A country's heritage is not only safeguarded in museums. Methodical collectors who give access to their collections contribute in no small way to cultural preservation. This is the story of a passionate collector who preserves little snippets of Egypt’s history, one stamp at a time.
“Ah…., this is a lovely piece,” Sherif El Kerdani exclaims, drawing our attention to a rather ordinary looking envelope in one of his meticulously annotated and presented albums. It turns out that he’s right: the postage stamp indicates that in 1910, Heliopolis was still officially beyond the suburbs of Cairo, and the sender had to pay the national rate of five milliemes, rather than the mere three, required for intra-city post. What’s more, the letter addressed to somebody living beside the mosque in Midan al-Gamia, today one of the neighborhood’s busiest squares, was returned to sender. Why? Because according to the postman there were no houses on that square in 1910.
El-Kerdani, a urologist by profession, and an avid stamp collector, was introduced to philately at the age of eight, during a three year stay in England. Inspired by his mother, who carefully kept the Egyptian stamps the family received on letters from relatives back home, he showed interest, was given his own album, and the rest, somewhat surprisingly, is the history of modern Egypt, told through a collection of postage stamps amassed over the last 40 years.
And it isn’t just Egyptian trivia: We learn that, like many important functions in the Ottoman Empire, the postal system started in Egypt as a private enterprise. Established in the 1820s as the Posta Europea, by an Italian by the name of Michel Meratti, the business developed along railroads and waterways (reminding us of the inseparability of the postal system and transport-related infrastructure). It was later turned over to an heir, Muzzi, who received permission from the Viceroy Said Pasha to use the government railway system at what was then the significant sum of LE144 per year. Following the wishes of Said’s successor, Ismail, a dedicated nation builder, the company was bought by the government, and Muzzi made its director, and given the title of Bey. And thus, a year later, in January 1866, the first Egyptian postal stamps were issued.
In order to send letters abroad, standard procedure was for a letter to be sent from the post office at the consulate of the desired country, and Egypt itself had both consular post offices (located in countries where there was a sizeable Egyptian community), and territorial post offices (places under Egyptian rule). If a letter was to be sent abroad from a place in Egypt with no consular office, it would have an Egyptian stamp to get it to the required consular office, and the foreign consulate’s postage stamp to take it abroad – a combination called “mixed franking.”
Very often there wasn’t enough time to produce stamps for a certain occasion, and the easiest solution was to overprint them. El-Kerdani tells us the story of al-Mahdi’s regressive rule of the Sudan (1885), in which both the postal service and the railway system were shut down. Upon Kitchener successfully retaking the country in 1898, both systems were reinstated, but there were no Sudanese stamps to be found, and the easiest solution was to overprint “Soudan” on Egyptian stamps and use those.
As is typical of Egypt even today, El-Kerdani reminds us, ensuring special service was comforting, and Egypt was the only country to develop an inter-postal seal service (in 1864), which, applied to important dispatches especially between high officials, would guarantee good treatment.
The First World War brought an influx of British forces in Egypt, for whom the postal system was essential as letters to and from home helped boost the troops’ morale. Forces “on active service” (OAS) were exempt from paying postal charges as long as this was marked on the envelope. The war also meant numerous shortages — one of which was paper. Ever resourceful, the British army designed reusable envelopes, with careful instructions on how to open and seal them to make this possible.
It wasn’t until 1914 that Egypt started to produce “pictorials”, El-Kerdani explains, pointing out a series of stamps depicting Egyptian landmarks, first issued on January 8th, to be exact. The date corresponded to the 22nd anniversary of Khedive Abbas Helmy II’s ascent to the throne, starting a flourishing tradition of pictorial stamps, but not boding well for the Khedive himself, who was deposed and exiled in the same year.
Several albums later, we reach 1922, El-Kerdani’s favourite period. This marks an important turning point for Egypt – it became a sovereign state, with King Fouad as its ruler. It was only then that the ruler’s portrait made it on to the Egyptian postal stamp, before that the country’s precarious relationship with the Sublime Porte in Istanbul made portraits doubly inappropriate: Egypt’s khedives were technically subordinates to the Ottoman sultan, and therefore not entitled to put their face on stamps, while the sultan himself, in his capacity as, Amir al-Mu’minin (leader of the Islamic umma), was seen as a religious figure and therefore representing him was frowned upon, as per Muslim tradition.
King Fouad, El-Kerdani surmises, “was an excellent ruler, who made use of his status as king to bring reform. Dictatorial and strong in character, he was also conscientious, wise, and foresighted, having a very strong sense of the impact of his actions. He moved towards the Egyptianisation and Arabisation of the government, but neither in a hot-headed nor a zealous way. He believed that there was no reason why Egyptians shouldn’t take on important posts in a system that had tended to reserve them for foreigners, but was also a perfectionist, and knew that good education was a prerequisite for all of this.” Unsurprisingly, his first postage stamps were printed in Arabic, until the Universal Postal Union, (UPU), in 1927, stipulated that every stamp had to have the key information in Latin script as well. Egypt’s first commemorative stamps date from Fouad’s reign and mark the numerous international conferences held in the country, largely through the ruler’s persistence and conviction that making his nation a venue of scientific debate would help it progress.
There were many other postal firsts under Fouad: Airmail started in 1926, initially with a single line flying between Cairo and Baghdad. Around the same time, the first quality Egyptian stamps were produced in the country (they had previously been printed in England and Holland), and by the 1930s, Egypt had pioneered a new printing technique, the “bleed off”, much to the annoyance of established European print-houses, who took a decade to master the technique.
Farouk came to the throne in 1936, a boy king with many of his father’s good intentions, but with a weaker character. This was the heyday of the commemorative stamp, and the increased public face of the royal family, rather than just the king, meant that Farouk and his much-loved bride Farida, appeared on the postage stamp as a couple, first in commemoration of their wedding, and, a month later, on the occasion of the King’s 18th birthday, ironically, with Farida in her wedding dress (the wedding stamp depicts her in day clothes).
World War II divided up the Mediterranean, and postal services to Europe, formerly very easy, sought new routes. A letter from Cairo to London would now have to go via Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, and Portugal……. a rather lengthy proposition. As always, the postal system responded to socio-political and economic state of affairs. Here, the solution came through an agreement with Eastman Kodak, whereby letters were photographed, put on rolls of film in groups of 1500, and printed in England. Thus the air-graph came to being, followed by the aerogramme, an extremely economical invention whereby the envelope and the letter became a single piece of paper.
The 1952 coup d’etat created a new government, with strong anti-monarchist sentiment and huge stocks of King Farouk stamps. The response was traditional: overprinting, but the sheer numbers required the enlisting of print houses that had never dealt with stamps before. The result was that the deposed king’s stamps were defaced through a rather sloppy process, of which King Fouad would certainly have disapproved, but which led to the inconsistencies that are the stamp collector’s dream: varieties. To make his point, El-Kerdani shows us the carefully noted differences in size and number between the bars obliterating the king’s handsome face.
El-Kerdani’s albums go on through hundreds of commemorative stamps of the next five decades; but, more out of time concerns than for lack of interest, we choose to stop at a positive note in 1957: Two Egyptian stamp-makers, sent to Switzerland to learn new printing techniques, and coming up with trials of fish — not particularly Egyptian, but demonstrating a new introduction that would come to characterise the philatelic future: multi-colour.
At our gathering, somebody comments that arranging stamps chronologically is unorthodox in the philatelic world. Apparently, typological groupings are the norm. El Kerdani’s answer to that is simple, “My interest in stamps is in the stories they tell; a chronological arrangement enables me to better tell the story of Egypt”. At that, I recall our first meeting two years earlier, with El-Kerdani prefacing his interest in philately, “A hobby is something that you enjoy; something shaped by the way you wish to enjoy it”.
Carefully shutting album 19, we exchange email addresses, and without much worry for the impact of email on the future of the postage stamp, I silently vow never to think of stamps as boring little bits of paper again.
This article was first published in Turath-Egypt’s Heritage Review, Issue III, 2009
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Following the 1952 revolution, a newly independent Egypt was rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with on the international stage, but its cinema industry was still only regional in scope. In 1953, celebrated director Fateen Abdel Wahab, representing the Syndicate of Egyptian Filmmakers, wrote a report identifying the obstacles holding back the Egyptian cinema industry.
Seif El Rashidi is an art historian currently based in London. He specialises in the management of heritage projects involving community engagement, and is currently working for the Institute of Historical Research and the Guildhall Library. He is co-author of "The Tentmakers of Cairo: Egypt's Medieval and Modern Appliqué Craft" [El Rashidi, Seif, Bowker, Sam] 2018, AUC Press. Much of his research and writing is about the Islamic world and its visual heritage.