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.