Time to blow the dust off a neglected resource for research and teaching

Jonathan Conlin on why philately needs to make a comeback.

Full disclosure: as a child I collected stamps. For some reason I focused on Panamanian issues, purchased from a remote corner of Gimbels department store on 86th and Lexington Avenue in New York. A confession seems called for: as René Neumann notes in his 2017 study of Turkish stamps, philately’s popularity has declined so dramatically that the hobby seems “dusty and stale”. But is this fair? Surely in a region in which sovereignty and historical memory are contested, these small tokens of state sovereignty are too precious to be left to a dying breed of collectors?

Although a well-illustrated 2008 essay by Feroz Ahmad is an important exception, otherwise Ottomanists and historians of Turkey have largely neglected stamps, at least compared to scholars of Arab societies. A historian of print culture, Ami Ayalon (Tel Aviv) has addressed stamps alongside handbills, placards and similar “ephemera”. Joshua Teitelbaum (Bar Ilan) built on Ayalon’s work in his contribution to Erik-Jan Zürcher’s 2016 volume Jihad and Islam in World War I. As Ayalon noted (93), “stamps reflect ideologies, aspirations and values, attesting to political, social and cultural ideas.” Teitelbaum’s essay mines the Hejazi stamps issued between 1916 and 1924, exploring their imagery and especially the shifting ways in which Husayn bin Ali styled himself and his regime – from “King of the Arab Lands” to a 1924 gold overprint “Commemorating the Caliphate”, bolstering his claim to that title. Rather than being a “western” imposition, Teitelbaum notes, Husayn himself requested British assistance in issuing these stamps.

In an Ottoman Empire in which several foreign powers operated their own network of post offices, the humble postage stamp’s power to assert sovereignty was arguably greater than in other parts of the world. My current research into the Donanma Cemiyeti (Ottoman Navy League, est. 1909) has certainly benefited from study of stamps. Ottoman issues depicting the Hamidiye cruiser (see illustration) stoked the fires of the dreadnought race between the Empire and Greece (with Russia always in the background) in the runup to 1914. So did the unofficial stamps issued by the League itself; one of the many ways (alongside songs, medals, etc.) Ottomans could display a certain patriotism, contributing to that “mobilisation” process explored by Mehmet Besikçi.

Iraqi stamps, from Ottoman- to Saddam-era postage

Finally stamps are a useful resource for “flipped classroom” teaching. At Southampton I teach an undergraduate module entitled “Oil Burns the Hands: Power, Politics and Petroleum in Iraq, 1900-1958”. In one class I divided the class into small groups and gave each a pile of Iraqi stamps, ranging from Ottoman issues overstamped by Britain’s Indian Expeditionary Force after 1914 (for use in what was now British-controlled territory) to Saddam-era stamps drawing attention to Iraqis’ suffering under international embargo.

At very least, I thought, the exercise would set my students straight on the line of Hashemite succession. In practice it did much more, eliciting questions that served a useful purpose: “Why do Ottoman stamps have French on them?” “Why is Faisal wearing a suit in this stamp, and a keffiyeh on that one?” Students noted how “Assyrian” motifs appeared in the 1930s, and then re-appeared under Saddam. Despite their age, the stamps themselves cost only a few British pounds on ebay. The class went so well I devoted another class to a related “flipped” activity: this time students were asked to design their own postage stamp to commemorate Lausanne. This exercise, too, worked well, from a pedagogical perspective – as well as being a lot of fun, both for me and the students.

Who knows, maybe some of them might become collectors . . .


Sources

Feroz Ahmad, “Postage Stamps, Politics and Ideology in the Late Ottoman Empire”, in Ahmad, From Empire to Republic vol. 2 Essays on the Late Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey (Istanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2008).

Ami Ayalon, “The Hashemites, T.E. Lawrence, and the Postage Stamps of the Hijaz”, in Asher Susser and Aryeh Shmuelevitz (eds.), The Hashemites in the Modern Arab World: Essays in Honour of the late Professor Uriel Dann (London: Cass, 1995).

Mehmet Beşikçi, The Ottoman Mobilization of Manpower in the First World War (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

René Neumann, “Postwertzeichen als historische Zeugnisse: Ein Einblick in türkische Briefmarken”, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 107 (2017): 235-50.

Joshua Teitelbaum, “The Man Who Would Be Caliph: Sharifian Propaganda in World War I”, in Erik-Jan Zürcher, ed., Jihad and Islam in World War I (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2016).

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