As Told By Postage Stamps

The postage stamps that we used to stick on envelopes before mailing them document the history of Turkish aviation in miniature...

Have you ever taken a close look at the stamps on the letters and postcards that arrive in your mailbox? These stamps, which are stuck on envelopes and then travel from city to city, sometimes even from country to country, are a virtual gold mine of information. The currency unit of their country of origin, its form of government, its geography, its endemic plants and animals, its historical ruins and monuments, and its national costumes are just a few of the things stamps can tell us. In short, these colorful little pieces of gummed paper are like miniature documents chronicling the history of their land of origin. Here we are going to tell the history of Turkish aviation as recorded on the country’s postage stamps.

Postage stamps were first used in England in 1840. And 63 years later man began to fly through the air in a contraption called the ‘airplane’. The first flight in an engine-powered plane, made by the Wright brothers in the United States on 17 December 1903, soon led to further initiatives in the field in the other advanced nations of the world. Countries like England, France, Germany and Italy developed the first airline companies. Among the Turks, the history of aviation is regarded as having commenced with Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi, who in the 17th century made the first flight from the Galata Tower on the European side to Doğancılar Square at Üsküdar on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus on wings made of eagle feathers. But the beginning of aviation in the true sense of the word dates to 1911 when the first planes were purchased at the instigation of the then-War Minister, Mahmut Şevket Pasha, and the Ottoman Air Force was founded. Planes manufactured with the latest technology were bought, emphasis was put on training pilots to fly them, and new airports were opened right and left. While similar developments in aviation were under way all over the world, airplanes were also taking on a new responsibility beyond that of the national defense, namely ‘carrying the mail’. Countries that had founded airlines began using planes to ensure ‘speedy’ delivery of mail being sent from one place to another many kilometers away. And thus the phenomenon of ‘air mail’ came into being.

The world’s first official airmail was carried in India on 18 February 1911 when some six thousand letters and postcards were transported by a ‘Humber-Sommer’- type aircraft from Allahabad to Naini five miles away. The first airmail in Turkey traveled from Lefke to Bilecik on a plane called ‘Prens Celaleddin’, flown by pilot Captain Nuri and navigator Captain Ismail Hakkı on 12 February 1914. Planes, balloons, zeppelins and birds were the usual themes appearing on the stamps used for air mail letters, which cost slightly more than normal postage rates. With the introduction of air mail, the captivating notion of flight began to draw the attention of stamp collectors as well, and within a short time a new branch of philately emerged known as ‘aerophilately’. The first official postage stamp on the aviation theme was issued in 1917 by the Italian Postal Service to commemorate a test flight between Rome and Turin. This was followed by issues of more stamps in other countries, and the issuing of air mail stamps continues to this day.

The first air mail stamps issued in Turkey are the ‘First Airplane Series’, brought out to coincide with the Istanbul-Ankara flight made by the State Airline in 1934. This series of five stamps consists of a picture of an airplane and a price surcharge printed on some stamps remaining from a 22-stamp series actually issued in 1930. But the original series on the theme of aviation is a four-stamp series printed for the Türk Tayyare Cemiyeti (Turkish Aviation Society), or Türk Hava Kurumu as it is known today. These stamps, which were either affixed to envelopes alongside normal postage stamps on special occasions like national holidays or used as revenue stamps on a broad array of official papers from ownership deeds to notarized documents, occupy an important place in ‘aerophilately’ collections.
Some 140 stamps on the aviation theme have been issued in Turkey since 1926 either as postage stamps or as Turkish Aviation Society stamps. Furthermore, more than fifty special philatelic stamps, most of them commemorating inaugural flights by Turkish Airlines, are also in use today. While many of these are used for air mail, several were also printed as commemorative stamps for a wide range of occasions from key events in civil aviation to the promotion of air sports. The original special philatelic stamp was issued around the time of the first Istanbul-Rome flight, undertaken by the State Airline on 1 July 1933. Letters sent with these first flight stamps are therefore some of the most rare and valuable collectors’ items among philatelists today.
Turkish postage stamps on the aviation theme document a host of details about the history of Turkish aviation, from Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi’s first flight on eagle’s wings and the various types of aircraft used by the Turkish Air Force and Turkish Airlines to aviation conventions, the sports activities of the Aviation Society and the Air Acrobatics Team. Still others display compositions involving birds, those quintessential symbols of flight. Indeed, these stamps constitute a veritable history of the development of aviation.

With the continuous spread of air transport and the use of hi-tech supersonic planes today, any distinction between regular mail and air mail has long since become a thing of the past in many countries. The consequent decline in special air mail stamps means that they live on only in collections. Happily however stamps on the themes of aviation and outer space will always be with us.