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  • Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World
  • Rudi Matthee
Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World. By Adam J. Silverstein. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 230 pp. $116.00 (cloth); $34.99 (paper); $81.00 (e-book).

Information is power. That state systems derive much of their staying power from an ability to gather intelligence is slowly entering the purview of scholars of Middle Eastern history. A number of recent studies have examined the collection and use of information by the French and British in their attempts to control the early twentiethcentury Middle East. One eagerly awaits book-length studies of the way in which their immediate predecessors, the Ottomans in the western [End Page 364] Islamic lands and the Qajars and the Mughals in Iran and India, respectively, gathered and controlled information. In the interim those interested in the topic will find a wealth of information about the modus operandi of those who held sway over the Middle East in premodern times in several recent studies. Yousef Ragheb’s groundbreaking Les messagers volants en terre d’Islam (Paris, 2002) focuses on thirteenthcentury Egypt and the pigeon post that its Mamluk rulers famously used as their primary means of conveying information. Adam Silverstein’s elegant and well-researched book is different. Silverstein analyzes the pigeon post of the Mamluks and other Middle Eastern regimes from the Abbasids onward in addition to other, land-based postal systems. Mainly interested in historical continuity and disruption, he also covers a longer period, from the transitional phase in late antiquity leading up to the early Islamic period in the seventh century until the reign of the late fourteenth-century Central Asian warlord Timur Lang.

Using an abundance of mostly Arabic, often literary sources, Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World examines the history of state-run postal systems in the premodern Islamic world, considering these an extension of prevailing intelligence networks. He explores the military use of the various barid systems, the logistics, the infrastructure, and the administration, all with a keen eye to essential factors such as topography and technology, in addition to the limitations set by the available source material. For much of this period the sources are scattered, scant, and mostly anachronistic, resulting in a narrative that is, at times, somewhat formulaic and of necessity speculative and tentative rather than affirmative.

Chapter 1 considers the nature of the pre-Islamic postal systems, the Roman-Byzantine, Iranian, Achaemenid, and Sasanian ones. In a thoughtful discussion, the author seeks to disentangle the various forms of influence, arguing that Muslims had begun to adapt the previously existing system to their own needs already prior to the establishment of the Umayyad caliphate, and that the barid system as it developed under the early caliphs was part Iranian, part Byzantine, but also unique in various ways. Medieval Muslim authors held that their system derived from the Iranian model, with intelligence gathering as its main purpose, with its relay network of horses stationed at one-day intervals, its speed, and its efficiency. Silverstein agrees, with some qualifications, arguing that it cannot be assumed that the Sasanian system was simply a copy of the Achaemenid model, much less that the early Islamic system just continued the ancient Iranian network. The word barid, for one, clearly points to a Byzantine legacy. Commonly thought to derive from the Persian dom-borideh, dock-tailed, in reference to the [End Page 365] dock-tailed horses used, in reality it is an Arabized form of the Latin word veredus, “post-horse.” Yet the Ummayad state, emerging on its fringes, was not the direct inheritor of the metropolitan Byzantine state. It stands to reason, moreover, that the early Islamic state would have continued to follow patterns found in the erstwhile Byzantine lands the Arabs conquered in the seventeenth century.

Much of the following chapter is taken up with questions about the nature of the caliphal postal system, beginning with the refutation of the commonly accepted argument that the Umayyad postal system came to be neglected toward the end of the dynasty, facilitating the overthrow of the house by the ‘Abbasids. The ‘Abbasid system, Silverstein argues, started as a...


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