Earliest known references to paperwork that were used like passports

The concept of a passport, a document that certifies identity and nationality and grants permission to travel or enter a particular area, has ancient origins. Throughout history, various forms of paperwork have been used to control the movement of people, both within countries and across borders. This long historical trajectory shows how paperwork like passports evolved from simple letters and decrees to the formalized, standardized documents we recognize today.

Ancient and Classical Antiquity

One of the earliest references to passport-like documents dates back to around 450 BC in the Persian Empire under King Artaxerxes I. In the Hebrew Bible, specifically in the book of Nehemiah, a passage describes how Nehemiah, a cupbearer to the king, asked for and received letters (a form of passport) to ensure his safe passage through foreign territories to Judah. These letters requested that the governors of the lands he would travel through “afford him passage” until he reached his destination.

This instance underscores the role of such documents primarily as tools for safe and unhindered travel, especially for officials or individuals on state business. They served to communicate the traveler’s legitimacy and authority from one ruler or region to another, ensuring protection and assistance along their journey.

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Throughout history, various forms of documentation similar to the modern passport have been employed to regulate and facilitate the movement of people across territorial or political boundaries. Image: A picture of a modern passport.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire also utilized a form of passport. This came primarily in the form of the “diploma,” a letter or set of tablets made of bronze, which granted special rights, including the ability to legally use the state’s network of roads. The diploma was often given to soldiers upon their discharge and enabled them to prove their status and secure various privileges, including exemption from certain taxes and legal proceedings.

This system highlights how the control of movement was a matter of state security and administrative oversight, with documents serving as both proof of identity and a method to regulate individuals’ movements in areas under strict state control.

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Medieval Travel Documents

In medieval Europe, the concept of a passport-like document continued to evolve. With the rise of city-states and the consolidation of monarchies, the need to regulate and monitor the movement of people grew. Travel documents during this period were often required to enter or leave a city or to travel through territories controlled by different rulers.

One notable example comes from 1414 during the Council of Constance. King Henry V of England issued documents to his subjects who were traveling to the council, which would serve as a form of safe-conduct across foreign lands. Similarly, the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe, issued documents to its traders that served a similar protective function during their travels.

These documents could include information about the bearer’s purpose of travel, duration, and even specific permission from a monarch or local authority to cross into particular areas.

Image: Portrait of Henry V of England

The Development in East Asia

In East Asia, systems akin to passport-like documents were also developed. During the Tang dynasty in China (618–907 AD), something similar to a passport called a “Tongxinjian” was used. It was issued to foreign travelers, allowing them to travel within empire borders. The document aimed to control and monitor foreign presence within Chinese territories.

READ MORE: History of the Tang dynasty and why it is considered the Golden Age in Chinese history

Islamic Caliphates

In the Islamic world, particularly during the medieval period, travelers would often carry a document known as “Baraa,” a letter of protection that assured safe travel throughout the Caliphate. These documents were especially important for pilgrims traveling to holy sites, underscoring the role of travel documents in ensuring the safety and security of travelers undertaking religious duties.

The Emergence of the Modern Passport

The transformation to a passport system more recognizable today began in earnest during the early modern period. In 1646, King Charles I of England issued a safe-conduct document that used the term “passport” for the first time in the sense of a document allowing entry into or travel through a country. By the 18th century, the passport had become a standard requirement for international travel, used to monitor and control who entered and left a country.

Image: King Charles I (1600 – 1649)

19th Century to World War I

The 19th century saw significant changes in the function and form of passports, especially as international travel became more accessible with advancements in transportation like railways and steamships.

However, the outbreak of World War I led to more stringent regulations and the requirement of photograph inclusion in passports, marking a shift towards the documents’ modern form.

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Starting from ancient safe conducts and medieval letters of protection to more regulated forms in the Roman and Persian empires, these documents reflect the changing dynamics of state control, individual rights, and international diplomacy.

These early references to passport-like documents demonstrate their essential role in the state machinery, serving functions that ranged from facilitating trade and travel to ensuring military and state security. Over centuries, these evolved in complexity and specificity, leading to the modern passport system that balances national security with global mobility, a critical component of international relations and individual freedom.

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