Every time you go on an overseas trip with your family, something happens at airport so frequently that you may not even think much of it - a tedious passport examination.

It doesn't just happen once too, along the way at various checkpoints, airport security will ask to see your passport. It seems like this is just another modern form of security, but did you know that the idea of a passport is surprisingly ancient?

It was even mentioned in the Bible. And that book is pretty old. 

The first so-called passport ever mentioned

In the chapter of Nehemiah in the Bible, there is a passage that goes like this: 

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.

 Those letters mentioned were a form of travel papers required so the author can have safe passages through foreign lands. Not unlike the current function of a passport. 

Passport didn't start out as paper booklets too

Centuries later, the Mongols would issue one of the earliest passports in the form iron medallions. Under Genghis Khan's rule, intricately engraved metal plaques called paizi were handed out to foreigners travelling on state business in Mongol territory. They symbolised that these people were under the Khan's protection and were to pass through without harm. 

 A bronze  paizi  currently displayed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A bronze paizi currently displayed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The words engraved on the face of the paizi says, “By the strength of Eternal Heaven, an edict of the Emperor. He who has no respect shall be guilty.”

The coolest kind of passport photo

But it was only until 1641 that we see the first signs of the type of paper passports in the booklet-form we know today in Britain. The oldest British passports went through a weird phase where they were written in French, as French was considered the more diplomatic language during that time. It was changed to English in the 18th century.

Those early passports also had no rules on what kind of photos you used. Some people posed with their entire families, and some even with their pets! That would have been way better than our current boring tight-lipped smile pose against a white backdrop, don't you think?

It wasn't until the 1914, during World War 1, that we see the now-familiar format of paper booklet with single portrait photo and the widely used rubber stamp to signify approved access into a country.

Even so, when it was first suggested that physical details such as age (and height for the British passports) should be added, the British foreign secretary considered the idea degrading and offensive. Good thing our Singapore passports don't make us state our height, weight or favourite unhealthy snack to binge on late at night.