Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Memory of the nation

An exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of Egypt’s postage stamps documents the country’s modern history, writes Mai Samih

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“In 1865, the Khedive Ismail decided to buy a company established by a group of Italians called the Egyptian Postal Company, after hearing of its financial success. This company had delivered mail to Cairo and Alexandria and then to all the Delta cities. The Khedive Ismail bought it for the state and renamed it the Egyptian Postal Authority,” explained Sherif Samra, chairman of the Egyptian Philatelic Club, speaking about the origins of Egypt’s postal service.

“Because there was now an Egyptian Postal Authority there had to be Egyptian stamps, so on 1 January 1866 the first Egyptian stamps were issued, a year after the khedive purchased the company on behalf of the state.”

To mark the 150th anniversary of the issuing of the first postage stamps in Egypt, the Egyptian Philatelic Club orgaanised the Third Continental Philatelic Exhibition last month at the Hanager Centre for the Arts at the Cairo Opera House.

The event took place under the auspices of the Egyptian Postal Authority, the Arab League, and the ministries of culture, education, antiquities, communications and information technology. It aimed to show Egyptian historical achievements through stamps from different eras.

Participating in the event were stamp collectors from the UK, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain. Many Egyptian stamp collectors were also present at the event, many of them having won prizes in international and regional exhibitions for their stamp collections.

“This is the third international exhibition we have organised thus far, as before we used to have just a local one in Egypt. We organised an event last June during which we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Egyptian Postal Authority. Six months before that, we had the first regional exhibition,” Samra said.

Although postage stamps are a relatively new invention in Egypt, the country’s postal services go back to antiquity. “Egypt was a pioneer in this regard, as the first postal document found in Egypt dates back to 255 BCE,” said Mohamed Omar, a member of the Egyptian Philatelic Club and head of the committee that organised the exhibition.

“Egypt’s more modern postal history is also older than that of all the other countries of the former Ottoman Empire. The internal postal system in Egypt preceded those in the Arab countries by almost 100 years,” he added.

Omar displays his own collection, which includes stamps dating back to the reign of King Fouad in the 1920s and 30s. There are stamps worth as little as one milleme, or 1/1000 of an Egyptian pound, to ones worth several pounds.

To mark the current anniversary, the Egyptian Postal Authority has issued a set of special stamps and a first day card. Said Samra, “We had the idea of organising an exhibition 12 or 13 years ago. We knew that in 2015, 150 years would have passed since the beginning of the postal service and the issuing of the first Egyptian stamps.”

“We contacted the parties involved, including the Egyptian Postal Authority, as we wanted to organise an international exhibition. Originally, our idea was to host something even bigger, but circumstances in the country over the past five years have prevented us from holding a gigantic exhibition.”

The exhibition was financed by members of the Egyptian Philatelic Club, and the Postal Authority provided the display cases and printed information. The exhibition includes 14 major collections from Britain, a collection from Lebanon, one from Syria, five from the United Arab Emirates, eight from Oman, eight from Saudi Arabia, and four from Cyprus.

Samra explained how to evaluate historical postage stamps. “The stamps are judged by a group of experts depending on their rarity and condition,” he said, adding that at the exhibition a bronze souvenir medal is given to each participant, together with a certificate.

“We have divided the stamps on show into sections, including regular postage stamps, dispatch stamps, consular stamps, and a historical section. There are also sections for stamps on subjects like rulers or celebrities or themes like birds.”

“One set consists of 12 sheets of the first stamps issued in 1866. There were various denominations: five paras (an eighth of a piastre), 10 paras (a quarter of a piastre), 20 paras (half a piastre), one piastre, two piastres, five piastres and 10 piastres. The latter, in particular, was a large sum of money 150 years ago.”

These stamps were not in circulation for very long, however, as they were overprinted in Turkish. “We Egyptians prefer our own history to that of other countries. People in 1866 did not like the stamps, as they felt they did not represent Egypt,” said Samra.

“So on 1 January 1867, new stamps with pictures of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, among other monuments, were issued, and they continued to be used throughout the rest of the 19th century and for the first 20 years of the 20th century, or about 50 years. Later, a set of stamps with the Collectors in other countries, including four European and ten Arab, were invited to the exhibition, but not all the guests arrived. “Unfortunately, we had bad luck as the exhibition started in the middle of the Christmas and New Year celebrations, and so some countries could not make it. But it was the choice of the Khedive Ismail, not ours, to choose this day some 150 years ago.” comments Samra.

But those countries that were represented came with some remarkable collections. “One of the most remarkable has been brought by a British participant, and includes the 1866 stamps. The collector has also written a wonderful study of them,” said Samra.

Omar explains the symbol he designed to represent the history of the mail in Egypt. “It is in the form of a triangle to show dynamic movement and the exchange of mail between different countries. The colours are taken from the Egyptian flag. Red is the colour of strength and hope, white of purity and peace, and black of authenticity,” he said. The Egyptian Philatelic Club uses the colour green, a symbol of the fertility of the River Nile.

The exhibition key chain was designed by Hebat Allah Mossad and represents the key of life or the key of the Nile. It symbolised eternity in Pharaonic culture, Omar said, and gave energy and strength to its holder. It was also the symbol of the spiritual union of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, which guaranteed the continued flow of water in the River Nile and linked Lower and Upper Egypt.

The Egyptian Philatelic Club was established in 1929, and its first premises were in Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Street in downtown Cairo. “We celebrated our 75th anniversary a few years ago,” Samra noted.

“The aim of the club is to help preserve the cultural wealth of Egypt through its stamps, as well as to help amateurs collect stamps illustrating the history of Egypt and to assist them in their studies.”

“For us, a stamp is not just a stamp. We study it for its colour, the watermark on it, the date on it, the way it is cut, the kind of envelope it was used for, and so on. We look out for the cancellation marks on it — was it properly registered, for example. The same goes for collections from other countries,” Samra said.

Some historical Egyptian stamps were instantly recognisable abroad. “The 1879 collection, which is composed of only two stamps, was used in huge numbers, for example. The two-and-a-half piastre stamp would have been used for European mail. Envelopes with these stamps were not charged additional fees, as these stamps were already worth more than enough for the European postal services.”

Egypt joined the International Postal Union when it was founded in the 19th century, the aim being to harmonise international postal services. Before the foundation of this organisation, someone living in Egypt who wanted to send a letter to England had to pay twice for the letter to be delivered — once in Egypt and once in England (an additional fee had to be paid to send it to England after it was handed to the British Consulate and they would put a new stamp on it). This adding to both the time it took for delivery and the expense.

The five-paras stamps on display in the exhibition could have been used to send books and newspapers from Egypt to Europe. The five-paras stamps were only used for a short period, however, making them one of the rarest denominations from the series today.

In 1925, the first souvenir stamps were issued in Egypt on the occasion of a major conference, and from that day onwards other events have often been marked by the issuance of new stamps. Souvenir stamps include those issued in 1926 on the occasion of the inauguration of Port Fouad. A special collection in the exhibition documents the rule of late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and marks the social changes that took place after the 1952 Revolution.

“Stamps are the memory of the nation. Anyone who wants to know about the history of Egypt over the past 150 years can find out about it through stamps,” said Samra. “Today, we are trying to develop our local exhibitions into regional ones. We hope to organise a local exhibition every six months and a regional one every year or so.”

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