Collection of letters in Arabic serving as passports or requests for safe conduct in the Caucasus

Scope and Content

The 'passport' letters written in Arabic are numbered in pencil and have been identified tentatively (in 1987, by a member of the Dept. of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies) as follows:

  • - Letter 1: Open letter addressed to a local notable and headman requesting them to afford the bearer every assistance in the course of the journey. Signed by a Russian official, and bearing a Russian seal-stamp.
  • - Letter 2: Open letter addressed to a local notable and headman requesting them to afford the bearer every assistance in the course of the journey, also signed by a Russian official.
  • - Letter 3: Request to a princely individual for assistance to the bearer(s) of the letter who is/are described as being in need of charity.

The collection also contains a fragment of the Koran, from Sura 79 to Sura 108.

Administrative / Biographical History

Probably the earliest documented use of an instrument which we today might regard as a passport is an item mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah. During the reign of the ancient Persian ruler Artaxerxes (around 450 BC), the prophet Nehemiah, who was working as a royal cup-bearer but who wished to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, was granted letters from the king requesting the governors of the lands beyond the Euphrates to grant him safe passage to Judah.

Closer to our own time and place, in Britain one of the earliest documents to which we can refer as a 'safe conduct' document appeared during the reign of King Henry V of England in an Act of the English Parliament dated 1414. In those days, such a document could be issued by the king to anyone, whether English or not.

Later on, from 1540, it became the job of the Privy Council to grant travelling papers and from this point onwards the expression 'passport' began to be used though whether or not it was derived from the notion of travellers passing through seaports ('passer', to pass, and 'port', meaning port or harbour) or through gates in city walls is open to debate. One document issued in June 1641 and signed by King Charles I still exists.

Late in the 18th century, the office of the Secretary of State took charge of issuing passports, and it is the Home Office that retains it today. From this time on - from around 1794 - records remain of every British passport which had been granted. They continued to be available to foreign nationals too, and until 1858 they were written in French. After that date, the passport acquired its role as a British identity document. Even so, passports were not generally required for international travel until the First World War. In 1914, and as a result of the British Nationality and Status Aliens Act, the first modern British passport was used.

As a result of agreement on the standardisation of passports reached between the member states of the League of Nations, a 'blue' coloured passport still recognised by many today was issued in 1920 and that format served until 1988 and gradual replacement by the 'burgundy' coloured European version in 1988.

The letters of safe conduct in this small collection are believed to have been intended for use in the Caucasus, perhaps in Daghestan where the only written language in the nineteenth century was Arabic.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Possibly related in some way to the Abercromby Collection.

Archivist's Note

Compiled by Graeme D. Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections.

Custodial History

Accession no: E87.60

Geographical Names