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Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization) [Paperback]

Adam J. Silverstein

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24 Jun 2010 Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization
Adam Silverstein's book offers a fascinating account of the official methods of communication employed in the Near East from pre-Islamic times through the Mamluk period. Postal systems were set up by rulers in order to maintain control over vast tracts of land. These systems, invented centuries before steam-engines or cars, enabled the swift circulation of different commodities - from letters, people and horses to exotic fruits and ice. As the correspondence transported often included confidential reports from a ruler's provinces, such postal systems doubled as espionage-networks through which news reached the central authorities quickly enough to allow a timely reaction to events. The book sheds light not only on the role of communications technology in Islamic history, but also on how nomadic culture contributed to empire-building in the Near East. This is a long-awaited contribution to the history of pre-modern communications systems in the Near Eastern world.

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"Adam Silverstein's work on postal systems (i.e., the barid) and communications in the medieval Islamic world goes a long way toward correcting one of the deficiencies in the field.... Silverstein is to be commended for this ambitious project; it is a welcome and much needed addition to the field. Students and scholars of the political, economic, and administrative history of medieval Islam will benefit greatly from the foundation he has provided." - International Journal of Middle East Studies

"The greatest value of this work to scholars and students interested in the premodern Islamic world is that Silverstein places this detailed description of postal systems into the broader picture of the political traditions of particular dynasties and rulers, notably the pre-Umayyads, Umayyads, Abbasids, Samanids, Chaznavids, Fatimids, Seljuks, Il-Khanids, and Malmuks." - The Historian

Book Description

A fascinating account of the official methods of communication employed in the Near East from pre-Islamic times to the Mamluk period. This is a long-awaited contribution to the history of pre-modern communications systems in the Near Eastern world.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arcane, but can hold even a novice's interest 26 Aug 2011
By A. J. Sutter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I approached this book, a monograph for specialists in pre-modern Middle Eastern history, knowing absolutely nothing about almost any of the numerous topics on which it touches. Yet I was never tempted to rush through even the densest pasages, for the simple reason that I found it fascinating.

I'd been tipped off to it by a laudatory, half-sentence, passing reference to it in a TLS review (by Robert Irwin) of another book about matters far from my acquaintance, now forgotten. The title suggested something so specialized and arcane that it was an appealing challenge. It turns out that the book is quite clearly written, and even has something approaching a light touch.

The gist of the book is an examination of the rapid-courier postal systems in various Middle Eastern empires, starting with a brief review of the Roman Empire and proceeding through various caliphates, Mongol empires and sultanates up to around the late 14th Century CE. Depending on the time and circumstances (both geographical and political-economic), the technologies involved included mounts (horses or camels), pigeons, beacons and/or runners. The mounts and runners operated in relays in order to achieve accelerated delivery speeds, much like the Pony Express that might be more familiar to some readers. The postmasters operated also as intelligence bureau chiefs.

Naturally a lot of the interest of the book is in the pivotal role of this postal system (known as 'al-Barid' in Arabic, and the 'Yam' in Mongol usage) in the rise, maintenance and fall of empires. [BTW, Amazon won't accept certain Unicode characters, so some transliterated Arabic terms in this review are mangled.] However, the author (AS) generously includes other diverting material, such as about the various fruits that were transported to caliphs at miraculous speeds (though these stories, too, were often political propaganda), the notorious flatulence of one postmaster, and other matters. I found his discussion of how medieval Arab philosophers used the Barid as a metaphor for perception especially interesting -- it seems that using the latest IT as a metaphor for cognitive function has a long and multicultural pedigree.

Most of AS's primary sources are in Arabic, though his analysis in the early chapters of evidence from rabbinic writings and even the Book of Esther was quite interesting, too. His readings are deep, as when he shows how a story of the beginnings of the Mamluk Barid (late 13th Cent. CE) expressed a yearning for political legitimacy. However, be forewarned that his intended audience is experts, not party-crashers like me. He expects you already to know your Ummayads from your Abbasids, and Möngke from Ghazan (to say nothing of Qubilai); though if you don't, Wikipedia does an adequate enough job to get you over the hump. A little tougher is that he expects you to know some Arabic, too, especially about administration of caliphates -- e.g., he makes a big deal about the Abbasid founding of a diwan al-Barid, but assumes you know what a diwan is (hint: not something you sit on). Very occasionally you'll hit a speed bump like this one:

"As with the Abbasids before them, the Samanaids to their east, and the Fatmids to their west, in al-Istakhar' the Buyids had their own author of a _Masalik wa Mamalik_ work, and Istakhar's use of _kishawar_s in lieu of _iqlim_s delineating the regions of the world must have satisfied the neo-Sasanid fetish of his Buyid patrons." (@135)

Most of the Arabic technical terms are defined in the text, but not all of them. Nonetheless, the snarky reference to a "neo-Sasanid fetish" also illustrates the aspect of AS's style that kept me reading this book. All in all, more fun than you might think.
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