Like James Joyce - who learned Norwegian simply to read Henrik Ibsen's plays in the original - a handful of American stamp collectors are studying Arabic so they can identify and enjoy some of the most interesting stamps ever issued: the stamps of the Hijaz, the western province of today's Saudi Arabia.
In the West, stamp collectors once shied away from Arab stamps; as with Arab coins (See Aramco World, July-August 1978), the inscriptions were difficult to decipher and distinguish. Philatelists today, however, prize Arab stamps to such an extent that such standard catalogues as Scott's and Gibbons' now provide thorough descriptions and even translate the inscriptions. This is particularly true of the stamps of the Hijaz, which offer the philatelic specialist a trove of overprints, double overprints and inverted overprints.
Stamps from the Hijaz, however, have an additional attraction. They tell, in their subtle way, the history of the Hijaz and - when added to the stamps of Najd - the dramatic story of Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud's long struggle to regain his patrimony.
Some stamps from the region, in fact, go back to the private postal systems established so Europeans abroad could post letters home. One, owned by an Italian firm, reached Jiddah in 1865 using Egyptian stamps cancelled with the word Gedda. Many of the early stamps still available from the Hijaz, however, are Turkish stamps - which the Ottoman Empire began to issue in 1840 and gradually introduced throughout its territory during the late 19th century - or stamps issued by the Sharif of Mecca, Husain ibn'Ali, who expelled the Turks from the Hijaz in 1916.
Known in the West as the leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I, Husain first clashed with Abd al-'Aziz after assuming the title of "King of the Hijaz". He launched an attack on the oasis of al-Khurmah on the route between the Hijaz and Najd. It was the beginning of a series of battles which did not end until December 1925, when Abd al-'Aziz entered Medina and Jiddah and, in 1926, accepted an invitation to take the title "King of the Hijaz".
On stamps, the first indications of a kingdom in the Hijaz appear in a 1916 set of three values. One was a ¼-piastre stamp showing the carved door panels of the al-Salih Tala'i mosque in Cairo (1), the second was the ½-piastre stamp, its central design taken from a page of a Koran in the mosque of Sultan Barquq in Cairo (2) and the third was a 1-piastre stamp depicting details of an ancient prayer niche in the al-Amri mosque at Qus in Upper Egypt (3).
Later, those same designs were featured on a 1917-18 series of stamps, with all values being inscribed "Hijaz Postage", but in the 1917-18 series new designs were added. On the ⅛ -piastre the central vignette is a Koranic passage, with the background from a stone carving on the entrance arch to the Ministry of Waqfs; on the 2-piastre stamp the central design is adapted from the first page of a Koran of the Mamluk Sultan Faraj (4). All of them, in philatelic circles; are noted for their complicated arabesque designs.
In 1922-24, Husain also produced a long series of stamps showing his arms as the Sharif of Mecca, the denominations ranging from ⅛ to 10 piastres (5); one of the 1924 series is particularly interesting because the arms were omitted, in a printing error, from at least one of the stamps (6). But from then on the Hijaz postal issues reflect the rise of 'Abd al-'Aziz.
The first of these - reflecting the succession of Husain's son on October 4,1924 - includes several types of stamps issued from Jiddah in 1925 and inscribed with overprints recording the accession of 'Ali. A long series, these stamps include an almost bewildering variety of overprint and surcharge types. The overprints come in gold, red, blue (7) and black, while the surcharges come mostly in black, blue and red.
Then, in May-June 1925, Ali began to turn out his own stamps, bearing his name and title (8); a series of 27 regular-issue varieties, all inscribed with overprints, except one of the 10-piastre types. Altogether, according to Scott's Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, there are 300 major varieties of these Hijaz-proper stamps, including postage-dues and other special issues, plus many scores of minor varieties.
In design, the Hijaz postage-due stamps are outstanding, at least as compared to other postage-due issues which tend to be bland in appearance. The 1917 set of three postage-due values, for example, features the portal of the mosque of al-Ashraf Barsbay in Shari' al-Ashrafiya, Cairo, as its central theme and they, from 1921 to 1925 were overprinted with various inscriptions. Another example is a new set of four postage-dues turned out at Jiddah in May, 1925; large-sized stamps, they feature the Arabic numeral of value as the central design. As in the case of the 1917 postage-dues, the 1925 series was also overprinted - in black, red (9) and blue - with various inscriptions.
Similarly, stamps record the end of Abd al-'Aziz's long campaign to unify the Hijaz and Najd.
A familiar story, it starts with the death of Abd al-'Aziz's grandfather, the Sultan of Najd, and the expansion of Turkish influence in Arabia while the succession was being contested. Later a rival dynasty, the Al Rashid, occupied Riyadh in 1892 and forced the Sa'ud family into exile in Kuwait until Abd al-'Aziz recaptured Riyadh and launched a long campaign against the House of Rashid.
To philatelists the story starts with Abd al-'Aziz's first Najd stamps, released in March-April 1925. Turkish stamps, they were overprinted in Arabic with an inscription reading "Post of the Sultanate of Najd" - a reminder that Abd al-'Aziz had fought not just the Rashids, but the Ottoman Empire as well. Then there is the 1922 set of Hijaz stamps - showing Husain's arms as the Sharif of Mecca - which Abd al-'Aziz had overprinted for use in Najd, and a number of other overprints for Najd. These included a series of eight that came out in late 1925, and had been prepared in anticipation of the surrender of Medina and Jiddah.
A high point in the story, of course, is the first set of stamps for a united country - issued by Abd al-'Aziz in February, 1926. The six values in the set are all inscribed "Barid al-Hijaz wa Najd" (Post of the Hijaz and Najd) (10). Then, in 1926-27, he issued a set of eight values which features his tugra, the elaborately calligraphed signature and emblem of a ruler. The inscription at the top reads: al-Hukumat al-Arabiya (The Arabian Government), while the inscription below the tugra reads, Barid al-Hijaz wa Najd (11).
In l929-30 the king issued a similar series of stamps - again with his tugra dominating the central design - which commemorated his accession to the throne of the Hijaz in January 1926 and, in 1934, the first stamps to bear the inscription "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." They bore, at the right, Abd al-'Aziz's tugra and were put out to commemorate the proclamation of Prince Sa'ud, son of the king, as heir apparent.
Between 1934 and 1957 Saudi Arabia's long 14-value set of stamps continued to carry the tugra as its central theme (12), but in recent years, new elements have been introduced. The 4-piastre stamp of 1964, for example, issued to commemorate the crowning of Abd al-'Aziz's second son, Faisal, as king, bears King Faisal's portrait, as well as the arms of Saudi Arabia, and subsequent stamps have recorded elements in the modernization of the kingdom.
Until recently, most standard philatelic catalogues had separate entries for stamps of the Hijaz and for Najd-Saudi Arabia issues. But now most catalogues, including Scott's, have one major listing for Saudi Arabia, with the Hijaz and Najd classified as sub-categories, and general dealers usually put the Hijazi, Najdi and Saudi Arabian specimens into single packets or collections-reflecting, it seems, the passage into history of the era when the Hijaz had kings and Najd had sultans.