The Ottoman Empire and Egypt had been the only non-Western states among the twenty-one which established the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1875.
The UPU issued rules concerning stamp design, intended to ensure maximum efficiency in handling international mail. One rule specified that stamp values be given in numerals, as denominations written out in letters were not universally comprehensible. French was the sole official language of the UPU. How the Ottomans handled this requirement is expressive of the cultural tension and political instability within the Empire.
The Empire issue was first issued in September 1876, following the Ottoman Empire's entry into the Universal Postal Union and, unlike the preceding Duloz issue, bore the name of the country and the values in Western characters as well as Arabic. They were intended for use to countries in the UPU, but in March 1888 became officially valid for domestic use. The Empire stamps were issued from 1876 to 1890.
The superficial simplicity of the stamps may have been a concession to Western tastes.
The Ottomans needed all the Western support they could get in 1876, for they faced rebellion in the Balkans, a looming war with Russia, bankruptcy and upheaval in Istanbul itself.
Ottoman reformers promulgated the short-lived constitution of 1876 partly with Western public opinion in mind. The stamps were typographed in two colours, except for the postage dues, which were printed only in black.
The superficially simple design described above was printed over an apparently mottled background pattern and the foreground and background colour combinations used are often striking.
The background, however, was an elaborate example of Islamic calligraphic art.
Like the surface design, the background consists of an inscription in Arabic characters containing the words: “Postai devleti Osmaniye” (Post of the Ottoman Empire) in five lines above a curved band, below which is the Turkish year “Sene 1291” (equivalent to 1875) the year of entry into the UPU as a founder member.
The words and numerals are written in the normal way in the right half of the design, but in the left half they are reversed as in a mirrored reflection.
|Background calligraphy, Empire issue|
|Müsenna caligraphy by Abdulfettah Efendi, Great Mosque of Bursa|
So we have the irresolvable cultural tension repeated in what is superficially a simplified stamp that seemingly yields traditional design practices up to UPU requirements and modernisation. The stamp design consciously smuggles in traditionalism.
Arguably, this was symptomatic of a covert resistance to the Tanzimat that was undermining the modernisation programme from within.
In fact, when the Empire stamps were first issued on the 27th September, 1876, the new Sultan, Abdülhamid II, had only been on the throne for less than one month. This followed the death (by suicide or murder) of Abdülaziz, who had been deposed by his ministers on 30th May 1876, and the incarceration of Murad V who had been deposed due to his ill mental health on 31st August 1876.
So the split personality of the Empire stamps was entirely in keeping with the two eras that the design and issue straddled, i.e. the decline of Tanzimat and the dawn of the Hamidian reign.
© John Dunn