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A history of stamps October 15, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Cyprus Nicosia.
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Tucked away in a corner of Nicosia is Cyprus’ postal museum

When we were very young (to paraphrase A.A.Milne) there wasn’t a child I knew who didn’t own a stamp album, who didn’t aspire to the best philatelic collection that money could buy or friends could provide. In my case, previously unknown relatives were dredged from address books, and postcards were sent in the hope that return correspondence, and thus exotic stamps, might find their way into my album.

The age of email has since caught up with me, and philately went by the board. Until this summer, when an aimless stroll through the backstreets of old Nicosia led me to a small door displaying a most intriguing sign: Cyprus Postal Museum. The weather was hot, the inside seemed dim and cool, and my philatelic interests, surpressed for years by the age of technology, began to resurface. And, how, I wondered, could such a small door be the entrance to a museum? I went in.

And that’s how I met Ploutis Loizou, Cyprus’ philatelic answer to King George V, who said of his stamps: “I wish to have the best collection, not just one of the best collections.” Set up in 1981, the museum was renovated in 2003, and fell under the auspices of the dedicated Mr. Loizou in 2004. “I worked from six in the morning until midnight, seven days a week,” he said, “to get the museum organised.”

Clearly it was a labour of love, as every stamp is beautifully displayed, every first edition labelled meticulously, and there is even a life size postman with a bright yellow bicycle standing next to a desk of paraphernalia from post offices in ages past. Genuine post boxes from the Victorian era leap to the eye, with the embossed VR standing out against the scarlet background.

Why, I wondered, are our post boxes now yellow? “Originally all our post boxes were red, the same as in England,” said Loizou. “But then it was decided that since post office insignia all over the world is in yellow, the colour should be changed.” And he was away, gently guiding me towards a roomful of stamps, anecdotes at the ready.

The stamps themselves are immaculate first editions, presented in upright glass cases, with notes as to the date of issue and the commemorative event. Loizou was a mine of information as he took me through the years, starting with a little background information.

Apparently Cyprus philatelic history began in 1343, with the first known letter from Famagusta to Constantinople. Over the years mail was carried on trading ships, and inland by privately hired muleteers. Then, in 1837, the Austrian branch of Lloyds opened an agency in Larnaca and the first Cypriot post office was born. In 1871, the capital opened its own post office, under the auspices of the Turks, but both closed down with the arrival of the British in 1878. At this point in the tour I was thrilled to be shown an exhibit of ‘Penny Reds’, among the first British stamps to be used on the island. From 1881 until 1960, stamps portrayed only the British monarchs, albeit overprinted with the word Cyprus, and the value of the stamp in piastres.

On August 16, 1960 Cyprus gained its independence from British rule, and Cyprus philately came into its own. That same year, a definitive set of three stamps depicting the island of Cyprus was issued, valued at 10 mils, 30 mils and 100 mils, giving Cyprus its very own stamps for the first time.

Over the years, stamps have been issued to commemorate many important events: 1963 saw the Jamboree celebrating 50 years of Scouting in Cyprus; stamps from 1965 celebrate John F Kennedy’s visit to Cyprus, and every four years an issue marks the passing of another Olympic Games.

In recent years, many of the issues have depicted the flora and fauna of the island: there are stamps showing moufflon, the turtles of Lara bay, indigenous crabs and a beautiful set depicting the wild flowers of Cyprus from 1990. The 2003 issue is a tribute to birds of prey, and is most unique, in that the stamps are all triangular.

Each of the issues is comprehensively labelled, but the joy isn’t in simply trawling the aisles admiring stamps, the real experience is in absorbing the curator’s wisdom. For Loizou, every issue is a story in itself, a miniature pictoral history of the island. His pride and joy is in fact the room of cancellation stamps, the mark that is added over the stamps to ensure they are not reused. He has spent years of his life travelling the island, collecting cancellation stamps from each and every post office, from the Monastery of Bellapais to the village of Trimithias. The same room houses scales and weights, from the gargantuan to the minute (used for checking the weight of gold coins), as well as sticks of the original brick-red wax used in sealing packages, and some of the first aerogrammes and letters to be sent to and from Cyprus.

To end a fascinating visit, Loizou brought out the visitors’ book, of which he is rightly proud. School groups and tours have delighted in his comprehensive tours of the museum, individuals who have popped in with five minutes to spare have left hours later, recording their awe and enjoyment that such a national treasure exists.

“Some of these visitors now write to me regularly,” beamed Loizou, flipping through a file to prove his point. “This man came here once, then we corresponded several times. Now we call each other,” he said, proudly showing me a letter from one Graham Little, President of the Eastbourne and South Downs Philatelic Society.

Perhaps it’s time I looked out that old stamp album and started writing to far flung Uncles again.

The Cyprus Postal Museum, 3b Ayiou Savva Street, Nicosia. Tel: 22 760522. Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9-3 and Saturday 9-1. 

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