaigns of expansion that relied on express messengers who, moreover, employed techniques of communication that would be integrated into the caliphal and Mongol administrations within decades of their establishment A comparison of the conquerors’ techniques of communication in the pre-

state phase and an analysis of the subsequent incorporation of indigenous traditions into the two empires’ bureaucracies may lead us to adjust our conquest-paradigms for Near Eastern history.

For a book on an aspect of Islamic civilisation, what may seem like an inordinate amount of attention is paid to pre-Islamic institutions, for which the following explanation is offered. To most students and scholars of Islamic history, the period begins in the seventh century CE. There is, for instance, no way of expressing ‘before the hijra’ in Islamic terms. But to rulers of the Islamic world, the Near East that they were inheriting was steeped in traditions and history.

 In stressing the pre-Islamic heritage of a caliphal institution we are acknowledging that – as with other great civilisations in history – Islamic society did not simply emerge fully formed out of the sands and oases of seventh-century Arabia. However culturally sophisticated Arabia was at the time, one can be certain that it did not on its own equip subsequent Muslim rulers with all the necessary tools for ruling the Near East (as supporters of the shuqubiyya would point out centuries later).

Thus, a detailed examination of the world into which the Arabians swept informs us of the conditions with which the conquerors had to contend and how their prede- cessors dealt with these conditions.

Accepting the pre-Islamic DNA of Islamic political institutions is not meant to belittle the Muslim achievement; on the contrary, it is the only way to appreciate those aspects of caliphal rule that were truly unprece- dented. Whereas generations of Western scholars of Islam have pointed out the pre-Islamic provenance of various aspects of Islamic civilisation as a way of downplaying its originality and contribution to history, the approach here is to compare and contrast a caliphal institution with its antecedents as a way of highlighting those aspects of the Barıd that made it unique. Would the Byzantine and Sasanid postal systems have been identical to the caliphal Barıd had seventh-century Arabians stayed put? Or, put another way, what (if anything) makes an Islamic postal system ‘Islamic’?

These and related questions are of much greater concern to modern historians than they were to pre-modern Muslim authors, and our sources provide information of direct relevance to postal history only sparingly. The Barıd was an administrative institution that, unlike most others, had a physical presence in all provinces of the caliphate.

Postal stations, station-masters, couriers, guides, milestones, and riding-mounts were widely disseminated throughout a ruler’s realms, and even those authors who had little experience of administration in the capital would have been familiar with the postal system’s general infrastructure and activities. This, for an historian of the Barıd, is the good news. The bad news is that despite (or because of) this widespread familiarity with the system, contemporary authors almost never talked about it. Moreover, perhaps due to the clandestine nature of the Barıd’s role in gathering and transmitting intelligence reports, our sources

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