Reliable evidences indicate that the first regular postal system in the world was established in ancient Iran where the horse-riders and horse-drawn wagons carried mail. The mail consisted mostly of governmental dispatches, and they were delivered from a place to place. Globally, most mail was still being transported the same way until the late 18th century. The economic growth in Britain during the 18 th century encouraged a demand for better mail services. British stagecoaches began carrying mail between cities and towns in 1784. The system remained the same till the postage stamp was issued. On May 1, 1840 Britain issued the Penny Black with the profile of Queen Victoria printed on it, and that was the world’s first postage stamp.
THE FIRST POSTAL SYSTEM
On the basis of information reported by the Greek historian Herodotus, the first regular postal service in the world was established in ancient Iran in 6th century BC during the reign of the first king of the Achaemenids, Cyrus the Great (550 BC-529 BC).
Herodotus described the system in this way: “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”. Herodotus also praised the swift courier posts of ancient Persian Empire.
In fact, the service used the system of a messenger (in Persian: Chapaar) or the relay messengers (in Persian: Chapaar-beh-Chaapar). The messengers were riding horses and carrying mails by day and night; the relay stations were built only so far distant from each other so that a horse could run without resting or feeding.
The riders would stop at regularly placed Post Offices or Post Houses (in Persian: Chapaar-Khaneh) to get a fresh horse or to pass on their packets of dispatches to another messenger for the remainder of the distance.
Between 521 BC and 486 BC another king of the Achaemenids, Darius the Great (DG), was in power and he recognized the importance of communication as the first need for the rule of his vast Empire. Thousand and thousand kilometers of roads were, therefore, built to facilitate the delivery of mails throughout the Persian Empire. One of the most significant achievements of the DG administration was the establishment of the Imperial Highway or the Royal Road (in Persian: Shah-Raah) that connected Susa or Shoosh, the first Iranian federal capital, to Lydia (the ancient kingdom of central Asia Minor). This road, at the beginning used exclusively by the royal messengers (in Persian: Chapaar-haayeh-Shahi), eventually developed into the main communication nerve of the Empire.
Major trade routes were connected to the Royal Road and it might have extended eastwards from Susa as well. The members of the Postal Services or Mail Carriers (in Persian: Barid or Paik or Nameh-Bar) were the immediate users of the Royal Road, and they were equipped with the horse-drawn wagons.
THE SYSTEM OF BARID
Barid was established by DG in order to facilitate the communication between the central government and the local authorities. This communication service was covering the Persian Empire from Europe, Asia Minor, and Egypt to Babylon, Aden, and Arabia to
Indian Ocean. All those local authorities had the duty of providing fresh horses and amenities for the Barid members. The Barid also became the bearer of information obtained all over the Empire, including price information for various tradable goods.
It should be noted that Barid was a term not given only to the Postal Services during DG, but it was also a Persian term for both post-person and postmaster. Muhammed Balaami (spelled also as Bal’ami), the scholar and the minister during Samanid era in the late 10th century, wrote about a Barid by the name of Khordaad Beh (aka Ibn-e Khordad-beh) who was the postmaster or the head of a Postal Service in Jebaal or Media (an ancient country in northwest Iran). Arabs also use up the Persian term of Barid to the modern times as the original term for the Post and also as a length measurement: A Barid equals to 4 Farsakh (derived from Persian Farsang or Paraasang = 6 km), which amounts to 4 X 6 = 24 kilometers.
1. It should be noted that the skill and art of communication through written documents carried by an intermediary from one person or a location to another most likely date back to the creation and development of writing. The introduction of the formal postal systems, however, occurred much later and the first documented use of an organized courier service in 2400 BC has been found in Egypt, where the rulers used couriers for the diffusion of their decrees in the various territories of the country.
2. Although the first credible claim for the development of a real postal system comes from Persian Empire, the point of invention remains in question. The documented claim (reported by Xenophon) attributes the invention to Cyrus the Great (550 BC), while other writers credit his successor Darius I (521 BC). Some other sources claim much earlier dates for an Assyrian postal system, and the credits are given to Hammurabi (1700 BC) and Sargon II (722 BC).
3. The United States Postal Service has no official motto. Often falsely cited as such, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” is an inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City derived from a quote from Herodotus’ Histories, referring to the ancient courier service of the Persian Empire:
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 (translated by Godley 1924).
Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD
Dehkhoda, A. A. (2010): Online Dehkhoda Dictionary, Loghat Nameh Dehkhoda (in reference to the terms of Barid and Farsang).
Godley, A. D. (1924): Herodotus, trans., vol. 4, book 8, verse 98, pp. 96–97.
Hirst, K. K. (2005): Online Article on the Royal Road of Achaemenid Dynasty.
Reza, E. (2004): Online Interview on Geography of Iran (in reference to Khordad-beh).
Rezakhani, K. (2004): Online Article on History of Iran, part IV: Achaemenid Empire.
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Online Article on the First Iranians who introduced the First System of Postal Services.
Sumner, W. M. (1986): Achaemenid Settlement in the Persepolis Plain, Am. J. Archaeology 90 (1): 3-31.
Waterfield, R. (2006): Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of the Golden Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2010): Online Notes on Mail.
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