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Volume 17, Number 3May/June 1966

In This Issue

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Masterpieces By The Million

Photographed by Khalil Abou El-Nasr

Two inventions of the why-didn't-they-think-of-that-before variety ware introduced to a waiting world about the middle of the last, century. One was a pencil with an attached eraser. The other—proposed by an English-man in 1840—was the postage stamp.

Obvious though it may seem today, the idea of gumming the back of a rectangle of paper was really quite brilliant, it cleared the way for prepaid, delivery of mail throughout most of the world. It became the single most essential aid to written and printed communication. Without stamps, in fact, it would be difficult to imagine how normal business or social life would function.

Beyond the purely utilitarian, however, stamps have other values top. With their infinite variety of origins, kinds and purposes they have become objects that are fascinating tn themselves, objects which are prized highly and sought with ardor throughout the world by professional and amateur collectors. More recently they have also become art—a highly specialized art combining the skills of painting, photography, drawing, lithography and printing.

To serious collectors, of course, the artistic value of stamps is of scant importance. Philatelists look for other factors—indeed, it is usually the .philatelists alone who know the special characteristics that set seemingly identical stamps apart and who will look for features that the ordinary individual who simply wants to mail a letter wilt never notice.

Collectors, for, example, who examine stamps emanating from the Middle East, will immediately—and sadly—noises that whereas: stamp paper used to be made of linen or cotton rags, it is now manufactured from the cheaper but faster deteriorating wood pulp. This trend has philatelists worried because the stamps may not last for too many generations and because there are no longer watermarks on any stamps turned out in the Middle East except those from the United Arab Republic. Sorting out distinctive watermarks in the paper itself adds an extra fillip to the esoteric pursuit of stamp collecting.

In examining Middle, East stamps, specialists will also count the perforations at the edge of the stamp. Stamps in sheet have long since come perforated to enable one, stamp to be easily separated from, another; but to the specialist the number of perforations in a standard linear measurement is of a vast significance. Whereas U.S. stamps carry only eight or nine perforations every two centimeters, Middle East stamps have what philatelists call fine perforations—smaller holes, 12-14 in every two centimeters along their edges.

Impression—the technique used to print stamps—is another characteristic which in the philatelist's view helps give individual issues their special personality, Intaglio, or engraving, and lithography produce the finest-quality stamps, but nowadays those costly methods are being largely replaced, in the Middle East as elsewhere, by simpler offset printing. Some Middle East issues are printed in England and on the Continent by specialized stamp and bank note publishers but Jiddah, Damascus, Beirut and the Survey Department of the U.A.R. in Cairo. Are sources of a growing number of stamps from the Arab world.

But if watermarks and perforations, paper and printing obscure, the artistic value of stamps, that value is still there to be seen by the attentive eye. It can be found in the delicate lines and rich colors of the birds and flowers of Lebanon, in the fierce eyes of a Syrian poet, or in the airy lightness of a Persian scientist; It can be found in the arch of a bridge in Iraq, in the curve of a desert road in Saudi Arabia, in the angle of a steel tank on, the Arabian Guff.

Most stamps, to be sure, are no more than what they are supposed to be illustrations catching in a colorful way some place, some man. some monument that has importance in a region or a nation. Such stamps roll off the presses by the millions to be torn off pasted down, canceled, soiled, arid thrown away.

But there are others that are more than illustrations, stamps that in subject or mood or treatment, somehow cross that subtle line that divides illustration and art. There are not many and none, probably, will ever hang in a museum. But here, in our opinion, are sot that should ...

—The Editors—

Airmail from the small Trucial state of Sharjah, located near the northeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, travels under pictures of an historic local landmark clearly identified as Kalba Castle and of the Ruler of the Arabian Gulf shaikhdom at the time when the stamp at upper left was issued.

New Saudi Arabian stamp, upper right, depicts section of $40 million, 54-mile mountain highway, inaugurated in June 1965 by H.M. King Faisal ibn ‘Adb al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. which links the holy city of Mecca with the summer capital of Taif as part of the Kingdom's major road-building program.

Stamps have long been used to promote tourism in the nations where they are issued. Example at lower left shows waterfront of Amasya, birthplace of the Greek geographer Strabo, in northeastern Asia Minor, it was put out in 1958 in a series picturing scenic spots in 67 cities of Turkey.

Many Arab countries, including Kuwait, concerned over the inundation of Abu Simbel’s monuments to be caused by water backed against the new Aswan Dam, issued special stamps to publicize threat and gave proceeds from sales of the issues to help save the 3,000-year-old treasures from being lost forever.

Reminder: of the Middle East's ancient scientific, tradition is a stamp, opposite, issued in 1960 by Iran to commemorate the eleven hundredth' anniversary of the birth of Rhazes Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi, pioneer investigator of smallpox and measles and author of an early medical encyclopedia.

This article appeared on pages 13-20 of the May/June 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1966 images.