Monday, December 12, 2011

Pony Express On The Silk Road

James Farley Building in New York
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

The above sentence is inscribed on the James Farley Post Office building in New York City, which opened its doors in 1914 and is now a registered historic site. Considering the inscription’s location, one might be forgiven for thinking it is a tribute to the diligence of American postal workers. But it’s not. The words were written 2,500 years ago by the Greek historian, Herodotus, who was expressing his admiration for the Persian empire’s mail couriers in the sixth century B.C.

The practice of sending messages through couriers probably began as soon as people started writing their thoughts down on physical media, but it was Cyrus the Great (600530 B.C.), the founder of Persia’s Achaemenid dynasty, who invented the world’s first regular postal system. He’d organized his empire in the form of satrapies, provinces that were granted a certain amount of autonomy and could practice their own religions and customs, but always under Cyrus’s central authority.

To maintain this authority, Cyrus needed a way to exchange information with his satraps (governors), so he came up with a system of relay couriers (chapars) who could cross the empire swiftly and deliver important messages.

He calculated how far a chapar could ride in a day without stopping to feed or water his horse. At each point, Cyrus built a chapar-khaneh (courier house), a posting station where the courier could swap his exhausted mount for a fresh horse and continue on the next leg of the journey or hand his packet of letters on to another courier, relay-style.

Sound familiar? The Pony Express of the 1860s American West used the same principle of speedy horses and relay posts. It was certainly a practical way to get messages to their destinations in a world that lacked proper roads.

The third Achaemenid emperor, Darius I (550486 BC), expanded Persia’s postal system, adding new routes as the empire grew. He built the Royal Road between his administrative seat at Susa (in present-day Iran) and Sardis, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia (in eastern Turkey).  The road enabled Darius to add horse-drawn carts, known as barids, to the chapar couriers and transport larger amounts of mail than a single horseman could carry.

Persia's Royal Road

A good chapar could cover the 1,600 miles of the Royal Road in seven to nine days, a journey that took three months on foot. As Herodotus wrote, “nothing mortal travels as fast as these Persian messengers.”

I doubt that the life of a chapar was as glamorous or heroic as Herodotus makes it sound. There had to be many hazards along the way as the couriers rode through treacherous mountain passes in the Zagros range, evaded bandits, and passed across desolate plains in Asia Minor. And what did they do if a horse went lame in the middle of nowhere, half a day’s journey to the next posting station? I hope Cyrus paid his couriers well. After all, these men risked their lives to deliver the empire’s precious mail.


  1. Fascinating! Of course most of us thought the quote originated with our mail delivery service :-) I love what I learn here. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Kenda! I thought that quote was the motto of the U.S. Postal Service until I researched this piece. Turns out, they don't have a motto. :) One of the Farley Building's architects was the son of a classics scholar.

  3. Yes, so fascinating! Interesting also about how they found the quote (from the classics scholar). And you've given me a very vivid image of a lone courier galloping across through the mountain pass... what a time!

  4. Thanks, Supriya - that lone rider crossing the mountains gave me a story idea...

  5. The Pony Express dates back to mid 1800s. Wow, did the ancient folks beat us by a coupla centuries. I also wonder if the word chaperone originated from "chapar"?