Eastern Rumelia is best known to stamp collectors. The province was created in 1878 by the Treaty of Berlin and existed only until 1885, when it was annexed by the Principality of Bulgaria. Eastern Rumelia’s stamps had elements of special philatelic value: shortness of issue period, unusual overprintings, and perforation variations.
I’ll admit I can say nothing about perforation variations. That is one of those wonderfully obscure items that absorb hobbyists. But the overprintings occurred for geopolitical reasons.
Two treaties were signed after Russia won the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the latest of centuries of conflicts between those two parties. The Preliminary Treaty of San Stefano—the word “Preliminary” is an official part of its title—was signed March 3, 1878, at a village west of Istanbul. Without the immediate backing of the other Great Powers, representatives of the Ottoman Empire weren’t able to refuse Russia’s demand that a self-governing Principality of Bulgaria be created. Under the thumb of the Ottomans for more than 500 years, much of Bulgaria’s population had ethnic and cultural affinities with Russia.
The treaty also contained provisions concerning Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, and Bosnia, as well as Armenian and Georgian territories in the Caucasus. And, I will add simply because I enjoy the place name, Northern Dobruja. The general theme was independence or autonomy of regions formerly under Ottoman control.
None of the western Great Powers cared much for these concessions to Russia. Britain in particular objected to the creation of a Russia-aligned Bulgarian state. Russia had been vanquished in the Crimea 22 years earlier—but now it was rearing its ugly head again, on the western shore of the Black Sea. Britain was joined in its apprehensions by Austria-Hungary, which in the Crimean War had refused Russia’s request for an alliance. Both Britain and Austria saw an intact Ottoman Empire as a necessary bulwark against Russia, although the polarities would shift in WWI. British Foreign Secretary Salisbury would write later that year of “setting up a rickety sort of Turkish rule.”
The Congress of Berlin (June 13 – July 13, 1878) concluded with a new treaty that overhauled the San Stefano deal. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro were recognized as independent. But Bulgaria was cut down to size by dividing it into three parts. Macedonia was restored to the Ottomans. The “Principality of Bulgaria” also stayed with the Ottomans, albeit as an autonomous territory. And the newly created Province of Eastern Rumelia was split off as a second autonomous Ottoman territory. This last would quickly prove a useless technicality.
I’ll digress for a moment to observe that the plenipotentiaries at Berlin included members of the twilight generations of nobility-as-world-leaders. For instance, Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli was accompanied by Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Foreign Secretary. Salisbury would in 1895 become the last prime minister to head his full administration out of the House of Lords. And Germany and Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck was accompanied by Chlodwig, Prince of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfuerst, who in 1894 would become the third-to-last noble to hold the title of Prime Minister of Prussia. I briefly step back to admire the dazzle and the intricacy of those titles of nobility—purely from an aesthetic point of view.
It was Britain that came up with the designation of “Eastern Rumelia,” a name they largely made up. The Ottomans used the name Rumelia informally to refer to lands conquered in the 1300s from the Byzantine Empire, which the Muslim rulers referred to as the Roman Empire. More specifically, the name came to refer to southern Balkan areas that remained predominantly Christian. The inhabitants of these areas also referred to themselves as “Rum” or Romans, and this usage persisted until the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Eastern Rumelia’s borders were drawn along the Balkan Mountains to the north, the Rhodope Mountains to the south, and the massif of Strandzha to the southeast.
The region is part of the historical Northern Thrace. Eastern Rumelia’s capital was established at Plovdiv in the western part of the province, the Thracian city named Phillippopolis in 340 BC.
The treaty called for a Christian Governor-General to be appointed by the Ottomans, subject to Great Power approval. The province’s first and longest-ruling Governor General (1879 – 1884) was Alexander Bogoridi. Descended from Bulgarian nobility, he was born in Istanbul and served as a stateman in the Ottoman government.
Eastern Rumelia lasted just seven years. It was annexed September 6, 1885 by Bulgaria with no particular objection by the Rumelians. Although the title of Eastern Rumelia was nominally retained, the Great Powers recognized that local support for unification under Bulgaria was too strong to overcome. Bulgaria went on to become independent from the Ottomans in 1908, and a chain of Balkan conflicts would lead before long to WWI.
Now we get to those overprinted Rumelian stamps. The 1878 Berlin treaty had instructed the Ottomans to issue separate stamps for Rumelia, but the Turks dragged their feet. Even the fact that Bogoridi had once served as Minister of Public Works, Posts, and Telegraphs in Istanbul did nothing to speed the process. Two years went by, and Rumelians issued their own postcards for internal use. The Turkish government responded at last by sending to Plovdiv a batch of Turkish stamps overprinted with “Roumelie Orientale” in an oval. These were spurned by the Rumelians. But they must have become frustrated with the use of postcards for confidential communications of a commercial or romantic nature. Needy postal correspondents were eventually forced to use the Turkish stamps either overprinted with the oval or with a pattern of bars.
At last, in 1881, stamps were issued. They listed the name of the province in four languages (Bulgarian, French, Greek, Turkish) and in four alphabets (Cyrillic, Latin, Greek, Arabic). A second batch was issued 1884. The stamps are a nice representation of the multiplicity of cultures either present in the area or still wishing to claim an interest there, in the Province of Eastern Rumelia.