elaborate networks of carrier pigeons -- 10/11/16

Today's selection -- from Saladin by John Man. The casual reader of ancient history is often puzzled by the seemingly impossible speed of communication in certain civilizations. For example, an outlying city like Aleppo will be under siege by an enemy and yet will somehow be in communication with a major city such as Baghdad or Cairo. It turns out that by the twelfth century CE, the time of Saladin, the Muslim world had developed an elaborate communication system using carrier pigeons:

"[In the twelfth century CE,] Turks, Arabs and Europeans were enemies and rivals, but also allies, trading partners and friends, often all these things in quick succession.

a woodcut from 1481

"Information flew between them, literally, because all major cities were linked by pigeon-post. This gets only passing mention in Arab sources, possibly because it was so routine as to be unworthy of comment. It would have started a long, unrecorded time -- perhaps centuries -- before, with pigeons being kept for food, as we keep chickens. Over the years, people noticed that they were able to find their way home from very far away (modern fanciers race their pigeons for up to 1,600 kilometres). Pigeons can fly for up to twelve hours at 100 kilometres per hour, for three days, resting at night. All leaders, civilian and military, would have kept pigeons ready to send to distant cities or take into battle.

"The historian al-Maqrizi recorded one very non-routine use of homing pigeons. In the late tenth century, the fifth Fatimid caliph al-Aziz loved the cherries of Baalbek. As a treat, his vizier -- in effect, prime minister -- arranged for 600 homing pigeons to be sent off from Baalbek to Cairo, each carrying a silk bag attached to either leg, with a single cherry inside each bag. The pigeons had 600 kilometres to fly. If they left in the morning, al-Aziz could have had fresh cherries for dessert that evening, with enough left over for his many guests.

"Others took note, and were impressed. Sir John Mandeville mentions pigeons in his fourteenth-century book of Travels ... :

In that country and other countries beyond they have a custom, when they shall use war, and when men hold siege about city or castle, and they within dare not send out messengers with letter from lord to lord for to ask succor, they make their letters and bind them to the neck of a culver [an obsolete word for a pigeon, perhaps from the Latin columba], and let the culver flee. And the culvers be so taught, that they flee with those letters to the very place that men would send them co. For the culvers be nourished in those places where they be sent to.

"Consider: for this system to work at all, every major town must have trained its teams of pigeons, which would have been divided among every other major town. How many towns the size of Baalbek or larger would have been part of the pigeon-postal system? Shall we say twenty? The 600 cherry-carriers were raised and trained in Cairo, their home base, then transferred by horse or camel to Baalbek, along with (say) a few dozen more which would have been kept for offi­cial business. But Baalbek would have had pigeons delivered from all the other nineteen cities as well, and constantly redelivered after each mission. And as breeders know today, you need redundancy. Not all pigeons are equally talented: the good ones lead the bad. Nor is there a guarantee that any one pigeon will survive severe weather or predators. Over 160 kilometres, 95 per cent survive; but over several hundred kilometres you expect to lose about 50-80 per cent of them. Of al-Aziz's 600 cherry-carriers, perhaps only 300 made it. To be sure of a message getting through long distance, you had to copy the same message three or more times and attach it to that many different birds. There must have been a whole specialist industry of dovecote builders, breeders, trainers, transporters and supervisors -- hundreds of people to look after tens of thousands of pigeons."


John Man


Saladin: The Sultan Who Vanquished the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire


Da Capo Press


Copyright 2016 by John Man


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