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Egypt’s Postal Service

by Willard Fiske

Text of the chapter "Egypt's Postal Service" from the booklet  "All about Postal Matters in Egypt" published on behalf  of the "Society for the Education of Every Egyptian Youth" by the Landi Press, Florence in 1898, written by Willard Fiske.

Under the rule of Moslem Caliphs and Mamelukes, as doubtless under that of Pharaohs and Ptolemies, the monarchs of Egypt and their courtiers, like the earlier kings and their attendant nobles in Europe, made use of rapid runners for the conveyance of intelligence to and from the distant civil and military officials. Of those ancient times many traditions, tinged with the romance of the East, still exist — stories of wonderfully trained carrier-pigeons, of information sent by flashing signals from minaret to minaret over the lowlands of the Delta, and of incredible feats of swiftness by the slender-limbed Nilotic footmen.

The viceroy Mehammad ‘AIy who, during most of the earlier half of this century, filled so large a space in the imagination of the West, maintained organized bodies of these couriers for the transmission of his correspondence. As Egypt grew wealthier under his rule, and the number of Europeans settled on the Nile augmented, the richer classes learned to imitate their ruler’s example. The foot-messengers began to be recognized as a class, and frequented certain coffeehouses both at Cairo and Alexandria, where they were always open to an engagement.

In 1843 the idea occurred to an enterprising Italian, Carlo Meratti, of employing a number of these couriers, and of beginning a more systematic service between the two chief cities. Modest offices were opened in each, the chief purpose being the transmitting and receiving of European letters so that the undertaking was known as the “European Post.” There are aged men in the foreign colony at Cairo who still remember the little room occupied by the “European Post” in the Musky quarter of the city, and recall their visits to it. They often found the office empty except for a single table supporting a basket containing letters and newspaper packages. All these the visitor looked over, and carried away such as were addressed to himself, or to members of his family.

There were also, in that day, foreign post-offices in Alexandria under the direction of various European governments — known as the “French Post,” the “Austrian Post,” the “Italian Post,” and so on. These have long since disappeared, except the “French Post,” which leads a lingering life in its rather shabby quarters at Alexandria.

On the death of Meratti his business passed into the hands of his nephew, Tito Chini, who associated with himself a fellow-countryman of great energy and administrative ability, Giacomo Muzzi, who opened additional offices, availing himself of all possible means of conveyance — even using the railway between Alexandria and Cairo as fast as its sections were opened. It reached Cairo in 1856.

Muzzi’s operations constantly extended; he received a formal government concession for ten years in 1862, but the undertaking proved so profitable that the government purchased the monopoly, three years later, on condition that Muzzi would remain as Director-General. This he did until 1876, when he resigned, and soon returned to his native-country, in which he died, at Florence, May 12, 1898, at the age of seventy-seven.

His memory will long be kept green in Egypt as the real founder of its postal system. Many incidents, indicative of his activity and able management are still narrated. It is told that during one season of an extraordinarily high Nile, when communications were everywhere interrupted, his mail-carriers always arrived punctually at their stations; and there is somewhere described the astonishment of the Prince of Wales, when ascending the Nile, at receiving his mail each evening, with unfailing regularity, from Muzzi’s agents, who had outstripped his own steamer. On returning to Cairo the Prince asked that he might see such an indefatigable official, and gave Muzzi his thanks and a souvenir-ring.

Muzzi Bey introduced the pretty postage-stamps of Egypt (sphynx and pyramids), and represented the Egyptian government at the earliest and other postal congresses.

Muzzi was succeeded by Mr. Alfred Caillard, now the head of the Egyptian customs, who was followed by Walter Halton Pacha (1880). The latter’s successor is the present Postmaster-General, Saba Pasha (1887), whose reputation as an accomplished administrator has passed beyond the boundaries of Egypt. No country possesses a more complete and efficient postal service than that which he controls.

And yet there are not many regions in which a postal service has to overcome so many difficulties. In its greater part the populous places are strung for many hundreds of miles along the banks of a river, which every twelvemonth shifts its channels making even ferriage often difficult. Elsewhere the mail must be borne, in the varying seasons, across wide tracts of desert, against burning winds and blinding sand-storms, or through floods which have turned the country into a sea, menacing with destruction the slender roads of soft earth, which rise just above the waste of waters. But this is not all. The difficulties which nature has created are scarcely greater than those which the accidents of humanity, and the perverse ingenuity of man, have thrown in the way of the servant of the post.

Egypt, as has been often remarked, is a mosaic of nationalities and creeds, and a Babel of tongues. The postal employees must receive and deliver mail matter addressed in all the languages, Asiatic and European, spoken by larger or smaller groups of the population — Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Hindustani, Greek, Italian, French, English, Maltese — and must be able to respond to enquiries in more than one of these tongues. Each one of them, in fact, must be quite familiar with three languages, namely, the chancery Arabic (the bastard Old-Arabic of the newspapers and of all official correspondence); the Egyptian, the universal idiom of the people; and either French or English. But not a few are able to speak, in addition, Italian, and some know both French and English.

Some Statistics.
The number of main post-offices (or those receiving their mail matter direct) in Egypt, on May 1, 1898, was 317. In addition to these there were 23 branch offices in the large towns. The number of postal stations, or rural post-offices (served from distributing offices), was 462 — making the total number of offices 802. The General Administration is in Alexandria. There are handsome post-office structures — with every modern convenience — in Alexandria, Cairo, Assiout, and other important centres, and all the largest cities have a perfect letter-carrier system.
 
According to the most recent report of the Postmaster-General the total number of letters, postal-cards, registered articles, journals, commercial papers, samples, and government documents sent through the Egyptian post-office in 1896 was 16,510,000 The number in the same categories (except government documents) sent abroad was 3,190,000 and the number received from abroad, 4,410,000.

The amount of money transmitted by post in Egypt was 15,900,000 Egyptian pounds (the Egyptian pound equalling twenty shillings six pence English). The amount sent abroad by postal money-orders was 211,000 Egyptian pounds; that received from abroad, 37,000 Egyptian pounds.

The number of parcels by the parcel-post — that most useful postal branch — sent in Egypt was 153,000; of those sent abroad, 46,900 of those received from abroad, 85,000.

The expenses of the Postal Administration in 1896 were 93,592 Egyptian pounds; its receipts were 114,749; leaving a profit for the Government of 21,157 Egyptian pounds. In this is not included an amount of 41,000 Egyptian pounds representing the cost of government correspondence and other government items, sent free over the postal routes.

The increase in the number of offices, of all grades, since 1896 is 91.




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