en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 34, Number 1January/February 1983

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

A Philatelic Tour

Written by Robert Obojski

For obvious reasons, tourist attractions provide fine motifs for postage stamps, land in the Middle East such thematic elements are almost innumerable: the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx at Giza, the Nile feluccas, the great ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon, the Citadel at Aleppo, Petra, the "rose-red" city, and the breathtaking Sakarya Gorge in northwestern Turkey, to name just a few. These and hundreds of other attractions, major and minor, have been featured on literally thousands of varieties of postage stamps turned out by the Middle Eastern countries for more than a century.

Such stamps offer vicarious travel through the length and breadth of the Middle East and its environs—or at least provide a kind of photo album with glimpses of those special tourist attractions that we absolutely must visit in person some day, or, if we have visited them, must never forget.

High—and probably highest—on everyone's list of attractions is Egypt, whose standing as a contemporary tourist draw is mirrored in its rich postal issues. The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, in fact, became a signature on the country's early stamps; some 150 major varieties of Egyptian stamps show them. Among the most dramatic of Egypt's stamps are those airmail issues showing planes flying over the Pyramids—the supreme contrast between "the old and the new"—with the Great Pyramid at Giza on the west bank of the Nile graphically reflecting the grandeur of ancient Egypt. Built by King Khufu (Cheops in Greek), the Great Pyramid is the most massive structure ever built by man and is the only one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" to survive today (See Aramco World May-June 1980). Though it has lost nine meters (30 feet) at the apex, it is still 137 meters (451 feet) high—equal to a 40-story building; it is fully 225 meters (740 feet) long on each side of the base, covers 53 square kilometers (13 acres) and contains well over two million blocks of stone averaging two and a half tons each. According to Herodotus, the renowned fifth century B.C. Greek historian, 100,000 men worked for 20 years to build the Great Pyramid.

Equally famous, perhaps, is the Sphinx, thought to have been erected during the reign of King Khafre (Chephren in Greek) about 2550 B.C. A tribute to the awesone technical skill of the ancient Egyptian builder, the Sphinx, carved out of natural rock, has a man's head 10 meters high (33 feet) and the body of a crouching lion 53 meters long (172 feet). Over the centuries the Sphinx has been partially buried by desert sands and battered by vandals, but a comprehensive excavation of the project—started in 1817-18 and completed in the mid-1920s—cleared the entire area and disclosed a wall erected during Rome's occupation of Egypt.

On stamps, these monuments show up most recently on a large 10 milliemes specimen released on December 27, 1961 to publicize the installation of floodlights and sound equipment at Giza, an innovation that increased the area's touristic attraction still more. They are also featured on a 110 millièmes air-mail multicolored tourist publicity sheet showing a map of Egypt with major tourist areas marked.

In what is a direct link to tourism, Egyptian stamps also show an impressive array of hotels. Among the hotels depicted are: the famous Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo, 10 milliemes, 1957; the Nile Hilton Hotel, Cairo, 10 milliemes, 1959; another view of the Nile Hilton, 2 milliemes, 1964-67; Tower Hotel, Cairo, 40 milliemes, 1964-67; Cairo Sheraton Hotel, 20 milliemes, 1970; and the Hotel Meridiem, Cairo, 100 milliemes airmail, 1974.

Some of the loveliest stamps reflecting the touristic motif are also the saddest: the stamps from Lebanon issued in the early happy years before civil war and invasion destroyed the country.

Once a part of ancient Phoenicia, Lebanon has within its boundaries Baalbek—among the most magnificent ruins in the world—the famous Cedars of Lebanon, modern cities, old villages, orange and olive groves, banana plantations, wonderful wildflowers and crystal-clear rivers gushing from grottoes. Because all these elements have appeared on Lebanese stamps, the student of Lebanese history and culture has a rich lode of stamps to examine: some 1,700 major varieties since 1924 (this figure includes regulars, airmails, and such special issues as semi-postals, postage dues and postal tax stamps.)

The most famous ruins in Lebanon, of course, are the Roman ruins at Baalbek, some 40 miles east-northeast of Beirut, and they first appear in the 1925 pictorial series. A Roman colony under the emperor Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D.), Baalbek attained its greatest splendor in the centuries immediately following, when three great temples were built: the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Bacchus and the Temple of Venus. Of these, the Temple of Jupiter was the most impressive; indeed it is one of the most imposing structures ever built by the Romans: 97 meters long (300 feet), with 58 massive Corinthian columns, a few of which survive to this day.

In the 1925 series, a general view of the Baalbek ruins is given on the 25 piaster value, while the Temple of Jupiter is depicted on the 10 piaster; all three temples are featured on the 1930-35 pictorial series in which, interestingly, the massive west wall of the Bacchus Temple is in an excellent state of preservation. Among more recent stamps depicting the grandeur of Baalbek are those included in two separate series issued by Lebanon to publicize "International Tourist Year, 1967."

The 1925 pictorial series also in eluded the famous Cedars of Lebanon, the handsome evergreen that often reaches a height of more than 30 meters (100 feet) and that has been valued through the centuries for its durable and beautiful timber—some of which, according to the Bible, was used by King Solomon to build the Temple of Jerusalem. For Lebanon, these ancient trees are almost a logo and are depicted on the country's flag.

A particularly handsome Cedars of Lebanon set consists of the five values in the 1937-40 regular issue series, and among more recent stamps the 50 piaster regular issue of 1974.

One of the earlier tourist publicity issues is the 1936 set of eight promoting skiing in Lebanon, and there were others later: a 1968 airmail series of five publicizing the 26th International Ski Congress.

Another area that can be "toured" by stamps is Syria, in ancient times a region that included what is now the Republic of Syria, Lebanon, occupied parts of Palestine, in today's Israel, and Jordan. Because it was a land bridge connecting Europe, Africa and Asia, Syria was a prize for numerous conquerors - and the monuments and ruins on Syrian stamps reflect it. Syria, for example, was a link between the storied civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Nile, a province ruled, in succession, by Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians; it was also conquered and ruled by Alexander the Great and the succeeding Seleucid emperors.

In 64 B.C., Syria was conquered by Rome, came under Byzantine rule in the fifth century and, by 640, had become an integral part of the Muslim Empire. In 1516, the Ottoman Turks won control of Syria  and ruled it until the end of World War I in 1918, when France was given a League of Nations Mandate over the Levant. Finally, on September 16, 1941, Syria was proclaimed a Republic, achieved full independence in 1946 and became the Syrian Arab Republic in 1961.

Syrian stamps—issued in great variety—clearly and graphically reflect this lengthy history and the rich cultural traditions that have evolved as a result. From the time France first issued occupation stamps for Syria in November 1919, up to early 1982, more than 1,850 major varieties have been ascribed to Syria.

Most of Syria's earlier issues were overprint-surcharge type stamps, but in 1925 the country issued its first pictorial stamps series featuring famous landmarks from some of its most important cities; it included, for example, a piaster stamp showing the great Umayyad Mosque at Damascus. Damascus mosques were shown again in the 1930-31 pictorial series, the Damascus Museum can be seen on several values from the 1940 regular issue series, and a 1969 set of three airmails commemorates the completion of the new Damascus International Airport, continuing the new-old theme started on the piaster stamp from the 1931-33 series; it shows a plane flying over Damascus' ancient city wall.

Syrian stamps also offer a glimpse of the country's international role. In 1971, for example, Syria turned out a set of four large-sized multicolored stamps to commemorate the 18th International Damascus Fair, specifically featuring the country's fertilizer, electronics, glass and carpet industries. In 1978, the country also issued a set of two to mark the 25th anniversary of the Damascus Fair—which draws tens of thousands of people annually—and also issued a set of five showing various types of flowering cacti to mark its International Flower Show. Some issues offer a short tour around Aleppo, Syria's second most important city, an ancient trade center and today a major industrial city.

One view of Aleppo is given on the 5 piaster in the 1925 pictorial series, and another—of Aleppo's Citadel—is featured on the 1 piaster in the 1930-31 pictorial set.

Other stamps are: a 1957 set of three publicizing the Cotton Festival at Aleppo in the fall; five large-sized multicolored stamps marking the 1970 Industrial and Agricultural Fair; a 1968 airmail issue—a set of three—which shows the Euphrates River Dam Project, one of the modern wonders of the Middle East; and a 1973 regular issue set of two publicizing commencement of the same dam project. There is also a single 60 piaster specimen released in December 1978 commemorating the inauguration of the dam and its associated power plants.

All Syrian stamps are inscribed at least partially in Arabic, the country's official language, though French inscriptions were also used during and after the Mandate period and some English inscriptions are still used.

As noted, countries of the Middle East have collectively produced several thousand varieties of stamps that relate in one way or another to tourism, but because of space limitations only a few types can be mentioned. In addition to "tourist" specimens from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, for example, there are a number of particularly outstanding issues from Fujeira, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Egypt's first official adhesive stamps—a seven-value set (from 5 paras to 10 piasters)—issued in January 1866 under the aegis of the Turkish khedive Ismail Pasha (ruled 1863-79)—caused a bit of a problem in their day because postal clerks in Europe and elsewhere could not determine either the country of origin or the denomination of the stamps; they apparently thought the stamps were Turkish, not Egyptian. As a result a new series of stamps was ordered for 1867, in which the central design left no doubt as to the country of origin; a German engraver named Hoff executed the dies for the six 1867 values (from 5 paras to 5 piasters), with each depicting the Sphinx and Pyramid at Giza in the center, with Cleopatra's Needle and Hadrian's column in Alexandria in the side panels.

The inscriptions were still in Turkish, but the numerals of value were rendered in European style. This set remained current until 1872, and from then on Egypt's great monuments have been liberally portrayed on her stamp issues. The series of 1872, 1874-75, 1879-93, as well as several others, feature variations of the classic Sphinx and Pyramid vignette—the focus of the mass tourism that is a factor in the economics of not only Egypt, but much of the Middle East.

Robert Obojski, a specialist on Middle East stamps and coins, contributes regularly to Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the January/February 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: STAMPS

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1983 images.