According to several traditions, the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag Ba'Omer commemorates the method of communication in the days of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. When and how did it come to be? What other methods were used to transmit messages in the ancient world?

The country fills with bonfires, the air fills with smoke, and the mouth fills with the taste of a roasted potato. Lag Ba'Omer is the holiday of bonfires, even if it is not clear exactly why. One tradition links the bonfires to the day Shimon bar Yochai died, and according to another, they are meant to commemorate the beacons Bar Kokhba's men lit on the mountain tops to spread the word of the revolt against the Romans. And it is possible that they actually originated in the bonfire holidays celebrated in Europe around the same time of year.

And even if the bonfires we sit around on Lag Ba’Omer do not relate directly to the message about the Bar Kokhba Revolt, fire and smoke served to relay messages for thousands of years. In marking the holiday, we will take a look into the methods that enabled long-distance communication between people, long before the internet or even the telephone: fire and smoke signals, pigeon post and semaphores.

Up in smoke

Smoke signals may be the best-known of the three methods – like the white smoke billowing out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney when the College of Cardinals elects a new Pope. Its color signifies that the cardinals reached a decision; if no candidate received the required number of votes, black smoke billows out from the chimney instead.

The Catholic Church, billowing smoke – the whole thing sounds like an ancient tradition of at least hundreds of years. Actually, the use of smoke in this context goes back only to the 19th century. And the color method, of white and black smoke, is an even newer invention first used only in 1914, with the announcement on the election of Pope Benedict XV.   

Smoke and fire signals were of course used by many people and much earlier than that. The native tribes in Northern America used bonfires hundreds of years ago, or even earlier, for transmitting messages, even complex ones. By covering the fire with a blanket and exposing it for measured periods, they created small smoke clouds that could even be molded into different shapes. The cloud number, shape, and interval between them could all have a specific meaning.

There were also certain signals that were shared across numerous tribes: one cloud of smoke meant pay attention, something is going on here; two meant all is well; and three meant danger or help. Yet often the messages were encoded so that only the sender and receiver would be able to interpret them correctly. This allowed them to transmit private messages, even though the smoke was visible to all in the region.

Native Americans were not the only ones to use fires for transmitting messages. Smoke signals were used by the Chinese in ancient times to give warnings about an approaching enemy. Guards stationed on the towers along the Great Wall sounded the alarm through a smoke signal, and nearby towers transmitted the message along using the same method. This enabled the message about an attack to reach the commanders within a matter of hours, though they were hundreds of kilometers away.

The Ancient Greek took fire signals to the next level. As early as the 2nd century B.C., Greek historian Polybius invented a method that was not limited to preset messages, competing in terms of sophistication with the telegraphs that came some 2,000 years later. He designed a line of observation points with two walls, each containing spots for five beacons. Polybius had a code in which each letter of the alphabet was defined by digits from 1 to 5. By lighting the appropriate number of beacons in each wall, the messengers could transmit a line of letters, one after the other, effectively communicating words and entire sentences over long distances.

הפעם לא נבחר אפיפיור. עשן שחור בארובת הקפלה הסיסטינית ומעיד שאף מועמד לא זכה לרוב | צילום: ויקיפדיה, Vdp, נחלת הכלל
This time a pope was not chosen. Black smoke in the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, indicating that no candidate won the majority vote | Photograph: Wikipedia, Vdp

Pigeon post

Pigeons were among the first domesticated animals: their figure had been engraved on tablets and tools in ancient Sumer, nearly 5,000 years ago. The earliest evidence for messages transmitted using homing pigeons came from Ancient Egypt, where pigeons or doves were released from ships to announce their approach to the shore. This may be the origin of the story of the dove that returned to Noah's ark with the olive branch, signifying the end of the great flood (in contrast to the crow that did not return).

In ancient Greece and later, in Rome, pigeons were sent to announce the winners of different games or competitions, such as the Olympic Games or chariot races. Homing pigeons had a unique advantage in times of war: they could fly over enemy camps and “break” through fortifications and defenses. This is exactly what occurred in the battle of Mutina, located in today's Northern Italy, in 43 A.D., nearly one year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Mark Anthony placed the city of Mutina under siege, but was unable to completely cut it off from the forces outside. The Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote: “Decimus Brutus, who was in the town, sent despatches to the camp of the consuls fastened to pigeons' feet. Of what use to Antony then were his intrenchments, and all the vigilance of the besieging army? his nets, too, which he had spread in the river, while the messenger of the besieged was cleaving the air?”

Later, the Muslim caliphs established a regular pigeon postal service throughout the Middle East, from Damascus to Baghdad and Egypt. Legend has it that in the 9th century Caliph al-Aziz, who resided in North Africa, craved cherries from Lebanon. Six hundred carrier pigeons were sent from Baalbek, each with a small bag of cherries, to satisfy the caliph's craving. Genghis Khan also used pigeon post stations in order to keep in touch with all parts of his empire, as did the Ottoman rulers.

Their sense of orientation and ability to fly long distances gave pigeons an important role in mail systems until a relatively late stage – despite it being a unidirectional ability, limited to finding the way back home. In the 19th century, pigeons were still among the fastest, most reliable mailing methods and were used by businessmen to send classified information to their partners before it got to the competition. There is a claim – though, regretfully, a fictitious one – that a homing pigeon was responsible for the great fortune of the Rothschild family. The pigeon, so the story goes, was sent from Waterloo in 1815, before the famous battle between Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington completely subsided. It flew straight into Nathan Rothschild's house in London, making him the first person to know about the victory. The baron quickly purchased British bonds, and the rest is history. This story, as mentioned, is not true, but the Rothschilds extensively used homing pigeons for their businesses, for transferring sensitive information quickly.   

אמצעי תקשורת פופולרי. אשה צעירה עם יונת דואר, ציור מהמאה ה-19, צייר לא ידוע | מקור: ויקיפדיה, נחלת הכלל
A popular communication method. A young woman with a homing pigeon, drawing from the 19th century, unknown painter | Source: Wikipedia

Badges for pigeons

Pigeons were not retired from service even in the previous century. Homing pigeons played important roles in the two world wars, and were even awarded medals and honors. In WWI, the pigeon Cher Ami (‘dear friend’ in French) became famous. It completed 12 missions, on its last mission transmitting a message from a US infantry division that found itself isolated from all the other forces and got caught in friendly crossfire. Two other pigeons died en route to their destination, and Cher Ami itself sustained considerable injuries, reaching its destination blinded in one eye, with a chest wound, and the leg to which the message was tied was nearly amputated.

The 200 troops to survive the friendly crossfire considered Cher Ami to be the hero that saved their lives. They took care of it, even equipping it with a little wooden leg. She received the French military decoration Croix de Guerre. In WWII, the United Kingdom instituted the Dickin Medal, a special medal for animals, which was awarded to 32 pigeons, more than any other animal (the rest was awarded to dogs, horses, and even one cat).

Pigeons arrived at the battle zones together with the troops, and at times even parachuted from airplanes, while either tied to the chest of human paratroopers or inside cages that were connected to parachutes.

Homing pigeons were used for transmitting secret messages in pre-state Israel, too. The people of the NILI espionage network tried to use them for transmitting messages to Egypt, but none of the pigeons managed to reach its destination, and one was caught by the Turkish regime. The Turkish could not decipher the encrypted note, but the pigeon itself was enough to confirm the existence of such an espionage network in operating in the Land of Israel.

The Palmach and Haganah organizations established a unit of women who were responsible for using pigeons for keeping in touch with isolated Kibbutzim and towns times of war. Pigeons were sent to the shore from ships of the illegal Jewish immigrants (Ma'apilim in Hebrew) and transmitted information between forces during missions. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the unit became part of the Communications Corps of the IDF, and included hundreds of pigeons. It was finally disbanded in 1957.  

נפצעה קשה כשהצילה את חיי החיילים. פוחלץ של היונה שר אמי במוזיאון סמית'סוניאן  | צילום: ויקיפדיה, נחלת הכלל
Severely injured while saving troops’ lives. Cher Ami, after undergoing taxidermy at the Smithsonian | Photograph: Wikipedia  

Talking towers

The last decade of the 18th century was especially difficult for France. The revolution was at its peak, and the neighboring countries, from Austria to Spain, stood at the gate, calculating how they could gain from the chaos raging in the former kingdom. What France needed was a quick and efficient method of transmitting messages throughout their large country. Well, France in those days needed quite a few other things as well, but the message-transmitting system was a high priority on the list.

Engineer Claude Chappe and his brother answered the challenge. They built a tower with a vertical rod on the top, and they attached a mobile bar to it, which could be shifted and its angle changed. Two smaller arms were attached to the edges of the bar and could also be shifted. The room under the roof contained a system of levers and wheels that controlled the bars so that nearly 200 official shapes could be created with them. Each shape carried a different message. This is how the semaphore line was born.

The idea was simple: towers would be built between cities so that each tower could be seen from two other towers, usually at a distance of 3-10 kilometers. Each letter of the alphabet had a designated semaphore shape, and the operators of the tower would change the shape of the arms to the transmitted letters, one by one, with every change taking about 30 seconds to make. The crew of the next tower would see the first semaphore and change the arms of its semaphore accordingly, thus transmitting the message from tower to tower, until it reached its destination down the line.

The first line, which was inaugurated in 1792, connected Paris to the city of Lille, 230 kilometers away. It allowed transmitting short messages between the two cities within a little more than 30 minutes, providing there were optimal weather conditions. In the years to follow, more towers were added, until 534 stations covered nearly 5,000 kilometers of semaphore lines.

Chappe gave his invention its name, meaning “carrying signs” in Greek. It is also called a semaphore telegraph, since telegraph means “reading from afar.” Later, the name telegraph was given to another invention, so now it is simply called a semaphore line.

5,000 קילומטר של קווים להעברת הודעות בין מאות תחנות. מגדל סמפור בנרבון שבדרום צרפת | צילום: ויקיפדיה, Romain Bréget
5,000 kilometers of lines for transmitting messages between hundreds of stations. A semaphore tower in Narbonne, in the south of France | Photograph: Wikipedia, Romain Bréget

The last station of the Chappe system was built in France in 1849. Similar semaphore systems were established in the end of the 18th century and the early 19th century in other countries, such as Sweden, Britain, Portugal, Russia, and even across the Atlantic Ocean, in the US. However, in the second half of the 19th century, such systems fell rapidly, one after the other, due, of course, to the invention of the electric telegraph. The first commercial telegraph model was built in the late 1830s and quickly took over the market, pushing aside the semaphore until it was completely obsolete.

Nevertheless, one type of semaphore it still used to this very day. This is the flag semaphore, which is used for communication between ships and between ships and ports. In this method, the arms of the person conveying the message replace the mechanical ones, and are swung into different angles, usually accompanied by a pair of flags, to transmit different letters and messages.

The most famous semaphore signals are probably those that appear on the album cover of the Beatles' HELP. The four band members are photographed with their arms spread in different angles, which signify signals of the flag semaphore. Many assumed that these were the signals for the letters H, E, L and P, like the name of the album. But the truth is somewhat different.  

בסופו של דבר נבחרו אותיות אקראיות כדי שהצילום ייצא מוצלח. עטיפת האלבום HELP של להקת הביטלס
Eventually random letters were chosen to make the photograph look better. The album cover of HELP by the Beatles. 

“I had the idea of semaphore spelling out the letters H.E.L.P., but when we came to do the shot the arrangement of the arms with those letters didn’t look good,” said photographer Robert Freeman, who took the picture. “So we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning other arms.” The shapes that appear on the album actually signify the letters N, U, J and V.

The telegraph was succeeded by the telephone, the radio, and eventually the internet, and we all got used to being able to communicate with anyone we wish, anywhere in the world, almost instantly. Almost all semaphore stations were disassembled; the once-central method of communication by pigeon post became the hobby of a few, and only the US Scouts still teach how to make smoke signals.

However, those ancient methods show us that the need and will to communicate with others far away had existed thousands of years ago and maybe even earlier. Smoke, pigeons, smartphones, or chats – the means may have changed, but the intention behind them – not so much.


Translated by Elee Shimshoni