Long thought of as an archaic pastime, the hobby of stamp collecting can in fact be an art. A form of visual-storytelling in its own right, Aftab H. Kola tracks an historic tale of the Sultanate through its stamps.
Oman, as captured through its diverse and vibrant range of stamps, serves as a guide to those who are interested in learning about the country outside of its history books. While no longer in high demand as in years gone by – with the traditional postal system living in the shadow of digital transformation – stamps still retain a subtle narrative on the nation, its history, its rulers, its geography, traditions and culture.
It was only recently that Oman Post released a collection of interactive commemorative stamps (different from definitive stamps for day-to-day mailing), that highlight and celebrate the deep roots and variety of Oman’s traditional folk art and instruments. While other stamps in the collection showcased Oman as a tourist destination, or evoked the colours of the Al Said mussar, among several other themes.
Regularly issuing special stamps to mark occasions such as National Day, Oman Post has used these unique tiny canvases as artistic microcosms to promote national milestones and achievements. Talking about these stamps, Oman Post CEO Abdulmalik Al Balushi has stated that these stamps are elements of a “visual culture”. In order to preserve these stamps for posterity and for references for research and education, Oman Post presented to the National Records and Archive Authority as many as 53, 344 commemorative stamps.
The first postal office started its operations in Muscat in 1856 and its first recorded postage stamps date back to the 1860s. It was only in 1966 that the official postal stamp of the Sultanate was issued. In its earliest years, the British India Administration was managing the postal services in the beginning and, subsequently, for a brief period the service came under the Pakistan administration and later the British postal service took over. It wasn’t until April 30, 1966, that Oman launched its very own postal service.
Just to go back in time, between 1896 and 1963, several stamps were released during the reign of the Al Busaidi family in Zanzibar. The most historic stamps of this period are the four commemorative stamps of 1944 featuring the bi-centenary of the Al Busaidi Dynasty and depicted the coastline of East Africa and the ports of Muscat and Zanzibar.
The valid stamps for use within the country were a set of 12 definitives issued on April 30, 1966, and a set of four commemorating the first shipment of oil from the country issued on January 1, 1969. This was the period when the currency in Oman was the rupee. On the occasion of the change of currency, the original set of stamps from 1966 was re-printed with values in Rial Saidi and Baiza and issued on June 27, 1970. They were later over-printed with the words, ‘Sultanate of Oman,’ in both Arabic and English on January 17, 1971.
Among the earliest of Omani stamp designs were the royal crest and a combination of the crest with a view of the Muscat harbour followed by a two-colour series of six forts (Nakhal, Sohar, Samail, Nizwa, Mirani, and Muttrah) in different colour combinations. The reproductions of the forts on the stamps were from original paintings and etchings of the early 19th century.
Stamps of the Sultanate chronicle history with accuracy and attention to all facets of life. In 1971, one year after His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said assumed leadership, there were several new sets issued. All of them reflected what was happening at the time in the country during a period of nation-building – and their focus was on priorities that would take the country forward.
On the National Day of that year, in 1971, a stamp was released on the themes of Land Development, and to mark the fifth anniversary of UNICEF which had begun its operations from Oman. And, in 1973, when Oman opened the new Seeb airport, replacing the smaller airstrip in Bayt al Falaj near Ruwi, a stamp of 50 baiza denomination featuring the new airport with a photo of His Majesty commemorating the third National Day was issued.
Timeline of a nation
From the beginning of these commemorative stamp editions, education was prioritized, with the Sultanate going on to release a stamp on the theme of ‘Eradication of Illiteracy’ in 1975. An issue of a stamp showing hands reaching for an open book followed this.
But at the heart of this unique form of commemorative visual story-telling, it was the Omani people who were brought into focus – most notably women and children. In 1975, Oman’s endorsement of the International Women’s Year was marked via stamp featuring a visual of a woman and child with a nurse, plus a second vertical design that showed a woman and child within the protective fold of the Omani flag.
The series of commemorative stamps issued in 1976 contained illustrations that depicted His Majesty presenting colours to a military unit and the Seeb-Nizwa road. A second stamp featured parachute landings and mechanical harvesting, while a third depicted helicopters in action and a Victory Day procession. The fourth in this collection of nation-building mementos showed road construction in the nation, and the new Salalah television station. Also, the Bat Archaeological Site – one of fourteen monuments/sites across Oman to be featured on the UNESCO list was prominently featured on a stamp in 1977 one year after its discovery in the eastern Wilayat of Ibri.
While 1979 was all about commemoration of Al Arab – two stamps with different hues spotlighting an open book symbolising the Holy Quran with line sketches of the contributions made by Arabs in the various fields of science. The same year also saw a stamp devoted to the International Year of the Child with a happy visual of a girl on a swing.
The Sultanate’s flora and fauna also saw their time in the stamp spotlight during the beginning of the 1980s with Oman’s wildflowers, birds, animals, and seashells featured. Four unique stamps were also issued to celebrate the voyage of the ship ‘Sohar’ from Muscat to Canton.
Subsequently, Oman’s costumes and seafaring vessels were highlighted in a series of stamps in the decade to follow and, in 1994, the 250th anniversary of the Al Busaidi dynasty was highlighted through a special commemorative stamp.
Oman has always lent support and significance on the promotion of local crafts. Little wonder then that a set of four stamps profiling Omani traditional handicraft artists – the weaver, the potter, the silversmith, and the halwa-maker were issued in the mid-90s, depicting their trade and featuring an upgraded design to the postage stamps.
A modern narrative
In 2002, the opening of the iconic Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was illustrated on a 100-baiza stamp and, when the country began counting its citizens through a census in 2003, a stamp devoted to it was brought out. Stamps featuring Oman’s traditional necklaces, the Al Aqsa uprising, Girl Guides Silver Jubilee, Omani traditional vessels, GCC Traffic Week, whales and dolphins in Sultanate, were some of the wide range of diverse themes depicted on stamps that followed during the early years of the new millennium. In particular, stamps highlighting the endangered green turtles that have been thronging Omani shores for more than 7,000 years helped bring out awareness towards their conservation in 2002.
More recently, it wasn’t until 2016 that Oman Post released a stamp spotlighting the indelible bio-cultural links that Omanis developed with date palm trees. That same year it also issued a stamp referencing the graceful and endangered Arabian oryx of Oman while, in 2017, the victory of the Oman National Football team in the 23rd Gulf Cup brought joy to residents of the Sultanate – with Oman Post joining in the celebration with a commemorative stamp depicting multiple dimensions of the coveted trophy to honour the win. And, finally, in 2019 two new stamps were issued – one on the ‘Call of Peace’ and another dedicated to the Sultanate’s traditional folk art and instruments.
If every letter could tell a story of a nation, a culture, a country, and its people through its stamps, then surely our collective understanding of ourselves and our Oman could never be lost, on paper.