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Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World.

Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World. By ADAM J. SILVERSTEIN. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007. Pp. xii + 214, $112.

The study of postal systems can leach us about communications technology in the premodern Islamic world and about Islamic state-building. Silverstein's approach to this subject is basically institutional history, mainly of slates. In addition to being concerned with origins and influences, he also points out the differences among postal systems, the variety in their uses and organization, and historical development and change within systems.

The book is organized into three parts. The first gives the necessary background in a useful account of pre-Islamic postal institutions: those of the Persian empires from the Achaemenids (with a nod to the Assyrians) to the Sasanids, the western Cursus Publicus from the Romans to the Byzantines, and traditions of communication in Arabia up to the Umayyad period. Part two covers the early caliphal band under the Umayyads (661-750) and 'Abbasids until 847, and the Diwan al-Barid in the middle 'Abbasid period, including the postal systems of the Buyids, Saljuqs, Fatimids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, international merchants, and Muslim philosophers. The third part deals with the Mongol yam and the Mamluk band. Each unit has separate sections that analyze the routes and stations, messengers, methods of communication, and administration.

Silverstein makes three points about the pre-Islamic postal systems: (1) the Muslims inherited a region with postal experience and traditions; (2) Muslim authors were aware of the pre-Islamic origin of the caliphal band; and (3) the fact that the terminology of the barid can be traced to pre-Islamic Iran shows direct continuity from that direct ion. It is argued that already under the Umayyads the Sasanid system was more influential than the Byzantine because the Cursus Publicus was in decline on the eve of Islam. The Sasanids themselves set the precedent by retaining what was left of the Cursus Publicus when they occupied Syria and Egypt in the early seventh century "thereby establishing a precedent for devolving control of the local postal stations to conquerors" (p. 50). The early caliphal barid developed as a combination of Sasanid, Byzantine, and Arabian methods of communication. In the latter case Silver stein makes an original contribution by pointing out the Arabian tradition of message bearers and by noting that Arabs had been employed as messengers and spies by both the Byzantines and Sasanids.

Because the early caliphal barld was funded by requisitions and irregular taxes as the Byzantine and Sasanid postal systems were, it appears to be more Late Antique, From the time of Hisham (724-43) the barid began to be partially funded by the treasury, and "eastern" bureaucratic practices were introduced into regions that had never been part of the Sasanid state. From the middle 'Abbasid period (after 847) the Diwan al-Barid was funded entirely by the treasury.

Silverstein concludes with four general observations. The first is that although the relationship between postal systems and the exercise of political power is complex. such systems usually contributed to creating and maintaining stales that were geographically enormous. They did this actively by identifying rebels and by conveying information, people, and objects, but their very presence also played a passive role of propaganda and intimidation. Second, although these systems were basically simple relays, they sometimes reflected the nature of particular dynasties and states, such as the Buyid use of runners or the Mamluk preference for horsemen. Third, what makes these systems "Islamic" is that they were distinguished from non-"lslamic" systems by relatively benign funding arrangements, i.e., by the treasury rather than by requisitions.

Fourth, Silverstein points out that the Muslims were already using a postal system when the state was expanding before the Umayyad period. One of his most original contributions is to note that both the Arabs and the Mongols conducted centralized campaigns of expansion that relied on express messengers who were later integrated into their administration. As he puts it, "com parable conquest movements developed rudimentary postal systems even before establishing a stable administrative framework into which such a system could be incorporated" (p. 50). That is, he uses the Mongol con quests as a valid historical paradigm for the Islamic conquests in order to argue backwards: the Muslims were likely to have done what the Mongols did. But the use of the Mongol analogy is based on a model of nomadic conquerors: Muslim and Mongol expansions can be compared because they were both nomadic. Although it is still quite common to represent the early Muslim conquests as being carried out by nomads, they were not nomadic migrations. They were organized and led by the sedentary people of the Hijaz, and those Arab Bedouin who were recruited into the armies settled in cities or in camps that became cities afterwards. There is no problem with rudimentary postal systems being organized during campaigns of imperial expansion the point here is that there were at least rudimentary slates behind this military expansion. The Mongol model may still apply to the early Muslim conquests, but not because they were nomadic.

Nevertheless, this is an impressive and solid piece of scholarship, cogently argued, sophisticated, and nuanced, which makes an analytic and inductive use of sources. It should serve as a standard reference for the communication systems of premodern states in the Islamic world.


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Author:Morony, Michael
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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