In A Nutshell
The first mention of anything like modern-day passports comes from a Bible verse in Nehemiah. The Mongols issued one of the earliest passports in the form of an iron medallion presented to foreigners who were in Mongol territory and under the protection of the Khan. It wasn’t until nearly World War I that the more familiar format (which included details like height and eye color) was implemented. British government officials fought that idea for decades, claiming it was “degrading.”
The Whole Bushel
You’re finally heading off on that vacation that you’ve been waiting for all year, but before you can even get your first taste of a foreign land, you’re going to be stuck in airport hell. There are lines and lines, plus the tedious passport examination. It might seem like this is just another modern form of red tape and bureaucracy, but the idea is surprisingly ancient.
The Bible mentions something similar in Nehemiah 2:7-9.
I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters.
Centuries later, passports would be issued by a regime more known for its pillaging and looting than for its diplomacy: the Mongols. Under Genghis Khan, intricately engraved metal plaques called paizi were handed out for a couple of different reasons. Some paizi were carried by government officials as proof of their position and title, while others were given to people coming and going through the empire. They were usually reserved for people who traveled on state business and foreigners who were in Mongol territory under the protection of the Khan.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the dozen or so Mongolian passports we’ve found, and theirs was issued to a Tibetan monk named ‘Phagspa. The monk, who was an adviser to Kublai Khan, would have carried the 18-centimeter (7 in) by 11-centimeter (4.5 in) iron medallion as proof of his identity and protection from those that might think him easy prey.
Inscribed on the face of the medallion are the words, “By the strength of Eternal Heaven, an edict of the Emperor. He who has no respect shall be guilty.”
The oldest British passport was only signed a few hundred years later by Charles I. That was in 1641, and it was only good for three years until Oliver Cromwell made his lunatic grab for power. Not only were all earlier passports null and void, but no one was getting a new one unless they swore they wouldn’t be lifting a finger against Cromwell’s new government. (In fairness, the “no sail list” remained in effect until Charles II started circumventing the rules for reasons that were more social than diplomatic.)
British passports also went through a weird, 80-year period where they were written in French. The original English documents were changed in 1772 as French was considered a more diplomatic language, and British passports were issued in French until 1858, meaning those who set out to fight against Napoleon had French-language passports.
Those early passports also had no rules on what kind of picture you put on them. Some people posed with their whole families or with their pets, or wore some of the trendiest clothes they could. When it was first suggested that physical details like height and eye color should be added, the British Foreign Secretary called the idea “degrading and offensive.” That was in 1835, and it wouldn’t be until World War I that we’d see the now-familiar format.