Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Friday, June 5, 2015

T.E. Lawrence and the Hejaz Postage Stamps 1916-1917

One piastre Hejaz stamp
Ronald Storrs, Oriental Secretary to the Arab Bureau, explained the thinking behind the simple but highly effective and visible means of proclaiming the independence of the Hejaz from the Ottoman Empire in 1916 in his memoir Orientations (1937):

“Shortly after the Arab Revolution we found that its success was being denied or blanketed by Enemy Press (which was of course quoted by neutrals), and we decided that the best proof that it had taken place would be provided by an issue of Hejaz postage stamps, which would carry the Arab propaganda, self-paying and incontrovertible, to the four corners of the earth.”
(Storrs, Ronald, Orientations, 1937)

Storrs, an aesthete with exquisite good taste, took Lawrence off to the Arab Museum in Cairo to collect suitable motifs “in order that the design in wording, spirit and ornament, might be as far as possible representative and reminiscent of a purely Arab source of inspiration. Pictures and views were avoided, for these never formed part of Arab decoration, and are foreign to its art; so also was European lettering.”

In this, their first joint endeavour, Lawrence and Storrs found agreement in the creative direction of the project and thereafter Lawrence was given a free hand in completing the design and production of the stamps to this format. The result was a series of arabesque designs taken from a number of sources which were worked up by two Cairo designers, Agami Effendi Ali and Mustafa Effendi Gozlan, and were soon put into production at the Survey of Egypt’s printing department located at Giza, some two miles from the Savoy Hotel in which G.H.Q. was housed. From the outset, Storrs was happy to let Lawrence – whom he called his ‘super cerebral companion’ - take over the running of the production, planning every detail from the design concept to print. As Storrs said:

"It was quickly apparent that Lawrence already possessed or had immediately assimilated a complete working technique of philatelic and three-color reproduction, so that he was able to supervise the issue from start to finish." 

In fact, Lawrence had long experience of liaising with government printers with his work on map reproduction at the War Office in London and for Military Intelligence in Cairo so he was perfectly suited to the task. He even had his own ideas, long held it seems, on what constituted good philatelic design and production. ‘It’s rather amusing,’ he wrote to his brother, Arnie, ‘because one has long had ideas as to what a stamp should look like, and now one can put them roughly into practice...I’m going to have flavoured gum on the back, so that one may lick without unpleasantness.’ This became a running joke and although it was never put into action he used to like to tell an apocryphal story that the Arabs enjoyed the flavours so much – strawberry essence for the red, pineapple for the green - that they would lick the gum clean away so that the stamps fell off the envelopes in the post and then postage could be charged double to make a very good profit for the Revolt. 

The 1 piastre stamp in blue (shown above) depicts as a central motif the phrase ‘Makkah al-Mukarramah’ (Mecca the Blessed, or the Honoured), a phrase that is used whenever Mecca is mentioned, and above are the words ‘Hejaz Post’ in a lozenge which is mirrored below showing the price as ‘1 piastre’. The date of 1334 in two side panels corresponds to the launch of the Arab Revolt according to the Arabic calendar which differed slightly to the Ottoman one. The design elements were taken from an ancient prayer niche in the al-Amri mosque at Qus in Upper Egypt. Lawrence was particularly pleased with the design of this stamp as he said it was pure Arabic in style while the quarter-piastre in green (shown below) was Egyptian and showed the carved door panels of the al-Salih Tala'i mosque on Shari’ Qasabet Radwan in Cairo. He thought the half-piastre in red looked Chinese although its central design was taken from a page of a Holy Quran in the 14th Century mosque of Sultan Al-Malik Az-Zahir Sayf ad-Din Barquq on Shari' al-Nahhasin in Cairo.

More postage stamps followed (6 in total) plus a set of three tax stamps but by then Lawrence had changed from being ‘Lawrence of Carchemish, of Cairo - of any place for a little while - and became permanently Lawrence of Arabia,’ as Storrs so accurately described the transformation.

Quarter-piastre Hejaz stamp

Lawrence’s connection to the Hejaz stamps issue of 1916-1917 was acknowledged by  Mr. (later Sir) Ernest Dowson, Surveyor-General of Egypt, in a coded reference in the introduction to a booklet entitled A Short Note on the Design and Issue of Postage Stamps Prepared by the Survey of Egypt for His Highness Husein Emir & Sherif of Mecca & King of the Hejaz

‘It is desired to take this opportunity to express the obligation due to all those who gave assistance or counsel, in particular to El Emir ‘Awrunis of the Northern Armies of His Highness the King of the Hejaz, at whose suggestion the work was undertaken, and to whose critical acumen the success met with must largely be ascribed.’