Crete (Κρήτη in Greek) is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, and the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, and Corsica. The capital and the largest city is Heraklion. The island forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece, while retaining its own local cultural traits (such as its own poetry and music). It was once the centre of the Minoan civilization (c. 2700–1420 BC), which is currently regarded as the earliest recorded civilization in Europe.
For a relatively short period of time during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, postage stamps were issued by foreign post offices of four countries that were established on Crete. The island has always been considered to be of significant strategic importance. In 1669, following the defeat of the Venetian Empire, the Ottoman Empire invaded and took control. More recently, during the Second World War, the Germans used Crete as a springboard for the war in North Africa.
Following an armed uprising in 1897 accompanied by a declaration of war by Turkey against Greece, the four Great Powers — Russia, Italy, Great Britain and France — agreed on the urgent need to restore order by imposing a naval blockade and then by invasion and occupation. In 1898 further unrest resulted in a Turkish mob running amok and killing many hundreds of Cretan Greeks, a number of British soldiers and the British Consul. The occupying forces retaliated and all Turkish forces were expelled from the island. Crete was occupied by military and administrative forces from the four countries who oversaw an uncertain transition. The territory was divided into regions roughly defined by the boundaries of the four provinces of Crete. These were Chania in the west (Italy), Rethymnon (Russia), Heraklion (Great Britain) and Lassithi in the east (France). Foreign Post Offices were established within each. Representatives from Russia, France, Great Britain and Italy oversaw the negotiations that resulted in the annexation of Crete in 1913 and a unilateral union with Greece when all foreign troops were withdrawn. In the same year Sultan Mehmed V of Turkey finally surrendered any claim to Crete.
However, Austria was already well established with its own post offices in the Levant. Austria gained permission from the Ottoman Empire in 1721 to operate a postal service for official correspondence only and subsequently this was extended to the opening of post offices and carrying mail for merchants. Austrian Loyd postal agencies started operating in the towns of Chania, Heraklion and Rethymno starting in 1837 with official Austrian postal agencies following in 1845. Proper post offices were established in these three towns in 1890 and operated until 1914.
Beginning in 1863, stamps of Lombardy-Venetia were used: 2 to 15 soldi, the Cretan usage of which can be recognized only by the cancellation. After the losses of Lombardy in 1859 and Venetia in 1866, the offices on Crete used stamps overprinted for use in the Ottoman Empire Austria which were identical to Austrian stamps of the same period, but valued from 2 to 50 soldi. In 1886 this was changed to paras and piasters to match the Turkish money already used by other countries, by surcharging the existing stamps of the offices, with further issues between 1888 and 1907: values ranging from 10 paras to 20 piasters.
In order to better compete with the French post offices, regular Austrian stamps were overprinted in French currency starting in 1903 (values 5 centimes to 4 francs). Many stamp collectors and catalogues have traditionally referred to just the French currency issues as “Austrian Post Offices in Crete”, distinguishing them from the Turkish currency issues which have been referred to as “Austrian Post Offices in the Turkish Empire” or as “Austrian Levant”. However, stamps in both currencies were in use both in the offices in Crete and in many other Austrian post offices within the Ottoman Empire.
As a result, very few of these stamps were actually used for mail from Crete. Mint examples are common, whereas authenticated used examples are very scarce. These stamps, in used condition, are frequently found with forged postmarks. The most common usage for these, oddly enough, was on mail from the Austrian post office in Jerusalem (as was today’s stamp), which normally used the Austrian Offices in the Turkish Empire postage stamps.
Between 1903 and 1904, seven stamps shown above were issued using the Austrian Empire definitive postage stamp issues of 1899 to 1901. As with the Austrian stamp issues, the lower denominations were printed on paper having diagonal varnish bars, to prevent their reuse. The lower denominations had black bars, obliterating the Austrian currency names, and all of the stamps were overprinted with either CENTIMES or FRANCS. These stamps were produced with two different perforation gauges, 13×13½and 13×12½. The stamps that are perforated 13 x 12 1/2 are the scarcer of the two gauges.
In 1905, the 5 centime and 10 centime denominations of the 1903-1904 issue were reprinted on paper that did not have diagonal varnish bars. These are much scarcer than the varieties with the varnish bars. In November 1904, an additional were issued, utilizing the newly redesigned Austrian definitive postage stamp issues. These were also printed on paper containing diagonal bars of varnish. As with the previous issue, two perforation gauges were used, with the later one being the scarcest. Another three stamps were released during 1905 — 5 and 10 centimes values with the denomination numerals printed in color on a white background, and a 15 centime with the denomination printed in black on a white background. These stamps were all printed on paper without the vertical bars of varnish.
Scott #12 comes from this latter issue — 5 centimes surcharged in black on the 1906 Austria #90 5 heller yellow green, typographed and perforated 13×13½. The postmark is that of Jerusalem on 12 October with an unreadable year.
In July 1908, a new set of definitive postage stamps was released, denominated in French currency. These six stamps were issued to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Josef I. Though similar in appearance and style to the 60th Anniversary stamps issued for the Austrian Empire, these stamps for the Austrian post offices in Crete are very different. The 5 centime through the 25 centime denominations were typographed on surface-colored paper, and all of them feature the left-facing profile of Franz Josef. The 50 centime and the 1 franc denominations were engraved on surface-colored paper, and all of them feature a portrait of Franz Josef in royal robes. In 1914, the 10 centime rose on rose paper and the 25 centime ultramarine on blue denominations were reissued on paper that was colored all the way through. On the surface-color paper printing, the back side of the stamp is “white”. On the color paper printing, the back side of the stamp has the same paper color as that of the front side.
The Austrian Offices in Crete (and in the Ottoman Empire as well) ceased in September 1914.