Cyprus Stamps News

Cyprus' history in miniature

(October 30, 2011)

WITH the art of letter-writing seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history by global internet usage, you could be forgiven for thinking that the sound of the death knell for stamp-collecting cannot be far behind.

But for philatelist and director of the Cyprus Postal Musuem Ploutis Loizou, nothing is further from the truth.

“Seventy per cent of collectors are actually under the age of 40,” he says.

The museum, housed in a traditional house in Nicosia’s old city, is a treasure trove of Cypriot history which, according to Loizou, is still highly relevant.

Loizou has put his life and soul into making the museum an alluring place ever since it fell under his auspices in 2004. Originally set up at a different down town location in 1981, it took a lot of work to get the new space organised when Loizou took over. But it was a labour of love for Loizou who has collected stamps ever since he was a young boy when relatives in Africa would send letters back home. 

“Imagine how I felt when we would see stamps with elephants and tigers on them when I was eight years old!” he reminisces. As years went by and his stamp collection grew, little did he know that he would one day be surrounded by not hundreds, but thousands of stamps lined up in glass cases along the whitewashed walls.

“This is our history, it’s all here,” he says passionately as he gets up to take me into one of the exhibition rooms that take visitors back in time. 

“Look at this, take a close look,” he says. Before me is a ‘Penny Red’ stamp boasting a portrait of Queen Victoria with a characteristic overprint of the word “Cyprus”. Dating back to 1880, it’s the first official stamp to have ever circulated in the country, issued by the British shortly after their arrival on the island in 1878.

Cyprus stamps - history in miniature

Ploutis then engages in a full blown explanation of how the post worked before this date. Apparently Cyprus philatelic history began in 1343, with the first known letter sent from Famagusta to Constantinople. Foreign mail was carried by the captains of various ships and the foreign consulates in Larnaca. Inland mail was carried by privately hired muleteers. In 1837 Austrian Lloyd opened an agency in Larnaca and a post office was immediately established to carry mail via the shipping company’s steamers. At this point, blue and black imprints were simply used to mark the letters. Once the British took over, the Austrian post office immediately closed down and British stamps came into circulation shortly after. 

But what’s perhaps most interesting, are the images that the stamps begin to portray as the years go by. “Although for a great number of years they only depicted British monarchs - albeit always overprinted with the word Cyprus - the stamps later take on a more local character as the British begin to include scenes from the island,” explains Loizou. “And these stamps were so successful among collectors that they kept on releasing more.” 

He points to a series released in 1928 to mark the 50th anniversary of British rule as one of his “absolute favourite” with their images of Bellapais, Richard the Lionheart and the Larnaca Tekke.

Once Cyprus gained its independence in 1960, Cypriot philately really came into its own. We soon enter a different room which sheds light on a definitive set of three stamps bearing the map of Cyprus and commemorating the proclamation of the republic. “Stamps show you the history of your country and of the whole world,” he proclaims. He goes on to highlight stamps used to commemorate a number of important events including a Kennedy series issued in his honour for speaking out about “self determination for Cyprus” in a speech given in 1956. 

The issue of a refugee stamp depicting a crouching lady behind barbed wire priced at 10 mills after the 1974 invasion is an obvious indication of political unrest. Other more modern issues show the wild flowers of the island, birds of prey, sporting events and political milestones. 

One of the latest additions now circulating is a rather innovative scented ‘Rosa damascena’ stamp aimed at giving the receiver of the letter a whiff of the roses of Cyprus. And when it comes down to the design process, apparently it’s a long ordeal, with the modern day issues resting on the creativity of a group of young artists who take part in specialised seminars to learn about new technology and techniques. Sketches are then prepared months in advance before the final image goes to print, with about four to five series issued each year. 

In the final room of the museum, you’ll come across scales used to weigh letters in days gone by, charming old bicycles, typewriters and sticks of original red brick wax used for sealing packages. 

And with the man in charge himself excited about delving into every little detail about what’s on show, it comes as no surprise that he is keen on anyone interested in valuing their stamps or starting a collection to get in touch with him. 

At this point I wonder how many people really take stamp collecting seriously on the island. “Oh there are thousands of collectors,” he replies. 

And the government is trying to encourage an interest in stamps with schoolchildren now given packages on stamp collecting with a slogan reading “miniature treasure that grows with time”. And with that, Loizou pulls out a number of thick books that point to the history of the island through stamps. 

“The adventures of people on the island, the great figures of history, the culture, the tourist attractions we have, our monuments. It’s all here,” he beams.  

Out comes another bulky book, but this time, it’s a price catalogue. Turns out that the Penny Red, the very first stamp issued here by the British in 1880, could be worth a staggering €50,000. In an era that’s now taken over by computer and mobile communications, maybe it’s high time we paid more attention to that good old fashioned pen and paper. 

The Cyprus Postal Museum, 3B Ayios Savvas St, across from Ayios Savvas Church, Old Nicosia. Monday-Friday 9am-3pm. Saturday 9am-1pm. Tel: 22-304711

This article was reproduced from the Cyprus-Mail online newspaper.

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