Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time - The sultan’s postal service

Best known for his military exploits, Mamluke Sultan Baybars Al-Bondoqdari also developed Egypt’s carrier-pigeon postal service.

Baybars Al-Bondoqdari (1221-1277 CE; 620-676 H), was the fourth Mamluke sultan, but many see him as the true founder of the Mamluke state. For most of his life, Baybars was engaged in battles against the Crusaders and the Mongols, at the time waging assaults on a realm that included Egypt, Syria, and parts of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

After the battle of Ain Jalut, in which the Mamlukes won a decisive battle against the Mongols in 1261 CE (658 H), Baybars led a group that assassinated his predecessor, Sultan Seifuddin Qotoz. Baybars then took his place.

Historians consider Ain Jalut to be a turning point in regional history, as it ended the onslaught of the Mongol invaders, who only three years earlier had stormed Baghdad and razed it to the ground, making it clear that they wanted to extend their power over the Mamluke lands and ultimately Europe.

Baybars was first mentioned by historians for his role in the battle of Mansoura in 1250 (647 H), in which the Egyptian army defeated the invading Crusaders. That battle, fought in the final months of Ayyubid rule in Egypt, signalled the rise of the Mamlukes, a slave-soldier regime that was to rule Egypt for the next three centuries, using puppet Abbasid caliphs to legitimise itself.

The Ayyubids were named after Sultan Salaheddin Al-Ayyubi, known as Saladin in Western literature.

In his book, Al-Zaher Baybars, historian Sayed Abdel-Fattah Ashour recounts the exploits of a man whom he describes as one of the most accomplished military leaders of the Middle Ages. One of the reasons Baybars was so successful in battle had nothing to do with the size of his armies or the power of his munitions. Rather, it was due to the postal system, Ashour writes.

Having developed one of the most sophisticated postal systems of the time, Baybars was able to anticipate the movements of his enemies and take timely precautions. Ben Fadlallah Al-Omari, a contemporary scribe in Damascus, was cited by chroniclers as saying that the sultan wanted news sent to him twice a day, if necessary.

“If you see the need to send me a piece of news at night and another piece in the morning, do not hesitate to do so,” Baybars told the scribe.

Usually, however, the mail went out only twice a week. This, a chronicler noted, helped the sultan to “control the rest of the Mamlukes through appointments and dismissals from his headquarters in Qalaat Al-Jabal in Cairo.”

Qalaat Al-Jabal was the name used to refer to the Salaheddin Citadel, which still overlooks Cairo, an Ottoman-style mosque added in the 19th century commanding its current silhouette.

The postal route from Cairo to Damascus passed through Damietta, Gaza, Lod, Qaqun, Ain Jalut and Bisan. Other postal lines covered Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Al-Rahba, Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Baalbek.

In Egypt, the postal service operated three routes. The southern route connected the Qalaat Al-Jabal with Qus, Aswan, Nubia and Izab, a major port on the Red Sea. The northern route connected Cairo to Alexandria by way of Qalyub, Menouf and Mahallah. A northeastern route linked Cairo to Damietta via Siryaqus and Belbeis.

Each line was divided into stations no more than 28 miles apart. Each station had sleeping quarters, water and food for men and horses. The tight security that this speedy postal service allowed brought peace to the region.

“It soon changed dangerous and abandoned places into safe and populated ones,” wrote Al-Qalqashandi, a 14th-century chronicler.

In order to become a baridi, or postman, candidates were screened for certain qualities, not all of them having to do with fitness. “If the messenger is capable of mind and knowledgeable about what comes and goes, he will be able to do the sultan good service. If not, the reverse will be true, and the messenger may face a sad end,” a contemporary scribe noted.

The postal service was run by the Diwan Al-Inshaa, or Department of Correspondence. The chief of the Diwan was in charge of collecting the mail for the sultan and briefing him on its content. He also wrote the messages the sultan sent to various parts of the empire.

Postmen had special insignia to ensure that no one obstructed their work. A silver plate, or disc, with a tassel was worn on the chest as identification. The disc was only worn during missions and was handed back to the Diwan after a mission was completed.

There was also an air service that used carrier pigeons. A network of towers was built and the pigeons carried messages in a relay system. Workers would retrieve messages from pigeons arriving at a tower before attaching them to fresh pigeons that would take them to the next tower, repeating this process until the messages reached their destination.

Messages to be carried by pigeons were kept brief and written on lightweight paper. Important messages were sent in duplicate, using two different birds, in case one was killed or lost its way. Mail delivered by pigeon was known to be urgent, and the sultan was immediately notified of its content.

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