A passport is a critical travel document without which you are literally grounded.
We might nowadays associate passports mainly with train and aviation travel. But there are biblical references to travel documents that survive til today. In the Old Testament (Nehemiah 2:7-9), around 450 BC, the King of Persia gave government official Nehemiah a letter granting him safe passage to Judea where he had business to transact.
King Henry V of England invented what is considered by many the first passport. In those days a monarch would issue a document allowing for safe passage, sauf conduit. Such a document is mentioned in an Act of Parliament dated 1414. Although this was issued to anyone, foreign or domestic, and obviously not tied into nationality.
Also in Medieval Europe we find the first reference to the term ‘passporte’ which literally translates to passing through a [city] gate. That passport was a document issued by local authorities to travelers and it listed those towns and cities to which they were permitted access.
In the U.S., passports were first used during the War for Independence and designed by Benjamin Franklin’s (Minister to France) who was inspired by the French passport. Passports were required off and on during various periods until finally in 1941, laws were enacted requiring their use to enter the U.S.
The League of Nations in 1920 had addressed the passport issue, setting some guidelines on design and features. International passport standards were finally established by the United Nations in 1980 under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Over the years, passports have evolved both artistically and technologically. Some are quite beautiful and reflect a country’s identity, history and culture. Technologies applied to passports include hidden encoded messages, elaborate holograms, tamper-proof microchips, biometrics such as thumb print scans and digital face mapping. And some countries have a sense of humor, to wit: Finland’s passport features a flip book attribute showing a moose running through its pages.
Given their value to allow for movement, there is a strong marketplace for passports be they false, stolen or purchasable. You can buy one from Malta for US$1 million. Other countries that provide passports in exchange for a substantial investment include Cyprus (€2.5 million), St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada (US$250K), Bulgaria (€500K), Canada (CAN$800K) and Australia ($A800K).
The question of identity, chances of birthplace, allegiance, and ethnic and cultural associations do not necessarily jive with one’s passport which ostensibly reflects a person’s nationality. The nation where one resides is not necessarily the place one calls home. But 10 million or so people around the world are stateless and therefore hard pressed to obtain a passport which constrains their movement and thus freedom. They may be citizens of the world but as yet, there is no World Passport.