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Ancient communication methods - The relay system

The relay system
Another ancient method of communication, probably as old as civilization itself, was the relay system -- a network of specially trained long-distance runners or runners and horses that carried information and even goods. Relay systems are mentioned in many ancient sources, including the biblical book of Jeremiah, written about 588 B.C. The Greek historian Xenophon (430-355 B.C.) credited the Persian king Cyrus (599-530 B.C.) with the introduction of the relay system, and Herodotus described Persia's relay runners under Xerxes, between 486 and 465 B.C., with these famous words: "And him neither snow nor rain nor heat nor night holds back for the accomplishment of the course that has been assigned to him, as quickly as he may."

Virtually the same system seems to have been adopted in almost every ancient empire. Marco Polo, for instance, described the system adopted by Genghis Khan and used by his descendant Kublai Khan around 1280. That system carried more than information, he notes: "Fruit gathered in the morning in the city of Khan-balik [Beijing] is delivered on the evening of the next day to the Great Khan in the city of Shang-tu, ten days' journey away." The historian Pedro de Cieza de Leon (1518-1554) similarly described the system that was used by the Incas in South America: "Almost all early chroniclers agree that the chasquis [Inca couriers] could run in relays between Quito and Cuzco, a distance of 1,250 miles, in five days -- and this at an altitude ranging from 6,000 to 17,000 feet! This means the runners had to run an average of some 250 miles a day."


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