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Developments in Egypt's early Islamic postal system (with an edition of P.Khalili II 5)

  • Jelle Bruning (a1)

The importance of documentary sources for the history of the official postal system (barīd) in the first century of Islam has long been acknowledged. In addition to a small number of documents from the eastern part of the Muslim Empire, Egyptian papyri from the 90s/710s and 130s/750s form the main documentary sources for modern studies on the postal system. These papyri belong to a distinct phase in Islamic history. Papyri from other, especially earlier, phases have largely been neglected. The present article addresses the history of Egypt's official postal system from the Muslim conquest up to c. 132/750. It argues that the postal system gradually developed out of Byzantine practices and was shaped by innovations by Muslim rulers through which their involvement in the postal system's administration gradually increased. The article ends with an edition of P.Khalili II 5, a papyrus document from 135/753 on the provisioning of postal stations.

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A draft of this essay was presented at a conference at the Institut für Papyrologie in Heidelberg in September 2016. I would like to thank all participants for their comments and suggestions. I thank J.H.M. de Jong and K.M. Younes for helpful comments on draft versions of the edition of P.Khalili II 5, and J. Cromwell for correcting the English. Remaining mistakes are my own. Abbreviations used for Greek and Coptic documents are those of the Checklist of Editions of Greek, Latin, Demotic, and Coptic Papyri, Ostraca, and Tablets, available online at; abbreviations for Arabic documents are those of The Checklist of Arabic Documents, available online at A list of abbreviations used here is given at the end of the article.

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1 Silverstein, A., “Documentary evidence for the early history of the Barīd ”, in Sijpesteijn, P.M. and Sundelin, L. (eds), Papyrology and the History of Early Islamic Egypt (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004), 153–61 and Silverstein, Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 58–9 and 71–3. For epigraphic traces, see the Umayyad milestones published in Sharon, M., Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae (7 vols, Leiden: Brill, 1997–2016), 1: 4–5, 2: 1–7, and 3: 94–108 and 220–1; Kračkovskaja, V.A., “Pamyatniki arabskogo piśma v srednej Azii i Zakavkaz'e do IX v.”, Ėpigrafika Vostoka 6, 1952 , plate 16 (reproduced in Grohmann, A., Arabische Paläographie, vol. 2 (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften; Graz: Böhlau, 1971), plate 15); and Cytryn-Silverman, K., “The fifth Mīl from Jerusalem: another Umayyad milestone from southern Bilād al-Shām”, Bulletin of SOAS 70/3, 2007, 603–10. See also the inscription on the levelling of a mountain pass, dated 73/692: Sharon, Corpus, 1:103–6.

2 Gascou, J., “Les grands domaines, la cité et l’état en Égypte byzantine (recherches d'histoire agraire, fiscal et administrative)”, Travaux et Mémoires 9, 1985, 53–9; Kolb, A., Transport und Nachrichtentransfer im Römischen Reich (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000), 136, 194–5.

3 See the discussion in Kolb, Transport und Nachrichtentransfer, 136 and 195. See SB XVIII 14063 (Oxyrhynchos/al-Bahnasā, 556) for the use of “the machine of the stable of the cursus velox” by local monks.

4 Sarris, P., Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 149–76.

5 Palme, B., “The imperial presence: government and army”, in Bagnall, R.S. (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300–700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 265; Banaji, J., Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), especially 152–5 and 267.

6 Foss, C., “The sellarioi and other officers of Persian Egypt”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 138, 2002, 169–72; Sänger, P., “The administration of Sasanian Egypt: new masters and Byzantine continuity”, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 51, 2011, 653–65.

7 The palaeography of P.Lond. III 1075 and 1081 points to the first/seventh century. With the exception of Muslim army officials in the 20s/640s and 30s/650s, the term amiras (and variants) is only used for the dux before the turn of the second/eighth century ( Sijpesteijn, P.M., Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Official (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 120); see also Legendre, M.A.L., “Hiérarchie administrative et formation de l’état islamique dans la campagne égyptienne pré-Ṭūlūnide”, in Nef, A. and Ardizzone, F. (eds), Les dynamiques de l'Islamisation en Méditerranée centrale et en Sicile: Nouvelles propositions et découvertes récentes (Rome and Bari: Edipuglia, 2014), 108 and, most recently, Legendre, M.A.L., “Neither Byzantine nor Islamic? The Duke of the Thebaid and the formation of the Umayyad state”, Historical Research 89, 2016, 12 ). Cf. the note in Morelli, F., “Duchi e emiri: Il gioco delle scatole cinesi in PSI XII 1266/P.Apoll. 9”, in Casanova, A., Messeri, G. and Pintaudi, R. (eds), E sì d'amici pieno: Omaggio di studiosi italiani a Guido Bastianini per il suo settantesimo compleanno (2 vols, Florence: Gonnelli, 2016), 1: 267–82.

8 For another postal station in the district of Hermopolis/Ushmūn, see CPR XXX 29, discussion on page 256.

9 If P.Lond. III 1075 (pp. 281–2) and 1081 belong together, the former documents that the pagarch had to solve the dispute.

10 P.Ross.Georg. III 50 (Arsinoitēs/Fayyūm; 22/643), CPR XXX 29 (Hermopolis/Ushmūn; c. 22/643).

11 For this reason, Noth, A. (The Early Arabic Historical Tradition: A Source Critical Study, tr. Conrad, L.I. (Princeton, N.J., 1994 [orig. 1973]), 8081) is overly critical of claims of the existence of a postal system in the mid-first/seventh century.

12 Medieval references to the administrative separation of Egypt into two independent provinces, with ʿAbd Allāh b. Saʿd b. Abī Sarḥ ruling Upper Egypt from the Arsinoitēs/Fayyūm and ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀṣ ruling Lower Egypt from Fusṭāṭ, may attest that some of the Sasanians' administrative changes lasted into the Muslim period. According to these reports, Egypt was unified under ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān. See al-Ḥakam, Ibn ʿAbd, Futūḥ Miṣr wa-akhbāruhā, ed. Torrey, C.C. (New Haven, 1922), 173–4; , al-Kindī, al-Wulāt wa-’l-quḍāt, ed. Guest, R. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1912), 11.

13 CPR XXX 20, commentary to line 5. For the introduction of other and mainly administrative terms shortly after the Muslim conquest, see Sijpesteijn, Shaping a Muslim State, 69–71.

14 Kolb, Transport und Nachrichtentransfer, 213.

15 Cf. F. Morelli's doubts about the employment of sailors at an allagē in CPR XXII 6, commentary to line 3.

16 For an elaborate discussion of these policies, see Bruning, J., The Rise of a Capital: Al-Fusṭāṭ and Its Hinterland, 18/639–132/750 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, forthcoming in 2018). See also Silverstein, Postal Systems, 51.

17 CPR XXX (especially the discussion on pages 75–8), P.Vind.Tand. 31, P.Got. 29 (possibly Arsinoitēs/Fayyūm; mid-first/seventh century).

18 SB VIII 9749 (Herakleopolis/Ihnās; 21/642).

19 Cf. the passages in Nikiu, John of, The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text, tr. Charles, R.H. (London and Oxford, 1916), 181–2 [§ 113.2] and Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam, Futūḥ Miṣr, 73, that tell that Egyptian notables helped the Muslim conquerors by repairing roads and constructing bridges.

20 Foss, C., “Muʿāwiya's state”, in Haldon, J. (ed.), Money, Power and Politics in Early Islamic Syria: A Review of Current Debates (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 7596 . Note that these reforms are best documented for the former Byzantine part of the Muʿāwiya's empire. For his and his governors' policies in the eastern provinces, see Humphreys, R.S., Muʿawiya ibn Abi Sufyan: From Arabia to Empire (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006), 85114 .

21 Foss, “Muʿāwiya's state”, 81 and 83.

22 Al-Kindī, al-Wulāt wa-’l-quḍāt, 31; Yūnus, Ibn, Taʾrīkh Ibn Yūnus al-Ṣadafī, ed. ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ, ʿA.F. (2 vols, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2000), 1:374 [no. 1026].

23 For the interpretation of epistalma, see Gonis, N. and Morelli, F., “A requisition for the ‘Commander of the Faithful’: SPP VIII 1082 revised”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 132, 2000, 195 , commentary to line 4.

24 Bruning, The Rise of a Capital, ch. 3.

25 See the discussion in Silverstein, Postal Systems, 53–4.

26 Cf. Foss, C., “Egypt under Muʿāwiya: Part I: Flavius Papas and Upper Egypt”, Bulletin of SOAS 72/1, 2009, 13–4.

27 For the date of these documents, see Gascou, J. and Worp, K.A., “Problèmes de documentation apollinopolite”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 49, 1982, 88–9.

28 On the relationship between the Arabic and Greek terminology, see Silverstein, A., “Etymologies and origins: a note of caution”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 28/1, 2001, 92–4; Silverstein, Postal Systems, 29–30 and 46 (with the references on p. 29, n. 136). Note that the papyrological record for beredos is limited to three documents: the two documents mentioned here and the Coptic O.CrumVC 49 (Memphis/Manf; second/eighth century). Other documents, such as P.Lond. IV 1347 and 1433–35 (Aphroditō/Ishqūh; dates range between 88/707 and 98/716), refer to the same type of horses with a phrase such as δρομικός ἀλλαγῆς, literally “horse of the relay station”.

29 See CPR XIV 33, introduction (correct the reference to P.Oxy. LIV 3758, line 120).

30 Sijpesteijn, P.M., “The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the beginning of Muslim rule”, in Bagnall, R.S. (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World: 300–700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 448. For the use of beredarios in Syria, see Silverstein, Postal Systems, 38. For other terms that may have been introduced in Egypt from the Near East, see Sijpesteijn, Shaping a Muslim State, 70.

31 Foss, “Egypt under Muʿāwiya: Part I”, 13.

32 On the duties of symmachoi in the Muslim period, see Sijpesteijn, Shaping a Muslim State, 131–2. For a diachronic discussion of the symmachos, see Jördens, A., “Die Ägyptische Symmachoi”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 66, 1986, 105–18. For a discussion of the various staff that carried messages during the caliphate of Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān, see Foss, “Egypt under Muʿāwiya: Part I”, 13.

33 See also P.Apoll. 45, line 9 (with commentary).

34 The postal system in this period is better known; see Silverstein, Postal Systems, 71–2 for a discussion.

35 Although attested in documents from the (probably early) first/seventh century (e.g. P.Ant. III 197 (Hermopolis/Ushmūn) and P.Oxy. XVI 1908 (Oxyrhynchos/al-Bahnasā)), the term archistablitēs is mostly found in documents from the Marwanid period. In the preceding century, the dominant term is stablitēs; see Kolb, A., “Der Cursus Publicus in Ägypten”, in Kramer, B. et al. (eds), Akten des 21. Internationalen Papyrologenkongresses, Berlin, 13.–19.8.1995 (2 vols, Stuttgart and Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1997), 1: 539.

36 For a discussion of the ṣāḥib al-barīd, see Silverstein, Postal Systems, 71–4.

37 According to P.Lond. IV 1347 and P.Cair.Arab. III 153 (both from Aphroditō/Ishqūh and dated 91/710), one al-Qāsim b. Sayyār was ṣāḥib al-barīd in the pagarchy of Antaiopolis-Appolōnopolis. One Qays b. ʿAyyār is mentioned as an epikeimenos in the fragmentary context of goods and money related to a postal station in the same pagarchy in 98/716 (P.Lond. IV 1434, line 246); he may have been a successor of al-Qāsim b. Sayyār (cf. P.Lond. IV 1434, comm. to line 246).

38 Sijpesteijn, Shaping a Muslim State, 91–105, especially 102–5; Silverstein, Postal Systems, 60–1; Bacharach, J.L., “Signs of sovereignty: the Shahāda, Qurʾanic verses, and the coinage of ʿAbd al-Malik”, Muqarnas 27, 2010, 78 .

39 P.Lond. IV 1383, address: Agōpa; P.Lond. IV 1416, line 51: Melee; P.Lond. IV 1433, line 194: Meeisa; SB XX 15100, line 15: Abū Thouma.

40 In addition to those listed in Rāġib, Y., “Les esclaves publics aux premiers siècles de l'Islam”, in Bresc, H. (ed.), Figures de l'esclave au Moyen-Age et dans le monde moderne (Paris and Montreal: L'Harmattan 1996), appendix 4: P.Lond. IV 1336, line 15: Abū ʿĀmir; P.Lond. IV 1351, line 15, P.Lond. IV 1353, line 29, and P.Ross.Georg. IV 15, frag. 1 verso line 1: Saʿīd; P.Lond. IV 1433, lines 45 and 194: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān; P.Lond. IV 1441, line 89: Ḥakīm; P.Lond. IV 1464: Mughayyir; P.Ross.Georg. IV 13, line 8: Rashīd. Beredarioi with patronymic: P.Lond. IV 1434, lines 17 and 26: Maʿbad b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān and ʿUbayd b. Shuʿayb; P.Lond. IV 1441, lines 80 and 84: Yazīd b. Kaʿb and Ṣakhr b. Muhājir.

41 Rāġib, “Les esclaves publics”, 16–7; Silverstein, Postal Systems, 67. Those beredarioi with patronymics are free men.

42 According to these records, Aphroditō/Ishqūh did not contribute to the maintenance of a postal station within its own borders, if it had one (cf. the introduction to P.Lond. IV 1347).

43 P.Ross.Georg. IV 25 (first decades of the second/eighth century).

44 Bruning, The Rise of a Capital, ch. 3.

45 See the money contributed by the epoikion Paunakis for “fodder for the animals of the postal station of Mounachthē” (line 80), which is recorded under the logisima (line 75) in P.Lond. IV 1414 (Aphroditō/Ishqūh; early second/eighth century). The payments in this fiscal category are deducted from the tax quota (see the discussions in P.Lond. IV, 125–6 and Morimoto, K., The Fiscal Administration of Egypt in the Early Islamic Period (Kyoto: Dohosha, 1981), 105–7). As to the payment of the personnel of the postal system, cf. Silverstein, Postal Systems, 75–7.

46 O.CrumVC 49 (Memphis/Manf; second/eighth century).

47 P.Lond. IV 1441, lines 80, 84 and 89; P.Lond. IV 1443, lines 35, 48 and 56. The wages of beredarioi are also mentioned, but further not specified, in P.Lond. IV 1433, lines 45, 121, 143, 311, 350 and 368. All documents come from Aphroditō/Ishqūh and date from the first quarter of the second/eighth century.

48 Silverstein, Postal Systems, 87.

49 Rāġib, Y., “Lettres de service au maître de poste d'Ašmūn”, Archéolgie islamique 3, 1992, 516 ; Diem, W., “Three remarkable Arabic documents from the Heidelberg papyrus collection (first–third/seventh–ninth centuries”, in Kaplony, A., Potthast, D. and Römer, C. (eds), From Bāwīṭ to Marw: Documents from the Medieval Muslim World (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015), 13–8 (see also the discussion on the identity of the scribe on p. 15). Note that literary sources mention aṣḥāb al-barīd holding authority over the whole of Egypt as early as the caliphate of al-Manṣūr (136/754–158/775); see Silverstein, Postal Systems, 67 and 73–4.

50 A Bactrian document from 129/747 ( Sims-Williams, N., Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (3 vols, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 2007, 2012), 1:126–35 [doc. W]) mentions a tax called barit, which is probably a post-tax; see Silverstein, “Documentary evidence”, 158–9. P.Khurasan 6, dated to c. 147/764–765, mentions a supplementary tax for the “expenses of animals (dawābb) of the barīd” and “travel provisions for the couriers (burud), messengers and their board” (lines 7–8).

51 Other, albeit somewhat later, documents from the early Abbasid period occasionally refer to postal stations, see P.Philad.Arab. 74 (sent from Hermopolis/Ushmūn; second/eighth or third/ninth century), Grohmann, A., “Neue Beiträge zur arabischen Papyrologie”, Anzeiger der phil.-hist. Klasse der Österreichischenen Akademie der Wissenschaften 85, 1948, no. 6 (provenance unknown; third/ninth century), and Herzberg, E., Geschichte der Stadt Samarra (Hamburg: Verlag von Eckardt & Messtorff, 1948), 272–3 [no. 4]. P.Heid.Arab. II 21 (provenance unknown; third/ninth century) refers to an anonymous ṣāḥib al-barīd; costs for the private use of the postal system are mentioned in P.Hamb.Arab. I 13 (Hermopolis/Ushmūn; 294/906–7).

52 For a discussion of the early Abbasid period on the basis of literary sources, see Silverstein, Postal Systems, 59–84 and 87–9.

53 Many of the Egyptian documents from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection are likely to come from Fusṭāṭ, see P.Khalili I, 23–4. The toponyms referred to in P.Khalili II 5 also suggest this provenance.

54 Timm, S., Das christlich-koptische Ägypten in arabischer Zeit (6 vols, Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 1984–92), 1:421–2 [s.v. “Al-Bugūm”] and 6:2461 [s.v. “Ṭaḥamūn”].

55 Timm, Das christlich-koptische Ägypten, 1:427–9 [s.v. “Al-Buḥēra”].

56 , Al-Yaʿqūbī, Kitāb al-buldān, ed. Juynboll, T.G.J. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1861), 118.

57 Kubiak, W.B., Al-Fustat: Its Foundation and Early Urban Development (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1987), 5051 .

58 P.Lond. IV 1434, line 245.

59 The phrase ṣāḥib al-qaṣr in P.Cair.Arab. VI 410–11 (third/ninth century; al-Ushmūn) and P.Ryl.Arab. I § VII 16 (date unknown; prob. Upper Egypt) must be taken literally (“lord of the fortress”) and does not contain a toponym.

60 For an overview, see Timm, Das christlich-koptische Ägypten, 2:910–14 [s.v. “ʿĒn Šams”]. For the main points of interest in Classical Arabic sources, see Maspero, J. and Wiet, G., Materiaux pour servir à la géographie de l’Égypte (Cairo: IFAO, 1919), 131–2.

61 Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam, Futūḥ Miṣr, 267 (similar information in al-Kindī, al-Wulāt wa-’l-quḍāt, 19); al-Faqīh, Ibn, Mukhtaṣar kitāb al-buldān, ed. de Goeje, M.J. (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1885), 73–4; Khurdādhbih, Ibn, Kitāb al-masālik wa-’l-mamālik, ed. de Goeje, M.J. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1889), 81–3; al-Yaʿqūbī, Kitāb al-buldān, 125–7). Note that Yāqūt al-Rūmī (Muʿjam al-buldān (6 vols, Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1866–73), 4: 178) writes that ʿAyn Shams used to be the capital of the kūra of Itrīb. Al-Muqaddasī ( Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-aqālīm, ed. de Goeje, M.J. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1877), 193–4) lists ʿAyn Shams among the principal towns in the kūra of Maqadūniyya, the capital of which was Fusṭāṭ. See also Grohmann, A., Studien zur historischen Geographie und Verwaltung des frühmittelalterlichen Ägypten (Vienna: Rudolf M. Rohrer, 1959), 8.

62 Cf. the itineraries described in Ibn Khurdādhbih, Kitāb al-masālik wa-’l-mamālik, 79–81; al-Yaʿqūbī, Kitāb al-buldān, 130; Jaʿfar, Qudāma b., Kitāb al-kharāj, ed. al-Zubaydī, M.Ḥ. (Baghdad: Dār al-Rashīd li-’l-Nashr, 1981), 119–21; and al-Muqaddasī, Aḥsan al-taqāsīm, 213–5 and 244–5.

A draft of this essay was presented at a conference at the Institut für Papyrologie in Heidelberg in September 2016. I would like to thank all participants for their comments and suggestions. I thank J.H.M. de Jong and K.M. Younes for helpful comments on draft versions of the edition of P.Khalili II 5, and J. Cromwell for correcting the English. Remaining mistakes are my own. Abbreviations used for Greek and Coptic documents are those of the Checklist of Editions of Greek, Latin, Demotic, and Coptic Papyri, Ostraca, and Tablets, available online at; abbreviations for Arabic documents are those of The Checklist of Arabic Documents, available online at A list of abbreviations used here is given at the end of the article.

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