By Fred Baumann
Known as Istanbul or Stamboul, Constantinople or Byzantium, the ancient city that straddles the Bosporus Strait between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea has been important to commerce and civilization of the Mediterranean region for 3,000 years. Once capital of the Byzantine and later the Ottoman empires, then deprived of that status, today it hosts roughly 14 million residents, making it the largest city in Europe.
Issued just over a century ago, a marvelous set of 17 stamps documented that fabled city in the sweet youth of the 20th century with superbly rendered views of many of its historic and then-current attractions, a good many of which draw viewers and tourists from across Turkey and around the world to this day.
I grew up as a worldwide collector tutored by a skilled philatelist, but I must confess I had never heard of this set until I invited Linn’s readers to email me with suggestions of stamps, sets, and series that they had long enjoyed and felt would be worth a closer look.
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Randall W. Van Someren, an esteemed scholar of Canada’s Admiral definitives, recommended this set. “Catalog pictures just do not do it justice,” he wrote in his email, noting that “The top value with the portrait of the Sultan is the key stamp in the set,” which he described as “beautifully engraved.”
The stamps are all that — and a great deal more — for while these charming pictorial definitives were breaking new philatelic ground, the Ottoman Empire for which they were inscribed was nearing total collapse.
The old order that had governed most of the Islamic world for more than six centuries was beset on every side, and the Guns of August heralding World War I were but seven months in the future.
Many excellent books on the fall of the Ottoman Empire have been written, and will give you a fuller appreciation of the world in which these stamps were issued on Jan. 14, 1914.
For those who require only the thumbnail version, the relevant part of Wikipedia’s history of the Ottomans centers the release of these adhesives precisely amid the age of “Defeat and dissolution (1908-1922).”
The Ottoman Empire had always been postally progressive, beginning with its establishment of a Ministry of Posts in 1840, the very year Great Britain introduced the world’s first adhesive postage stamp for nationwide use. In all Asia, only Russia preceded it in issuing its own stamps, the first Ottoman issues appearing in 1862-63. Still, at that late date, the same year city delivery began in larger U.S. cities, there were only 63 domestic post offices in the entire Ottoman Empire.
For the half century from 1863 until 1913, Ottoman stamps were models of consistency. Only the tughra (an elaborate calligraphic monogram representing the ruling sultan), the star and crescent symbol of the empire itself, and various letters and numerals appeared on any postage stamps used in Turkey. Many Westerners found these early issues mystifying.
Nearby are two stamps that changed all that in 1913. The first and smaller of the two is a small, 23 millimeters by 17mm, definitive from a set of 10 depicting the new general post office in Constantinople, in denominations from the 2-para olive green stamp shown here up to 50 piasters (Turkey Scott 237-246).
The stamps were printed by the Dette Publique Ottomane, the same imperial agency that produced imperial currency and tax documents, with the tughra of Sultan Mohamed V Reshad centered at the top.
These typographed stamps are small and cramped, with a design that is hard to clearly make out. But it is the one of the first Ottoman stamps to portray something: a pictorial.
The second stamp, issued seven months later, is a far more successful and attractive pictorial, also in green, one of three detailed, engraved stamps depicting the Mosque of Selim in Adrianople (engraved as “Adrinople” on the stamp, today Edirne, Turkey), issued in 10pa, 20pa, and 40pa denominations (Scott 251-253). Pacific and appealing as the stamps might look, they were issued as commemoratives of the successful and bloodless recapture of the city in July by the Turkish army after Bulgarian and Serb troops had seized it in March following a lengthy siege.
The designs of the Adrianople stamps and the later Views of Constantinople stamps of 1914 are attributed to the minister of Posts and Telegraphs, Oskan Effendi. He was one of many educated Armenian Christians who held high rank in the Turkish civil service prior to WWI, but he was not a graphic designer.
To do the work, he contacted the London security printer Bradbury, Wilkinson & Co., Ltd., which relocated three years later to the new security printing works shown on the nearby blue promotional label demonstrating its workmanship.
In his 1938 landmark book The Stamps of Turkey, Adolf Passer notes that the stamps were “engraved by various artists in England.” He names seven, including “the Spanish engraver, Enriquo Vaquer, [who] did the portrait of the Sultan.”
Although Oskan Effendi is named by Passer as the designer of the stamps, it seems likely the engravers were working from photographic or graphic materials supplied to them at the Ottoman minister of posts’ behest. A reasonable guess is that much of this material would in all likelihood have been tourist postcards and photographs of the Ottoman capital, which were enormously popular at the time.
A photochrom color print made circa 1890-1900 from the book Views of People and Sites in Turkey, advertised in the 1905 catalog of the Detroit Publishing Co., bears a clear similarity to whatever artwork must have been used to prepare the 4pa dark brown Column of Constantine stamp (Scott 255). The two are shown together nearby.
That 4pa stamp is one of four lithographed low denominations in the Views of Constantinople set. The only other vertical stamps in the set also are low denominations: the 2pa red-lilac Obelisk of Theodosius in the Hippodrome (Scott 254) and the 6pa stamp showing the Castle of the Seven Towers (257).
In a land of peace and contentment, one might have expected a pictorial set as attractive as the Views of Constantinople to have sold briskly and then been retired, much like the United States’ 1893 Columbian commemoratives or Canada’s Victorian Jubilee issues of 1897. Alas, the Views of Constantinople were not issued in such a time or place. In fact, the Ottoman Empire had no facilities to print postage stamps until well into the 1920s, with the consequence that almost every stamp it had in stock would eventually be overprinted or surcharged and put to use.
One example is the 1pi blue stamp picturing the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Scott 260), the color of which alludes to its popular name, the Blue Mosque. Like all the Views of Constantinople pictorials, it was issued Jan. 14, 1914.
Less than eight months later, on Sept. 1, 1914, it and six other stamps from the set received typographic overprints to commemorate the abolition of the foreign concessions (278-284). Collectors are cautioned that forged overprints of this issue are numerous.
The “foreign concessions” were an extensive series of one-way obligations conceded to European merchants and nations operating in the Ottoman Empire, entered into beginning in the 1500s to attract international commerce. Exploited by European merchants, they were at last renounced to reinstate civil sovereignty to what would become the Turkish Republic.
Five of the Views of Constantinople stamps were bicolored, including four rather low piaster values. The first of these is the 1½pi carmine and black stamp depicting the Martyrs of Liberty Monument (now the Monument of Liberty, Scott 261).
In July 1914, a 1pi surcharge was applied to the 1½pi stamps to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the restoration of the constitution of 1876, identified in Turkish text on the stamp as a “national festival” (Scott 277). A canceled example of a 60-para surcharge added in 1916 to the already revalued stamp, along with a blue dated crescent and five-pointed star (419), underscores one of the built-in limitations of using multiple overprints or surcharges: The become difficult to read, decode, and understand.
The three other relatively low-value bicolored 1914 Views of Constantinople are the 1¾pi slate and red brown Fountains of Suleiman (Scott 262), the 2pi green and black Cruiser “Hamidie” (263, this naval cruiser also is known as Hamidiye), and the 2½pi orange and olive-green View of Kandilli on the Bosporus (264).
Passer states that the 1¾pi stamp Scott describes as showing “the Fountains of Suleiman” (Scott 262) pictures “the Fountain near the Ortabas Mosque or the Courtyard of the Mosque of Suleiman.” None of the images I was able to find allowed me to conclude which of these various views was the one intended, but Passer’s “or” does not inspire confidence.
With the exception of the 200pi stamp, the piaster denominations in the Views of Constantinople set are monochrome. Four of these are shown nearby: the 5pi dull violet Headquarters of the Ottoman Ministry of War (today the entrance to Istanbul University, Scott 265), the 10pi red-brown Sweet Waters of Europe (266), the 25pi olive-green Mosque of Suleiman (267), and the 50pi carmine View of the Bosporus at Rumelihisarı (268).
Sweet Waters of Europe, and a competing venue, Sweet Waters of Asia, puzzled me; whatever could these be? The answer came from author and columnist Niki Gamm of the English-language edition of Istanbul’s Hurriyet Daily News in her 2012 column, “Pleasure jaunts in Ottoman times”:
“Julia Pardoe, a young British woman, was in Istanbul with her father in 1836 and … seems to have particularly liked the Sweet Waters of Europe, which was the name given by foreigners to the area just to the west of [the north end of the Golden Horn]. She describes the area as ‘the loveliest spot in the neighborhood of Constantinople.’ The stream there runs through green vegetation and because it is the only stream of any size near the city, ‘it is an object of great enjoyment and admiration … You feel at once that it was destined by nature for holyday [sic] uses.’ ”
The 100pi and 200pi high denominations of the Views of Constantinople set (Scott 269-270) appear to have been rather infrequently used. The 100pi deep blue stamp picturing Sultan Ahmed’s Fountain was surcharged to just 10pi, one-tenth its original value, in 1915 (Scott 286), presumably to meet realistic postal needs.
Also later devalued to 25pi, the 200pi green and black bicolor depicting Sultan Mohamed V Reshad is so seldom seen with postal cancellations that it has an italicized Scott catalog value of $400. Many used examples were deliberately cut by postal officials to prevent fraudulent reuse, much as were many high-denomination U.S. revenue stamps of the same era.
Soon after the set was issued, the 10pa stamp showing Istanbul’s Garden Lighthouse (or Fenerbahce, Scott 258) became one of five denominations to receive a red or blue five-pointed star overprint (271) signifying that it was for use on mail to foreign destinations. Seven years later, in 1921, there were still enough of these stamps to make them worthwhile to surcharge “PARAS 60” (601), equal to the basic domestic letter rate then in effect.
Turkey was not the only corner of the Middle East where the Views of Constantinople stamps found employment, as demonstrated by the three extensively overprinted and surcharged 2pi Cruiser stamps shown nearby.
When British Empire troops occupied Mesopotamia in 1918-20, they made few friends by boldly overprinting Views of Constantinople stamps “IRAQ / IN BRITISH / OCCUPATION” with denominations in Indian currency. Virtually all of the different designs had slightly different settings for the overprints, the idea being to ink over the previous denominations to prevent confusion, but it seems some of the overprinters got confused as well.
Here, courtesy of eBay seller and store owner AFWorldCollect of Amman, Jordan, are stamps with the 6-anna on 2pi surcharge (Mesopotamia Scott N35) and two different settings of the overprint: the normal wide 32mm spacing and the scarce narrow 27mm overprint that does a better job of covering the old face value. Adding “ON STATE SERVICE” across the top made it a Mesopotamia Official stamp (Scott NO7).
These stamps got a rough ride in the British and American postwar philatelic press, regarded in some accounts as military curiosities that would be soon forgotten and in any event may have been created with no clear postal need.
Out of tender concern for their reputations and our sensibilities, I do not illustrate any of the hand-surcharged “BAGHDAD” Mesopotamia occupation issues produced in 1917 on Views of Constantinople stamps (Scott N1-N5, N8-N9). Suffice it to say that the scarcest of these — the 2a on 1pi blue with the red star overprint “BAGHDAD / IN BRITISH / OCCUPATION” — today catalogs $5,250 unused and an italicized $6,000 used (N9).
The last of the lithographed low-denomination stamps is the perf 12 5pa violet brown showing Leander’s Tower (today the Maiden’s Tower, left, Scott 256). It gave service through coups, intrigues, World War I, and the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Six years after it was issued, it returned in 1920 in brown orange, perforated gauge 10¾, and with the tiny tughra in the left panel of the late Sultan Mohamed V Reshad replaced by that of Mohamed Vahid Eddin VI (Scott 590).
The 5pa was one of eight Views of Constantinople stamps reissued in 1920, all with the new sultan’s tughra, and all presumably inked in new colors, some of which were changed intentionally, and some in revised denominations as well.
The 20pa was printed again in green (Scott 591), and the 1pi in blue green (593) instead of blue. A 3pi blue monochrome (594) replaced the earlier bicolor 1¾pi in slate and red brown, and a 5pi gray (595) supplanted the 2½pi orange and olive green.
Repeating the designs in different colors were a10pi gray violet (596) for the previous 10pi red brown, a 25pi dull violet (597) in place of the earlier olive green, and a 50pi brown (598) for the earlier incarnation in carmine. All the stamps were again printed by Bradbury, Wilkinson.
These are by no means all the far-flung relatives of the Views of Constantinople. In 1920, two of the new stamps were surcharged for use in Western Thrace, overprinted with Greek text that translates to “Thrace High Commission” and surcharged in Greek currency: a 5-lepta on 3pi blue (Thrace Scott N77) and a 20-lepta on 1pi blue green (Thrace N78).
The year 1921 saw stamps overprinted and surcharged for use in Turkey in Asia, which came into being as a stamp-issuing entity following the uprising of Mustafa Kemal Pasha in 1919. This officer and revolutionary would go on to become Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president.
In truth, the stocks of stamps consisted of whatever could be salvaged or converted from the piecemeal inventories of the post offices in the areas he controlled and subdued, a catch-as-catch-can situation in which the philatelic products still baffle many, and regrettably have too often provided fertile field for fraud.
These include, but are not limited to, the 1921 3pi surcharges on the vertical 2pa, 4pa, and 6pa stamps of 1913 (Turkey in Asia Scott 5-9), and the “Adana / December 21st / 1921” overprints intended to commemorate the withdrawal of French troops from Cilicia on 3pi blue and 10pi gray-violet stamps of 1920 (Turkey in Asia 73-74).
The latest Scott-listed Views of Constantinople variant is a 1920 blue 3pi Fountains of Suleiman pictorial with a “PIASTRES 7½” surcharge added in red in 1922 (Scott 604), apparently in hopes that it would be easier to read than the same surcharge added in 1921 in black (Scott 603).
There are many other non-Scott-listed regional and local issues of overprinted and/or surcharged 1914 and 1920 Views of Constantinople stamps, but they are a minefield of complexity with many dangerous fakes to bedevil the unprepared. The best resource on these is Anatolia by Menachim Max Mayo, published in 1990.
One of the most colorful writers in philately, Mayo draws on personal experience to illuminate potential pitfalls: “These forgeries bring to mind this collector’s very eager attempt to make a grand purchase from a dealer who knew not what he had. The unknowing dealer’s back-of-the-book Turkish stock book had an array of as yet unseen, unreported Ankara Government overprints.
“So sure was this young collector that good fortune had struck, that he bought the entire group for a fair price of about half the contents of his wallet. Oh what a beautiful assortment. With inverted, double, and misplaced typographs … Alas, all the stamps proved to be the same fakes that Mr. Passer describes.” Caveat collector!
These are magnificent stamps with a fascinating story to tell, and I am grateful to have been introduced to them.
Which stamps, what sets or series, hit that sweet spot in your philatelic soul? I do hope you’ll tell me, because the success of this enterprise will rely considerably on collectors willing to share their great sets with us all. Please email me with yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.