The Ancient History of the Talmud’s Version of Instant, Long-Distance Communication

September 1, 2020 | Tiffany Earley-Spadoni
About the author:

According to the talmudic tractate of Rosh Hashanah, in the evening after the Jerusalem authorities announced the beginning of a new month, messengers would stand on the Mount of Olives and wave a large torch until they could see their counterparts doing the same on another mountain. The message would be spread in this manner from one mountain to another, “until the entire face of the Diaspora looked like a bonfire.” Thus, without the benefit of modern technology, announcements about the calendar could by conveyed quickly from the Land of Israel to Babylonia. Tiffany Earley-Spadoni explains this practice’s long pedigree:

[The 5th-century BCE Greek historian] Herodotus famously related splendors of the Persian world, including its road system. . . . A system of fire-beacon-signaling stations was [one] wonder of the Persian highway—a claim that is supported by [material] evidence at Anatolian archaeological sites.

A remarkable text, sometimes called “The Eighth Campaign,” describes a military expedition conducted by the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II in 714 BCE. According to this lengthy literary text framed as a letter, the Assyrian army set out from modern-day Iraq . . . and entered territories in modern-day Iran, . . . where it confronted one of the Assyrians’ most bitter enemies, the Urartian empire. The text . . . relates an altogether cinematic sequence akin to the lighting of the beacons in the 2003 film Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In advance of the arrival of the Assyrian troops, the Urartians illuminated the clustered mountain peaks like stars in the sky with their myriad beacon fires, presumably to warn their compatriots of imminent danger.

Archaeological investigations have revealed traces of the elaborate systems of fire beacons described in the Assyrian text. Fire-signaling platforms have been observed by archaeologists working in the region, and a computational analysis of fortress sites, identified in survey by German and Italian archaeological teams, suggest the fortresses were intentionally placed to create signaling networks.

Read more on Ancient Near East Today: