In Cairo’s Postal Museum, a long history told on small stamps
CAIRO - The quaint Postal Museum in central Cairo is the definitive destination and reference for stamp collectors in Egypt.
The museum is not noted on tour maps and only diehard collectors know of its existence. It includes hundreds of thousands of stamps, some of which date back 150 years, plus detailed models and dioramas illustrating documentation, writing and postal services history since the days of the pharaohs.
Inside the perfectly preserved royal hall, visitors can journey back in time through a vast collection of small and rare postage stamps and the large portraits of Egypt’s modern rulers from the Mohammad Ali dynasty hanging on the walls.
The stamp collection hall has been preserved as it was since King Farouk I reopened the museum that his father King Fuad I had founded in 1934. A huge marble slab at the museum entrance indicates that it was renovated in the 1990s. The beechwood displays however remained untouched.
The stamp collection room is the most appealing. The other nine sections of the museum offer glimpses into the history of postal services in Egypt and displays of postal uniforms, equipment, models of post office buildings, maps, land transport vehicles and those used for airmail. There are models of postal aeroplanes and the first airmail letter that was sent from Cairo to Karachi before Indo-Pakistani secession.
In the stamp collection room, visitors will find a rare photo of the first adhesive postage stamp in the world, the Penny Black, issued in 1840 bearing an engraving of a young Queen Victoria. There is also a rare photo of Sir Rowland Hill, the first postmaster general of the British postal services.
Museum curator Mohamad Bikri said the Postal Museum is a magnet for stamp collectors who have large collections of their own.
Egyptian stamps remained rather formal until 1926 when the first stamps celebrating King Farouk’s birthday came out.
The Boy Scouts first day covers of 1956 remain at the top of the hottest-selling items issued by the Egyptian Postal Services. Their prices range $834-$1,111. Next comes the Arabic Collection of King Farouk Stamps, which appeared in 1923. It is a collection of 12 stamps sold for $1,666.
Bikri said the large number of stamps commemorating Muhammad Ali dynasty at the museum reflects the role played by it in bringing stamp making to Egypt. Officially, the first Egyptian postage stamp dates to the time of Khedive Isma’il Pasha (1830-95).
The first Egyptian postage stamps were printed in Genoa, Italy, in 1866 when Egypt was an Ottoman province. A year later, a stamp-making facility was established in Egypt.
When the Free Officers Movement overthrew King Farouk in 1952, they kept King Farouk stamps in circulation for a year but they defaced them with three black stripes over the king’s face.
Bikri said the defaced stamps were the most sought after and not for political reasons. Stamp aficionados know that “defective” stamps are special and fetch top dollar — the bigger the defect, the higher the price, he said.
At the beginning of the new socialist republic in Egypt, stamps were adorned with engravings related to the Egyptian people’s occupations. The first such stamp represented an Egyptian farmer, a hoe on his shoulder, with palm trees and rural dwellings in the background. The second showed an Egyptian soldier shouldering his weapon. Finally, the third batch depicted a rural woman holding a cotton branch with sunlight bursting from its flower.
The Postal Museum houses the copper plates used in stamp making in Egypt along with original postal seals.
Bikri said the latest series of postage stamps in Egypt was issued in remembrance of Egyptian actors, including Mahmoud Abdel Aziz and Nour el-Sherif. There is a special stamp commemorating Egypt’s participation in the recent FIFA World Cup.
Muhamad Abdul Hadi is an Egyptian writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.