By Lesley Lababidi
Photography by Yehia El-alaily

Hidden within the noisy and congested Ataba Square, the Egyptian Postal Museum is a secret gem of Downtown Cairo.  The doors are hidden behind the gates of the Postal Office, but once you enter and present your ticket, the doors swing open like curtains onto a spectacular stage.

During King Fouad’s reign (1917–36), a new department of communication responsible for telephone, telegraph and postal services was established. It included the transportation sector such as the railways, airways, and roads. Fouad was also an avid stamp collector and established the Postal Museum in February 1934. It opened to the public in 1940 on the second floor of the Central Post Office. Over the years, the collection grew from a stamp exhibit to one that highlights communication going back to ancient Egypt and demonstrates the development of Egypt’s postal service through the centuries. The museum has more than 1,200 exhibits arranged in sections: the history of communication, transportation, postal equipment, local and foreign stamps, uniforms, postal buildings, rare letters, and maps.

Maquette of the Museum

Photo Yehia El-alaily

The museum is well-preserved, and exhibits are maintained with obvious care. Leather mailbags, original postal uniforms, badges, seals of all shapes and sizes, and numerous letterboxes, three dating from 1894, are examples of various postal paraphernalia. In rural areas of Egypt, official duties were the responsibility of the ruling elder, thus letters were posted and collected from his personal house. On display is an over-sized wooden letterbox that would have stood inside the house of the village head. There is a not-to-be-missed glass case of miniature statues of postal workers with examples of uniforms worn from Roman times to the present, as well as original postal worker apparel from Egypt and around the world. Valuable collections of stamped envelopes from foreign countries along with a sweeping display of commemorative stamps – King Farouk’s coronation and the first Egyptian stamp collection (1867–69) – and local stamps with ancient Egyptian, Islamic, and Coptic designs are samples of this vast collection. At the far end of the room is a stamp mosaic depicting a pyramid and the Sphinx made from 15,000 identical, post-marked stamps, each one depicting the same picture in miniature. The desk and chair stationed in front of this stamp mosaic are those of the first postmaster in Egypt, Jacob Muzzi, an Italian.

Models made by the students of the faculty of fine arts in the 1940s include this one of a bicycle used for express mail

Postal distribution is a particularly important part of the museum exhibit. Glass cases contain miniature scenes and models of message distribution methods from ancient Egyptian times to the present.  The ancient Egyptians were probably the first to convey messages through an organized service. Diplomatic correspondence exchanged nearly 3,500 years ago between the pharaohs and the rulers of Babylon, Assyria, Syria, and Palestine were inscribed in cuneiform writing on square clay tablets.

Aerial Post Stamps

Through the ages, the search for quicker and more reliable ways of communication has been a human obsession. From horses and camels to helium balloon, we’ve tried everything. And we must certainly not overlook the work of carrier pigeons. Sure enough, models of carrier pigeons and the messages they carried can be found in the museum. Of particular interest is a map of the carrier pigeon’s route during the Mamluk era. The museum exhibits delve even deeper and demonstrate wheels, motors, water, and wind transport communication through extensive exhibits that include models of trains, ships, airplanes, trucks, vans, and bicycles, as well as a felucca and a horse-drawn boat; all to illustrate the distribution of mail throughout the centuries.

For decades, all the displays were housed in one large hall, with the rest of the rooms used as offices. As the postal authority started moving most of its staff to the headquarters of the Ministry of Communications in Smart Village, the newly cleared spaces were given to the museum which also received a facelift in 2019. Today, the museum collection is spread out over fifteen freshly refurbished halls with the original objects still in their lovingly restored original wooden display cases. Updates to the museum include interactive exhibits, augmented reality displays, and QR codes dotted around the various displays providing the visitor with interesting trivia, informative videos, and additional resources.

Steel plate of one of first pictorial stamps issued in 1914.

The Postal Museum is an off-the-beaten-path excursion that even children from five years old will enjoy. It is an excellent field trip for students who are interested in the history of communication and transportation in Egypt, but it should be noted that explanations and labels are mostly in Arabic.

The museum is located at the Central Post Office on Ataba Square. To buy a ticket, go through the door marked “Main Post Office” and purchase tickets at the commemorative stamp office on your right, where you can also buy special edition stamps. After you get your tickets, go back outside, find the door marked “L’Organisme Nationale des Postes”, and enter the fascinating world of communication.

The Postal Museum is open Sunday through Thursday from 9am to 4pm. Tickets cost EGP 5 for students, EGP 10 for adults, and EGP 50 for foreigners.

An earlier version of this article was first published in print in Turath-Egypt’s Heritage Review Issue III, 2008