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Why the design of passports of all countries in the world is the same

Is there a gilded coat of arms on the cover? And is that color? And all those intricately designed inner pages? The appearance of each of the elements of a modern passport has its own reason and meaning. Air force.

Photo: Shutterstock

Let us sympathize with our poor passport, because without it you will not even cross the border, and you will not prove that you are you. But, nevertheless, he is doomed to spend most of his time hidden in a safe place, and if anyone turns over his pages, it is usually tired and always irritated by something.

A passport flawlessly performs a double task - it identifies the identity of the bearer and the state that issued it. But we often frown when looking at our photograph in it, or even annoy why this archaic concept of “citizenship” is so important that we have to take this book with fake gold on the cover on any trip.

Nevertheless, the passport, as an artificially created means of identification, carries a rich visual and historical content that emphasizes our common features, although its very existence indicates the presence of boundaries separating us.

The traditional design of a passport rarely piques curiosity. Why, despite the incredible abundance of all kinds of pictorial elements (from birds and butterflies to bowls full of rice, all kinds of colors - pink, purple, yellow and orange), do passports still have to look exactly as they look today?

From handwritten parchment to booklet

Passports were not always semi-rigid, compact books. One of the earliest references to a document that served as a passport can be found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah (Second Book of Ezra), where the Persian king Artaxerxes I (about 450 BC) supplies Nehemiah with a special letter by sending him to Judea. In that letter, he asks the rulers of the lands beyond the Euphrates to allow Nehemiah to travel unhindered to Judea.

In writing about 321-297. BC. The ancient Indian political and economic treatise Arthashastra also mentions travel documents issued for a fee, without which no resident of the country could leave or return to it. We are not given to know exactly what those documents looked like, but it is likely that they looked like the oldest surviving passports. Written on parchment in an intricate handwriting, it included the signature of the English king Charles I. Since the sheet was far from pocket-sized, it had to be folded several times.

This document was issued in 1636 to Sir Thomas Littleton, allowing him to travel outside the kingdom to overseas countries. He gave the right to be accompanied by four servants, as well as the possession of a sum of 50 pounds sterling, suitcases and basic necessities.

When World War I broke out, governments viewed passports as a means of preventing spies from crossing the border. The first British passports resembling modern ones began to be issued in 1915. They were a piece of paper that was folded up and placed in a cardboard folder with the image of the British royal coat of arms.

The same unicorn and lion, symbolizing, respectively, Scotland and England, flaunt on current British passports along with two mottos in French (since Norman-French was the language of the English aristocracy at one time): dieu et mon droit (“God and mine right ”) and honi soit qui mal y pense (“ Let him be ashamed who thinks ill of it ”).

Early passports also had clear differences, primarily in photographs. The owner's photograph first appeared on a British passport in 1915, but his style was radically different from today's impossibly regulated photographs. Take, for example, the passport photos of Arthur Conan Doyle, which were taken a hundred years ago: on them he poses with his wife and two sons in fairly free poses (the whole family could travel with one passport).

On the passports of those years, you can find photographs in which people pose in their garden or on the seashore, with a cigarette, a newspaper or with a musical instrument. There is nothing official in those photographs - the character of the person is visible there.

On the subject: How to get or renew a US passport during quarantine

However, such images did not always succeed in being a means of identification. In his book Passport in America, the scientist Craig Robertson tells about the case of a Dane who came to Germany with a huge mustache, and there it turned out that he resembles Kaiser Wilhelm in this form. He shaved off his mustache, but on the way back he was detained at the border, since he did not look like the picture in the passport - moreover, without the mustache he strongly resembled one notorious swindler.

And it was only in 1920 that the League of Nations began to develop uniform standards for passports. Among the requirements were: 32 pages, the use of at least two languages, the name of the state on the cover at the top, the coat of arms of the state in the center and the word "passport" at the bottom.

This is what almost any modern passport looks like.

The quintessence of statehood

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN specialized agency, is now responsible for passport standards - size, format, technology used. But none of these standards dictate the color of the cover. Most passports are now three colors: red, blue and green. Why such a limited palette?

It so happened that blue passports are issued in the countries of the New World, the Western Hemisphere, red ones hint either to the communist present or to the past, and green ones often indicate Muslim countries. Some other colors, such as light cherry, are considered frivolous for a state passport, although many like them.

(As for frivolity and playfulness, here I immediately remember the Slovenian passport, which can be used as a flipbook showing the semblance of a cartoon drawn in a notebook. Quickly turn the pages and you will see a galloping horseman, whom evil tongues immediately dubbed a frightened cowboy, the bird that chases him.)

The uniformity of design sometimes leads to confusion. Immediately after the referendum to leave the EU, the British government announced that the passport will again be blue. But the fact is that the European Union never required a British passport to have the current burgundy color. The decision that the passport will be a deep wine color was made by the British themselves in 1988.

On the inner pages of their passports, states try to reflect national peculiarities as fully as possible, depicting famous monuments, natural wonders and famous citizens there, as if compiling a textbook for those who get to know the country.

For example, a Japanese passport contains no less than 24 works by Katsushiki Hokusai, famous for his beautiful engravings, and 36 views of Mount Fuji.

And the latest version of the American passport (2007) contains images of the battle, during which the Stars and Stripes flag was first used, and Mount Rushmore, with its sculptural portraits of four US presidents.

Sometimes passport pictures carry far from the message that designers expected. Almost 100 years have passed since married American women received the right to travel with their own passports (and not those entered in the husband's passport). However, among the 13 inspiring quotes from influential American citizens on the pages of the modern US passport, only one is from a woman.

But the Gabonese passport, up to the latest redesign associated with the introduction of biometrics, could be considered one of the most gynocentric (representing a view of the world from a female point of view) - its cover depicted a nursing mother with bare breasts.

However, no matter how patriotic message the designers are concerned with, the main factor is not aesthetics, but safety. Simply put, the more elaborate the passport pages are, the more details they contain, the more difficult it is to forge a document. And some of the most expressive and striking modern passports are precisely because of the concern for their protective properties.

This is the Canadian passport since 2015: if you illuminate its pages with ultraviolet light, the skies in the pictures will explode with fireworks, bright constellations or a rainbow.

In addition, in the new millennium, a biometric chip icon is increasingly appearing on passport covers.

On the subject: A person instead of a passport: how air travel will change in the near future

Similar in differences

The new (2014) Norwegian passport looks original: The design, developed by Neue Design Studio, uses Norwegian landscapes in a color scheme with white, turquoise and red-orange colors. Inside, the passport looks minimal in Scandinavian style, but ultraviolet light reveals the lights of the northern lights on the pages. So far, this passport is an exception. As a rule, the passports of different countries have much more similarities than differences.

Their strict, rational design emphasizes the very purpose of the passport, in which the emphasis is not on the individuality of the issuing state, but on the similarity of all countries for which prestige, significant position in the world, and the presence on the map that history has endowed them with are important.

In our world, where coats of arms are rarely used, passports look very similar to each other, despite the fact that they contain images of flora and fauna, crocodiles and ponies, chrysanthemums and cedars. All these intricate and decorative patterns on the pages, gold embossing on the covers are nothing more than a game of bureaucratic reason. That is why they are so strikingly similar to each other.

The passport has always had different meanings for different people. Someone was lucky to be born in a prosperous country, and for them a passport is, first of all, an opportunity to travel, a hint of adventure. And someone flees from disasters and wars in their homeland, and a passport for him is a symbol of hope, a promise that troubles will end someday.

The situation in the world is such that the passports of some countries open up much more borders than others. However, the pandemic that has now swept our entire planet has made any travel incredibly difficult. And in this sense, COVID-19 added another meaning to our passport: now we remember this booklet with border marks on small pages with nostalgia for travel.

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