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Friday, February 22, 2002

Phila-Trivia: A Postal Relic from Hellenic Egypt

While no one knows when the earliest postal systems began, there is evidence that fairly sophisticated mail systems operated as far back as the Classical Period. An article written about a century ago describes a postal way bill, written on papyrus, with details concerning the transmission of mail.

(from Carter’s Messenger (Brooklyn, New York), Volume 2, Number 1, circa 1910)

Letter Postage 250 B.C.

The museum of the Imperial German Post, one of the most remarkable special collections in existence, has just been enriched by the purchase of a remarkable document of the third century B.C.. It is the so-called Hibeh papyrus (No. 110) dating from the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (259-253 B.C.) and relates to the transmission of letters by the Egyptian postal service along the Nile, and is stated in the museum note to be the first evidence found of the existence of a State postal service in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. The papyrus is a sort of postal way-bill, and registers the delivery of letters from hand to hand. The five officials mentioned appear to be postillions and postmasters. The text commences somewhat as follows:

“On the sixteenth (N.N.) handed to Alexander six letter-packets. One was a letter-packet for King Ptolemy, another was a letter-packet and two letters thereto attached for Apollonius, Minister of Finance; one letter-packet for the Cretan Antiochus; one letter for Menodorus, and one tied up with the others for Chelios. On the seventeenth Alexander made over the post-bag to Nikodemus (signed Nikodemus). In the first hour of dawn, Phoenix the younger, a son of Heracleitus of Macedon, handed one letter-packet to Aminos. He gave the post-fee to Phanias. Aminos handed the letters to Theo-chrestus.”

So the papyrus goes on. In each case the exact hour of the transfer of the letters is noted, together with details of other letters picked up by the postillion on his route. There is mention of a letter to Throgenes, “president of the office of elephant hunting,” of another to Zoilos, the director of the imperial revenue office in Hermoyolis; to Dionysus, the traffic manager in Arsinoe, etc., etc. The official document is on the back of the papyrus (opistograph), the front having apparently been used for the calculations of a landed proprietor or his bailiff, but the space which the bailiff left is also employed for postal notices, a curious illustration of the necessity, even in the Government service, for saving every bit of the valuable “paper.” The document was only discovered two years ago, and, owing to the high value placed upon it, is protected from the sunlight by a green curtain.

While there was no airmail or special delivery under the Ptolemies, every mail carrier probably knew how to "walk like an Egyptian."

It's a shame that they didn't have stamps back then. A First Day Cover autographed by Cleopatra (and later by Elizabeth Taylor) would make a great conversation piece.