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Long-Distance Communication. Until writing was sufficiently well developed to convey accurately the spoken word, a message had to be memorized by a courier and, it was hoped, delivered verbatim to the recipient. In the Sumerian-language poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta—written near the beginning of the second millennium b.c.e. but set at the period of transition from the Early Dynastic I to the Early Dynastic II period (circa 2750 b.c.e.)—a messenger is central to the ongoing contest between two city rulers vying for the attention of the goddess Inana. Enmerkar, the ruler of Uruk, chooses a messenger from among his troops, one who is “eloquent of speech and endowed with endurance.” The messenger is told to go quickly to Aratta, a legendary city set far to the east of Uruk, and deliver Enmerkar’s demands to the Lord of Aratta: “Messenger, by night drive on like the south wind! By day, be up like the dew!” On his arrival in Aratta,


In 701 B.C.E, the Assyrian king Sennacherib launched an attack against the rebellious Levantine state of Judah, ruled over by Hezekiah from his capital at Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew Bible (II Kings 18), the Assyrian king, established at the city of Lachish, which his forces had just seized, sent to Jerusalem three of his highest-ranking officials, who demanded to speak with Hezekiah. When the three Assyrian officials were confronted outside the city walls, their spokesman, apparently speaking in Hebrew, said:

Tell Hezekiah, thus said the Great King, the King of Assyria: “What makes you so confident? Do you think that plans and arming for war can emerge from empty talk? Look, on whom are you relying that you have rebelled against me? You rely, of all things, on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which enters and punctures the palm of anyone who leans on it. And if you tell me that you are relying on the Lord your God … The Lord himself told me: Go up against that land and destroy it.”

The Judaean officials pleaded with the Assyrians not to speak in Hebrew, but rather in Aramaic, the diplomatic language of the Assyrian Empire, so that the defenders on the walls might not understand the Assyrians’ threats. But the Assyrian spokesman called out to the defenders on the wall in Hebrew:

Hear the message of the great king, the king of Assyria: Thus said the king, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he cannot save you from me. And do not let Hezekiah have you put your trust in God by saying, ‘God will surely save us,’ and ‘This city will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.’”

According to the Bible, Jerusalem was indeed saved miraculously:

That night an angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the Assyrian camp, and the following morning they were all dead corpses.

Source: Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, volume 11 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1988).

the messenger announces himself and recites his master’s demands word for word before the Lord of Aratta. The lord delivers a reply to the messenger, who—demonstrating his quick wit—presumes to answer it himself. The Lord of Aratta gives further instructions, whereupon the messenger returns quickly to Uruk. The messages that follow are in the form of riddles, which the messenger must convey back and forth. By the fourth trip, Enmerkar’s message “was substantial, and its contents extensive. The messenger, whose mouth was heavy, was not able to repeat it.” In response, Enmerkar takes a piece of clay and inscribes his message on it, thereby inventing the writing of letters on clay tablets and forever changing the role of the messenger.

Mar Shipri. The Akkadian term mar shipri, which first appeared in texts at the end of the third millennium b.c.e., may designate a “messenger,” “envoy,” “agent,” “deputy,” “ambassador,” or “diplomat.” His responsibilities ranged from conveying a simple memorized message, to carrying a tablet, to negotiating on behalf of his master. Women serving the same functions (marat shipri) on behalf of elite women are also known. Loyalty, trustworthiness, and speed were the mar shipri’s most desirable qualities. Messengers traveled on foot, by boat, or by wagon. Their journeys might take them through hostile territory, where they might be detained, interrogated, mistreated, robbed, or even killed. To alleviate such dangers, the messenger might also carry a tablet from his lord requesting safe passage; if such a request was granted, the messenger would be given an escort to accompany him through a given territory. On reaching his destination, the messenger had to gain admittance to the intended recipient. A foreign diplomat might need permission first to enter the city, then to enter the palace grounds, and finally to enter into the king’s presence. Each step no doubt required the presentation of certain credentials, such as a tablet bearing the impression of the sender’s personal seal. Once granted an audience, the messenger recited whatever message he had been given. Any tablet he might have brought was examined and read aloud and, if necessary, translated by a local scribe to corroborate the verbal message. A messenger of sufficient status would then be asked to expand on any issues raised by the recipient and perhaps even negotiate on behalf of his master. At his host’s discretion, the messenger returned home with a reply. On the other hand, a messenger bearing ill tidings might well lose his life.

Securing the Message. The Sumerian Sargon Legend is an Old Babylonian-period (circa 1750 b.c.e.) account of

the events leading to the rise of Sargon of Akkad to power, circa 2334 b.c.e., as decreed by the gods, at the expense of his overlord Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish. Ur-Zababa learns of his fate through a dream that Sargon is forced to reveal to him. The king determines to circumvent his destiny by having Sargon killed. Ur-Zababa sends Sargon to the court of Lugal-zagesi, the king of Uruk, with a cuneiform tablet carrying instructions for the king of Uruk to kill its bearer. To ensure that Sargon does not learn of the contents of the letter, Ur-Zababa fashions an envelope of clay for the tablet:

In those days, writing words on tablets certainly existed, but putting tablets into envelopes did not yet exist. King Ur-Zababa dispatched Sargon, the creature of the gods, to Lugal-zagesi in Uruk with a message written on clay, which would cause his own death. (Cooper and Heimpel)

The story is broken at this point, so it is not known how Sargon survived this plot. Most often, early examples of envelopes from the late third millennium b.c.e. bear the impression of the cylinder seal of the sender and perhaps the name of the addressee. Occasionally the envelope carries an abbreviated form of the letter it contains. The Sumerian Sargon Legend does not indicate whether Ur-Zababa’s first envelope was uninscribed, or if it bore an inscription that did not convey the true contents of the letter.

Security during the First Millennium b.c.e.. During the first millennium b.c.e., envelopes that were used to enclose contracts carried a verbatim copy of the enclosed document. Clay envelopes were still occasionally used to enclose letter orders on clay tablets in the Seleucid period, in the third century b.c.e. However, the widespread use of the Aramaic aleph-beth, inked on papyrus or on parchment or other kinds of prepared animal skins, necessitated new methods for securing the contents of messages. Most commonly, a document was rolled up and tied about with a string. The knot was enclosed within a small lump of clay (cretula), which might also be inscribed or bear the impressions of one or more seals. Because of the small size of the cretula, it was most convenient to use stamp seals, which became increasingly popular at the expense of the traditional cylinder seal, which was more appropriate for rolling over the broad surface of a tablet. However, on occasion, cylinder seals were used as stamp seals, leaving the impression of just a small portion of their full intaglio. During the Seleucid period, a unique method for enclosing inked documents emerged. Stamp seals, now typically engraved metal finger rings, were impressed onto a piece of clay that was wrapped entirely around the string that enclosed the document, giving the appearance of a napkin ring or a flattened ball (bulla) with the document passing through it. Only the cretulae and bullae have survived; the original papyrus or parchment documents have long ago been burned or turned to dust.

Courier Systems. When the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 b.c.e.) took his army into Greece, messages about his successful capture of Athens and his subsequent defeat in the naval battle at Salamis were dispatched via fast messengers (piradazish) to the capital at Susa. According to Herodotus of Halicarnassus, writing in Greek during the fifth century b.c.e., nothing in his day traveled faster than a Persian courier:

The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes—a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time—neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness. The first, at the end of his stage, passes the dispatch to the second, the second to the third, and so on along the line. …

Herodotus erred in ascribing the invention of the horse-mounted courier system to the Persians. Such a system for the delivery of royal mail was already fully functioning across the Assyrian Empire during the ninth to seventh centuries b.c.e.

Persian Couriers. Many thousands of cuneiform clay tablets were excavated from the fortification walls at the royal Persian capital of Persepolis in Iran. Written in the local administrative language, Elamite, these texts are presumably a portion of a likely discarded royal archive. They are dated to the middle years (509-494 b.c.e.) of the reign of Darius I, and are concerned with the movement from place to place of huge quantities of commodities—such as grain, flour, wine, sheep, goats, and hides—and with their assignment for broad general purposes. Many of these records detail the apportionment of these supplies in the form of rations to the final consumer. Among these ration texts are hundreds of documents recording the disbursement of rations specifically to various state bureaucratic functionaries, who were about to travel to the far reaches of the empire. These travel rations were issued on a daily basis to guides, caravan leaders, and ordinary and fast messengers as they went about their business, journeying from the Persian heartland eastward to Central Asia and India, or westward to Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt. Supply stations were apparently spaced at intervals of one day’s journey along the main roads. The rations consisted predominantly of flour, supplemented by beer and wine. Fast riders rode special horses that were also allotted rations, on a monthly basis.

Rapid Communications. Mounted messengers in the employ of the Persian Empire (mid-sixth to mid-fourth centuries b.c.e.) may have been able to ride from the Aegean coast of Anatolia to the Persian capital within two weeks or less. However, classical sources describe even faster methods available to the Persians. Fire signals, referred to in cuneiform texts from the early second millennium b.c.e., were said to enable the Persian king to know important news from anywhere within his empire within a single day. Another story relates how guards stationed in the mountains of Iran rallied ten thousand archers within a single day, relaying their message by shouting across the valleys from mountain to mountain, a distance equal to a thirty-day journey.


Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Jarle Ebeling, Esther Flückiger-Hawker, Eleanor Robson, Jon Taylor, and Gábor Zólyomi, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, The Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, 1998—

Jerrold S. Cooper and Wolfgang Heimpel, “The Sumerian Sargon Legend,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 103 (1983): 67-82.

David F. Graf, “The Persian Royal Road System,” in Continuity and Change: Proceedings of the Last Achaemenid History Workshop April 6-8, 1990, Ann Arbor, Michigan, edited by Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Amélie Kuhrt, and Margaret Cool Root, Achaemenid History, volume 8 (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Ooste, 1994), pp. 167-189.

William W. Hallo, Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions, Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East, 6 (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

Richard T. Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Oriental Institute Publications, volume 92 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised, with an introduction and notes, by A. R. Burn (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1954).

Samuel A. Meier, The Messenger in the Ancient Semitic World, Harvard Semitic Monographs, 45 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

Gary H. Oller, “Messengers and Ambassadors in Ancient Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1465-1473.

Ronald Wallenfels, “Sealing Practices on Legal Documents from Hellenistic Uruk,” in Administrative Documents in the Aegean and their Near Eastern Counterparts. Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Naples, February 29-March 2, 1996, edited by Massimo Perna (Turin: Paravia Scriptorium, 2000), pp. 333-348.

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