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Friday 31 July 2020

Russian Mail to Mont Athos before 1870

From early in the 19th century, the Imperial Russian government was actively involved - financially and diplomatically - in expanding the Russian presence on Mont Athos. By 1912, the majority of monks on Athos were Russian though in 1913 the Imperial government sent gunboats to Athos to arrest and deport about 800 of the 2000 Russian monks. They were accused of heresy, tried in Odessa, and internally exiled. For every two or three monks there was probably one servant and many or most of those were Russian too.

The major developments in Russification took place after 1850 and at some point  a ROPiT postal agency was established on Athos. But any ingoing or outgoing mail before 1870 is very rarely seen and I cannot find on the internet any example of ROPiT postmarks for Mont Athos before the 1890s, though inward mail in the form of Money Letters is common from about 1875 onwards. It always has Odessa transits but only in the 1890s do Athos marks  appear and then only on occasional items which were sent outside bags sealed in Odessa.

In previous Blogs I have illustrated the use of Free Frank privilege to send mail from mainland Russia to Athos, always via Odessa. I can now illustrate an early item on which I would welcome comment. 

Sent in 1869 from Novgorod under a Free Frank seal and Registry number it has no post office markings apart from the Novgorod despatch. On later mail, an Odessa transit is universally applied. In addition, the routing on this official item appears to identify a named individual at Odessa who is then meant to ensure the onward transmission to Athos. If this is the correct reading, then this item may indicate that even as late as 1869, the arrangements for sending mail to Athos were in a rather provisional state. Since this entire letter came from an Athos archive (ex Christou collection), it clearly arrived and the sender seems to have been clear about what they were doing.

Comments and scans please!

Here's the first Comment from Howard Weinert:

This document was issued by the bookkeeping office of the Novgorod administrative board, part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, on 29 Oct. 1869. Sent to the New Russian hermitage of St. Andrew the First Called in Mount Athos, in care of an Odessa merchant. The message says that the five rubles sent by the hermitage on 10 Jan. 1869 to pay for the official publication "Provincial News" was received in Novgorod on 25 April and noted in the account book.
I have seen many covers from the 1870s addressed to merchant Grigory Mikhailovich Butovich in Odessa for transmission to Athos. (This is not the person named on the Novgorod letter).

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Thursday 30 July 2020

The ROPiT Post office on Mont Athos 1915 - 1917

A post office can continue to provide foreign mail services provided only a few conditions are met:

1.      It has premises and staff and at least some office equipment.
2.      It has an income to pay the bills.
3.      It has partners willing to deliver incoming mail for distribution and take away mail for onward transmission.
4.      No one forcibly closes it.

In their 1958 book on the Russian Levant post offices, Tchilingirian and Stephen speculated that the ROPiT post office on Mont Athos closed on 31 December 1914, as a consequence of the outbreak of World War One. It didn’t. It operated at least until the end of 1917. Mont Athos passed from Ottoman to Greek control at the end of 1912 when Greek forces occupied the territory. Greece’s legal sovereignty was not finalised until after World War One, mainly because of Imperial Russian objections aimed at increasing Russian control over Athos. Those ceased with the Bolshevik Revolution. The ROPiT office was exclusively concerned with incoming and outgoing mail; like the Ottoman post office (and presumably the successor Greek post office) , it never operated an internal mail service on Mont Athos which was provided by monastic couriers.

Athos was occupied by both French and Russian troops during World War One and there were British forces in nearby Salonica [Thessaloniki]. Even if the traditional route into Athos from Odessa was closed, mail could arrive and be taken away by friendly ships. It does seem likely that mail would most often have been routed via Salonica, a major military hub, but that only meant that some local boat had to ply the Athos-Salonica route. The ROPiT office handled mail overwhelmingly arriving from Russia and going there. Though it could not now route through Odessa, the alternatives via Genoa or Marseille or London or Kronstadt were reasonably practical. There might be an issue about who paid for what but clearly some arrangements were arrived at.

However, I can’t illustrate any mail which successfully made the journey after the start of World War One and I would be pleased to be shown some.

 But I do have receipts for registered letters issued by the ROPiT Mont Athos agency and handed over to the  senders - the Russian Andreevski Skete [monastery], the Russian Kellion [Cell] of Ioanna Zlatousta. These receipts show a new canceller being used, listed by Tchilingirian and Stephen as Type 5 (Figure 791) in the Supplement included in Part Six of Stamps of the Russian Empire Used Abroad. It came into use in 1912 (Earliest date I have 1 VIII 1912) and continued in apparently  exclusive use until the end of 1917 (latest I have  6 XI 1917).

I illustrate here a receipt from end 1915 for a letter destined for Odessa; from end 1916 addressed to Petrograd; from August 1917 addressed to the Russian Consulate in Soluni [Salonica]; and a November 1917 receipt with an address I can’t read. Though I have about 80 receipts for 1915 and 1916 combined, I have only five for 1917. They are numbered by an enumerator on the reverse and the number sequence suggests that possibly only one book of 1000 receipts was used through 1917: early February, receipt 7; late February, 139; July, 691, August, 730 ; November, 822.

Where the sender is identified as "P.A.C." this is Cyrillic for the Russian Andreevksi Skete. It's likely that all the receipts were issued to the P.A.C. but the clerk saved effort by not always writing that.

Before 1915 the volume of mail was much greater and in the 1890s when receipts were numbered continuously from January to December by hand, it is clear that at least 12 000 registered letters left Athos every year.

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A Conversation with the Ottoman Postmaster of Mont Athos, 1883

Athelstan Riley and a friend, both from the University of Oxford, visited Mont Athos for six weeks in 1883. Riley published a travelogue, Athos or the Mountain of the Monks in 1887. At one point, he and his friend Arthur Owen visit the Ottoman post office in what was then and still is the small administrative centre of Karyes. This is Riley’s narrative:

“So we had breakfast and about noon sallied forth towards the town. First we went to the post office, where by good luck the postmaster spoke French and several other languages besides. We sat and talked to him for more than an hour, smoked his cigarettes, and consumed rahatlakoum and coffee. He was a very intelligent young Greek who had been sent here from Constantinople to take charge of the post station, and very dull he found it.

‘I have not a soul to speak to’, he complained, ‘there are no educated people in Caryes [sic] except a few monks, and I soon get tired of them. And no women of any kind. Ah, c’est affreux, messieurs, c’est affreux!’ [Ah, it's awful, gentlemen, it's awful!]

And the poor fellow begged us to sit and talk to him a little longer. This we did, and amused ourselves by sending a telegram to the telegraph clerk at Salonica, wishing him a very good day, a wire having recently been laid from that place to Caryes.

‘For’, said our friend, ‘we may just as well use it, for nobody else does. Perhaps fifty telegrams are sent in the course of the year, chiefly about the steamers which call here, for who would want to telegraph to Athos? So when I feel very dull I just ring up the clerk at Salonica and ask how the world is going on’. 

[This passage is in chapter XV]
I suspect that over time telegraph traffic did increase and became more varied. Here, for example, is a 2 May 1888 telegram from St Petersburg to Athos routed through Salonique [ see top left annotation Salq.]. The word count is 15 [ though I count 16] because the address counts and takes six words, rendered by the clerk on the reverse as Monaster Andreé, Superieur Theoklitos,Mont Athos - the Monaster is in fact the Russian Andreevski Skete, located close to Karyes. As for the message, I can't quite resolve whether the Family Z or L asks for 30 roubles to be sent to pay for the distribution of Easter Eggs, or whether 30 roubles has been sent to pay for such distribution. The latter seems more likely. The Athos receiving officer has signed his name at top left [ besides L’Employé], but whether he is the  postmaster who welcomed Riley and Owen, I don't know. But note that he writes in a confident Roman script.

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Sunday 12 July 2020

The Multi-Lingual Ottoman Levant

I am one of those lucky people whose mother tongue is English, a language in which I can expect to be understood world-wide. I have only one other language into which I can confidently switch (French) and a couple in which I can order restaurant meals and check in at a hotel.

Everyone probably knows that the old Ottoman Levant was a multilingual society. Not only that, it was a multi-script society. Look at this wonderful 1891 Invoice and try to identify the different scripts and languages mobilised by the Constantinople printer whose identity is provided on the right-hand side. But I doubt Angelidos Frères have achieved a world-record: I can’t find English anywhere on the Invoice…..

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Multi-lingualism on this scale does pose problems. A large business can probably find staff to cover all the necessary languages; a small business or office might struggle. And a lot of time will be spent translating and not quite getting it right.

On the invoice the scripts I can see are Roman, Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Greek, Armenian, Russian Cyrillic. Yes?

Friday 10 July 2020

ROPiT agency on Mont Athos in the Imperial Russian period.

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The ROPiT cachet or cancellation illustrated on these two items is not listed by Tchilingirian and his collaborators, either in the original 1958 handbook or the later additions. Nor can I find it illustrated on the internet.

The ROPiT agencies on Mont Athos were probably housed together though they would have been very busy and there would have been separate counters for matters relating to goods shipped by ROPiT and mail which ROPiT ships also carried. Though this large oval cachet is in a standard design found cancelling mail from other offices, it may be that this Mont Athos one was most frequently used on paperwork of one kind or another. But it should be possible to find it on mail or, at least, loose stamps.

The 1892 document shows the cachet in an early state, the letters crisp. Interestingly, the notepaper has an English papermaker’s watermark with Crown over ORIGINAL ROYAL MILL.

The 1911 printed ROPiT form in Russian and French relates to a shipment of oil (“Huile”) arriving from Odessa. It is interesting because the Turkish fiscal shows that goods arriving in or leaving Athos were subject to Ottoman taxation. In contrast, it seems that mail went in and out without Ottoman involvement unless it had been routed via Constantinople rather than arriving directly by ROPiT ship into Athos.

I have only these two examples of the cachet and I guess from the absence of Google images that it is rare.