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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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