From the earliest periods of recorded history in the ancient Near East, land transportation is well attested. It appears to have played a major role both in the region's history and in its sociological and technological development. The frequency of travel and transportation is recorded in all periods in written records. It is generally motivated by the same activities that involve people everywhere: commuting to work, visiting friends and relatives, attending religious festivals; buying and selling goods; and attending weddings, funerals, banquets, and the like.

Three categories of travel were especially significant in the ancient Near East. The first is that of traders. The need to transport goods and materials from region to region influenced, more than any other single factor, the development of an intricate system of roads and highways spanning the Fertile Crescent. Trade was also responsible for the region's cultural cross-pollination, a phenomenon of great social and historical import.

A second significant category of travel is that of the messengers who functioned as the postal service. Messengers linked the various cultures of the Fertile Crescent in active communication, profoundly influencing the region's history. From the early Sumerian period onward, royal, civil, and private messenger services flourished. The widespread activity of messengers is attested, for example, by the 379 Amarna tablets of the second millennium BCE, which represent vigorous correspondence between Egypt and the rest of the Near East. Later, imperial Persian messengers covered the Royal Road from Persepolis to Sardis (about 2510 km, or 306 mi.) in nine days, averaging about 275 km (171 mi.) a day. This efficient postal service was set up somewhat like the Pony Express in frontier and colonial America whose posting stations were about 24 km (15 mi.) apart and supplied fresh horses and riders. During the Roman period the extensive cursus publicus, the state postal and messenger service, included regular stops along the main highways where horses could be changed; larger stations and inns were established about one day's journey (37 km, or 23 mi.) apart.

The movement of armies constitutes the third significant category of travel and transportation, accounting for a large percentage of the activity along the thoroughfares of the ancient world. Those armies of course also accounted for many notable historical developments in the region.

The primary mode of travel throughout the ancient Near East was by foot. Even government officials normally traveled that way. Travel by donkey was generally reserved for women, children, and the infirm. Riding the mule, horse, and camel is almost unattested until the first millennium BCE, and even then it remained relatively uncommon.

The light horse-drawn chariot appeared early in the second millennium BCE as a means of transportation and quickly became an invaluable military vehicle. The chariot continued in use during the Roman period, when the carriage became more popular. One type of the latter, the verreda, was drawn by four mules and could transport two or three people. A two-wheeled birota, on the other hand, had three mules and carried one or two passengers.

The transportation of goods and materials of considerable size and weight was generally by means of donkeys, carts, and wagons. The most common means of land transportation, attested as early as the fourth millennium BCE, was the donkey, an animal able to move easily along steep and stony mountain paths difficult for wheeled vehicles and uncomfortable or dangerous for camels. Caravans of donkeys are frequently mentioned in the Old Assyrian and Old Babylonian periods and throughout the second and first millennia BCE. The use of other animals—the mule, ox, and camel—in transporting goods was far less common. The camel, which came into more general use at the very end of the second millennium BCE, had the advantage of being able to carry about five times the capacity of the donkey and could travel for extended periods of time without water, making it especially valuable for desert transportation.

Wheeled vehicles apparently originated in Sumer during the early third millennium BCE. The earliest type was a heavy four-wheeled, ox-drawn wagon, from which the two-wheeled cart developed—a lighter vehicle that could be drawn by horses or mules. Clay models of covered wagons have been found in Sumerian sites from as early as 2500 BCE, and wagons and carts frequently appear in both the written records and the art of the entire region. Carts and wagons were especially useful for transporting heavy loads, such as large quantities of metal, timber, and military supplies. During the Roman period the most common means of land transportation was the ox-drawn wagon, normally pulled by eight oxen or horses in the summer and ten in the winter. Heavy goods, such as army supplies, were all transported by even larger wagons, called clabulariae, which could carry as much as 1,500 Roman pounds. Express goods were carried by the swifter cursus velox, which employed several types of lighter carriages.

[See also Camels; Carts; Chariots; Equids; Roads; and Wheel.]

Bibliography

  • Casson, Lionel. Travel in the Ancient World. New ed. Baltimore, 1994.
    Helpful survey of travel and transportation throughout the ancient world, with an emphasis on the Roman period; useful footnotes.
  • Cole, S. M. “Land Transport without Wheels.” In A History of Technology, vol. 1. From Early Times to the Fall of Ancient Empires, edited by Charles Singer et al., pp. 704–712. London, 1954.
    General survey focusing on the classical world.
  • Dorsey, David A. “Travel, Transportation.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., vol. 4, pp. 891–897. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988.
    Thorough and useful overview of the subject, covering transportation in the ancient Near East from the early periods through the Roman era, with a focus on Iron Age Israel.
  • Dorsey, David A. The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel. Baltimore, 1991.
    Up-to-date discussion of travel and transportation in ancient Israel and the Near East, covering means of transporting goods, modes of travel, average traveling speeds, and traveling conditions. See especially pages 1–51
    .
  • Forbes, R. J. “Land Transport and Road-Building.” In Studies in Ancient Technology, vol. 2, pp. 131–192. 2d rev. ed. Leiden, 1965.
    Relatively well-documented study, with an emphasis on the Greco-Roman period.
  • Leemans, W. F. Foreign Trade in the Old Babylonian Period. Leiden, 1960.
    Discussion of trade during the early second millennium BCE in Mesopotamia
    .
  • Littauer, M. A., and J. H. Crouwel. Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East. Leiden, 1979.
    Excellent study of the subject.

David A. Dorsey