By Afshin Majlesi

World Post Day: a brief history of postal service in ancient Iran

October 8, 2021 - 17:55

TEHRAN - World Post Day is celebrated on October 9, the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1874 in the Swiss capital, Bern. It is an occasion to recognize the invaluable contributions of postal workers and post offices to our societies all over the world.

The history and post and postage, however, goes far back in time as Iranians, during the Achaemenid era (c. 550-330 BC), enjoyed an innovative efficient system, which remained a source of inspiration for subsequent generations.

Prehistorical Iranians were able to deliver messages from one end of the gigantic Persian Empire, which stretched from Ethiopia, through Egypt, to Greece, to Anatolia (modern Turkey), Central Asia and to India, to the other just within few days using couriers on horseback.

According to reliable sources, a message could be sent from Susa, the administrative capital of the empire in western Iran, to Sardis, which is now situated in what is now western Turkey, in between seven and nine days, traveling through the then Royal Road, a sort of highway connecting the two cities.

As mentioned by the Encyclopedia Iranica, the celebrated Greek historian Herodotus described the system in the days of the Achaemenid King Xerxes (r. 486 to 465 BC): “Now there is nothing mortal that accomplishes a course more swiftly than do these messengers, by the Persians’ skillful contrivance. It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed. The first rider delivers his charge to the second, the second to the third, and thence it passes on from hand to hanḍ . . . . This riding-­post is called in Persia, angareion.”

The ancient Persian postal system was powered by horses that operated on a relay system, which made journeys more speedy and efficient.

In that era, the post was a government service for carrying official correspondence in sealed bags though routes occasionally disrupted by war, rebellion, or simply lack security.

In addition, postal riders and messengers played a particularly important role in gathering intelligence throughout the empire. For instance, among their duties was escorting government officials to their posts.  

Joobin Bekhrad, the founder and Editor of Reorient, in his article titled “The surprising origins of the postal service”, which was published by BBC in June 2020, writes: “Although civilizations like those of Egypt and China are said to have been amongst the first to use postal services, and the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires in modern-day Iraq were using forms of mail delivery before the Persian Empire was founded in the 6th Century BC, the Persians of Iran took the idea of a postal system to previously unseen heights – and then some. They used an extensive network of roads worked by expert horsemen who covered stupefying distances throughout the massive, diverse empire with bewildering speed and unwavering resolve.”

“Herodotus’ description is fragmentary… The Royal Road from Sardis to Susa is… just one royal road among many others,” writes French Iranologist, Pierre Briant, in From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, as stated by Bekhrad.

At its peak under the reign of Darius the Great, the Persian Empire stretched from Greece to India. Briant notes in his book how tablets from Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the empire, show that messages were sent to and from India and Egypt, also pointing out that the historian Ctesias mentioned the Greek city of Ephesus, too, in his writings. “The entire imperial territory,” Briant writes, “was covered”.

“Never before had messages been delivered on such a massive scale. The ancient Persian postal system was powered by horses that operated on a relay system, making journeys speedy and efficient. But the Persians would not have been able to cover the daunting distances they did in so little time had they not been expert horsemen. The ancient Iranians (of whom the Persians were just one of the numerous peoples) were redoubtable when it came to horsemanship. The postal system aside, the Iranians inspired the use of cavalry amongst the Athenian Greeks, for example, and also devised the game of polo,” according to Bekhrad, who has enriched his article by including several treasured quotes, some of which given below:

“Historically, the Persian Royal Road was the first major land structure conceived to thoroughly exploit horse transportation and relay,” writes Prof. Dr. Luc-Normand Tellier in his book “Urban World History: An Economic and Geographical Perspective.”

According to Dr. Lindsay Allen, a lecturer in ancient history at King’s College London, the Persian postal system was also impressive for its use of a standardized language across such a vast expanse, as well as its consistency in terms of message delivery and format. Although Old Persian was the Persians’ native tongue, the linguistically unrelated Aramaic was the administrative language of the empire and thus used in composing messages throughout it, much in the same way that English and Latin-alphabet transliterations are usually used on envelopes and parcels worldwide today.

“For long distances, we’re looking at Aramaic on ink on prepared animal skin, folded up and sealed,” Allen said. “This was the first time that consistently formatted letters, folded and sealed, were used. Unfortunately, we have only a few surviving parchment letters written in Aramaic… [but] even these suggest there was shared administrative practice between letters sent to Egypt and those sent by a local governor in Bactria.”

While the Royal Road was an incredibly efficient and effective way of delivering messages, it was only used for administrative purposes and not by private individuals. The Persian emperors used the Royal Road and other such routes for issuing decrees and for their “armies, tribute-bearers, and… troops of government workers,” according to Briant.

It was also used by the emperor to keep abreast of all the goings-on in the empire. In the Cyropaedia, a book in praise of Cyrus the Great that is still read as a classic guide to effective leadership, Xenophon attributes the establishment of the Persian postal system to Cyrus and describes his use of it in gathering intelligence: “The king will listen to any man who asserts that he has heard or seen anything that needs attention,” he writes. “Hence the saying that the king has 1,000 eyes and 1,000 ears; and hence the fear of uttering anything against his interest since ‘he is sure to hear’, or doing anything that might injure him ‘since he may be there to see.”

According to Xenophon of Athens, Cyrus first found out how far a horse could travel “when ridden hard” before breaking down, and then used this distance to set up stations at intervals throughout the empire. The couriers traveled from dusk till dawn, and Xenophon – who was once hired by the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger as a mercenary and had to flee back to Greece from Iran with his army when the former’s coup d’etat went awry – considered the Persian postal system to undeniably be the “fastest overland traveling on Earth”.

Herodotus also mentions the relay system in the Histories. “The first rider delivers his charge to the second, the second to the third, and thence it passes on from hand to hand,” he explained; and his description of the Persian couriers gives added credibility to that of Xenophon, who wasn’t always the most historically accurate: “There is nothing mortal that accomplishes a course more swiftly than do these messengers, by the Persians’ skillful contrivance… [They] are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”

In her 1890s travelogue titled “Persian Pictures”, English writer and traveler Gertrude Bell wrote about how she and her companions found themselves “lying in a little alcove under the archway of a tiny tumble-down post-house, vainly demanding fresh horses”.

Nevertheless, the myriad Chapar-khanehs (post offices) that dotted Iran at the time, no matter how decrepit they could often be, were invaluable to travelers like Bell as they also served as little inns between major cities. Chapar-khanehs are no longer used in Iran today, but they can still be seen throughout the country.

Bekhrad concludes his article that the Royal Road and the Persian postal system may very well be things of the past, but the ingenuity of the Achaemenid Persians and the perseverance of their couriers continue to influence and inspire well beyond the borders of ancient Iran, and even the mighty Persian Empire.

According to Iranica, after the fall of the Sassanian Empire in the 7th century CE, the Persian system of message delivery was practiced more or less both by invaders like the Arabs and Mongols, and the indigenous dynasties that followed like the Safavids, Zands, and Qajars.


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