“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher. Yet it is a fundamental part of human nature to want to explore, to go beyond the boundaries. But travel throughout the ages has historically been fraught with difficulty and danger.
There have been bright spots. Between the years of AD1 to AD300 it was possible to do a grand tour of the perimeter of the Mediterranean and remain within Roman territory. Empires have generally been good for travel, with chaos often ensuing when they unravel.
Travel was only possible because of citizenship, because somebody was willing to vouch for the safe passage of the traveller. But where did citizenship originate? Some researchers suggest that the origin of citizenship dates further back to the time of the Israelites. They started to identify themselves as “a distinct and unique nation,” different from the nationals of the Egyptian and Babylonian empires. The first mention of a passport is in the Bible’s book of Nehemiah from about 450 BC. A prophet earned the safe-conduct from the ancient Persian king Artaxerxes to grant him safe passage to Judah.
As one might imagine, the Greek city states had plenty to say about citizenship. Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the dispute over citizenship by choice – something conferred on immigrants or slaves – as opposed to citizenship by birthright, a debate that rumbles on to this day.
Aristotle had severe rules for citizenship, saying: “A citizen is not a citizen because he lives in a certain place; nor is he a citizen who has no legal right except that of suing and being sued; for this right may be enjoyed under the provisions of a treaty.” He felt that somebody was a citizen only when they were able and willing to play a part in government. This is a much more narrow view than is taken nowadays, although there are still places that exclude people from full citizenship.
Marco Polo, the famously restless Venetian traveller, might not have pleased Blaise Pascal with his inability to sit quietly in a room, but he was only able to travel throughout the East when his father became the first European to receive a safe-conduct from Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler. The holder of the royal golden stamp of safe-conduct, called “Piaza,” could travel through the whole Mongol Empire and be provided with horses, accommodation and food.
The oldest existing English passport was signed by Charles I in 1641, three years before he was beheaded. The first document to be called a passport (“Passe ports”) was issued by the French king Louis XIV. Other countries followed suit, but by the 19th century technological development and mass immigration made citizenship and passport issues obsolete, with visas collapsing as the railway system crossed Europe. In 1861 France abolished passports, and many European countries followed this example.
The process also became unmanageable because of the wave of mass migration to the Americas. Between 1820 and 1930, 5 million Germans, 4.5 million British and a similar number of Irish immigrated to the United States. To this day, nearly half of all Americans do not possess a passport.
After the Second World War, a period of expansion took place in the passport world. States wanted to know who their citizens were, and in some cases, control their movements. Not every passport is the same: holders of a German passport can visit 158 countries in the world without a visa, while the passports of Afghanistan and Pakistan allow the holder to visit fewer than 30 countries each without a visa.
The passport has evolved considerably since it was a single sheet of paper to a small booklet with about 32 pages. But in an era of digital technology it is an anachronism. De La Rue, the British banknote printer, has announced plans to embed passports directly into smartphones. Earlier this year Martin Sutherland, the company’s chief executive, told The Times that they had started work on trying to secure phone-based information that would work at immigration control. But aside from creating the technology, De La Rue would also need to get it approved by governments.
That could be a sticking point. At some point in the future it would be nice to think that each individual could have their own data embedded under their skin. Once scanned, they would be free to travel wherever they choose. However, this is control that a nation state would be reluctant to give up. They want to control their citizens, and a passport is a good way of doing it. Even a European Union passport is issued by one’s own country, not from a body in Brussels. The technology is likely to precede the reality by a good many years.