Coins, like stamps and flags, can tell both historians and collectors a great deal about the history of the world. Collectors of Arab coins, in fact, must delve deeply into Arab history just to identify a coin, let alone set a value on it. And in the 1970's many were doing just that, particularly with respect to the silver coinage of the past: the dinars and dirhams, piastres and qirsh, liras and riyals that have, for centuries, been circulating throughout the Arab East and beyond, and are now popular items in the world of the numismatist.
Behind this new surge of interest, says Herbert Melnick, managing director of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Service Corporation of America, are two simple facts: the new prominence of the Arabs in world affairs and, a result of that, publication of new guides to Arab coins.
"In the past, collectors in the western world generally shied away from coins of the Middle East because they felt the inscriptions were too difficult to decipher," Melnick said. "Today, however, guides are being published and widely distributed so that the average collector can rather easily translate inscriptions and numerals without having to become fluent in Persian, Turkish or Arabic. . ."
Furthermore, he went on, "the evening news programs on television deal so extensively with Near Eastern affairs day after day, that collectors have become intrigued with that part of the world and feel they can learn a great deal about the individual countries by studying their coins.
"The average person living in the Near East, moreover, is now often aware of his own nation's heritage, and it's natural for him to acquire an interest in the coins which reveal that heritage. Thus, there is now a strong worldwide demand for choice coins of the Middle East."
As in other civilizations, gold was the primary medium of exchange in the ancient Arab world. But even before regularly issued coins came into use, silver was utilized as a currency. In the Arabian Gulf, for example, a silver ingot called the Larin was introduced in the early centuries. Crafted in the form of a fish-hook, with various specimens ranging in length from about one inch to an inch and a half, Larins, which took their name from the town of Lar in southern Persia, were originally circulated in the Arabian Gulf region. Eventually they spread to the eastern seaboard of India and to the Maldive Islands and became one of the chief trading currencies in the Indian Ocean region. Larins have inscriptions in both Persian and Arabic, and to meet the requirements of change, were often cut into pieces; sometimes one Larin was divided into 12 separate sections.
With the advent of the Muslim era, in A.D. 622, silver coinage spread throughout the Middle East. Initially, Islamic coins were little more than copies of Byzantine issues, but at the close of the seventh century an 'Umayyad caliph, 'Abd al-Malik, ordered that a purely Islamic coinage be struck: a gold "dinar" and a silver "dirham," a term derived from the Greek "drachma," meaning "silver coin." These terms, "dinar" and "dirham," are the generic names of all gold and silver coins in all Muslim countries, despite numerous varieties introduced later and despite the fact that "dinar" later came to include silver coins as well as gold.
In striking the first purely Islamic coins, 'Abd al-Malik established principles in accordance with Muslim traditions: no image of any living thing appeared on the Muslim dinars and dirhams. Instead, the markings were geometric and calligraphic rather than pictorial, and frequently, as with all the Islamic decorative arts (see Aramco World, July-August 1977), bore the intertwined geometrical patterns called arabesque, and phrases from the Koran. The coins of 'Abd al-Malik, for example, carried the Shahadah: "There is no god but God; Muhammad is His messenger," and coins struck later in Arab lands carried such familiar inscriptions as: "God is One, God is Eternal; He begets not, neither is He begotten," or the Bismillah: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate."
To numismatists, Muslim coins are of particular interest because of the remarkably full, continuous and dated record they provide. Some, for example, include a full record of successive rulers in various dynasties and, as almost all of these coins carry a mention of their place of mintage, supply some indication of the location and the territorial extent of these kingdoms.
One dirham, for example, minted in Damascus during 'Abd al-Malik's reign, is inscribed: "In the name of God this dirham was struck in Damascus in the year 79," that is, in A.D. 698-699.
This historical record is particularly important during the long period when the Ottomans ruled the Muslim world. For although the Ottomans, in the early years of their rule, inscribed their coins in the traditions of the 'Umayyads, the Abbasids and other dynasties of Muslim history, the Sultans, starting in the 15th century, began to add their own names, the place of mintage and, frequently, the date. As the Ottoman Empire endured nearly five centuries, the coins provide a fine record of the Sultans from the time the Ottomans first established an organized coinage throughout their expanding empire.
This organized coinage was first introduced by the Sultan Orkhan in 1328; it was a silver coin called the akce and it weighed approximately one third of the earlier Islamic dirhams. In 1655, the Ottomans added a smaller silver coin called the para and in 1687 replaced the akce with a larger coin called the piastre - a term possibly derived from the French word piastre, meaning thin metal plate. The piastre was closer in size to the coin called the thaler or taler, which was, in various versions, the standard coin of Europe's Germanic states from the 15th to the 19th centuries, but it was only two thirds the weight. The piastre was at first worth 40 paras, but increased in value when Sultan Mustafa II issued still another variety - this one approximating the size and weight of the now-standard thaler. By then the Sultans had also begun to add what is called the tughrah, the elaborately calligraphed signature and emblem of the Sultan. The first tughrah appeared on the coins of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century and was a regular feature by the time of Muhammad III (1595-1603).
A typical piastre of Mustafa II had four-line inscriptions in Turkish on each side, with one side reading "Sultan of the two lands and Khaqan of the two seas, Sultan, son of a Sultan," and the other reading "Sultan Mustafa, son of Muhammad Khan, may his kingdom continue." Because the location of the mint was also included, collectors know that the same coin was struck at Edirne, Izmir and Erzurum, as well as at Istanbul.
These piastres are generally inscribed with just one date, A.H. 1106 (A.D. 1695), the year of the Sultan's accession, regardless of the year in which they were actually minted. The piastres and other silver coins issued by later Sultans, however, were clearly inscribed with two dates: the date of the ruler's accession and the year in which the coin was actually struck.
With respect to history the method of dating is particularly interesting; it is expressed in terms of a "regnal year" - that is, the number of years the Sultan had been in power when the coin was struck. Thus, if the regnal year is 6, then that figure is added to the accession year to determine the coin's actual date. As Sultan Mustafa III, for example, reigned from 1757 to 1773, a piastre coin issued during his sixth regnal year carries the dates A.H. 1171 (A.D. 1757), when he acceded to power, and A.H. 1177 (A.D. 1763), the year the coin was struck.
For coin collectors, the regnal years on coins of the Near East are important since they help determine the current collectors' values, particularly the values of scarce varieties. The 20-piastre coins minted during the reign of Sultan Abdul Aziz (1861-1876), for example, were generally the same during the Sultan's 15-year reign and therefore are valued by collectors today at about $20. But the same 20-piastre coin minted in regnal year 4 is extremely scarce and catalogues at $70. Collectors who can read Arabic-Turkish numbers, therefore, are more likely to recognize the more elusive coins minted in regnal year 4.
Over the years, obviously, there were minor changes in Ottoman coinage: the shift from Koranic quotations to the Sultan's tughrahs, the introduction of the one-piastre coin and, later, the 20-piastre coin. And in the 18th century, a silver two-zolota coin was introduced. This was a coin 50 percent larger than the piastre. But the most radical change in Turkish coinage occurred when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk won power in 1922, abolished the Ottoman sultanate, and, the following year, proclaimed the Republic of Turkey. As one of his goals was to westernize Turkey, the country's coinage was westernized too; the Latin alphabet was adopted for inscriptions, western numerals replaced Arabic figures, and the dates were expressed according to the Gregorian calendar. Even more radically, portraits were permitted; the first, a representation of Ataturk himself, appeared in 1934 on a 100-kurush silver coin.
Because Ottoman rule extended to virtually all of the Muslim world, the history of silver coinage in the Arab states is very similar to that of the Ottomans. Until World War I, for example, Egyptian coins closely resembled Ottoman coins; they carried the Sultan's tughrah, were inscribed in Arabic and were dated according to the Muslim calendar. Indeed, even the astute collector would have difficulty in distinguishing between Egypt's 14th-century 20-piastre coin and the Ottoman coin issued under Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909). The same can be said of many coins issued in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Sudan.
With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, however, and the introduction of the European-dominated mandate system, silver coinage in all those countries changed rapidly and radically. In Egypt, portraits began to appear for the first time: King Fuad, in civilian clothing, on the 20-piastre coins of 1923, and in military uniform on the 20-piastre series of 1929-1933. In Lebanon, the lire, or pound, replaced the Ottoman piastre while the piastre became a component monetary unit -100 piastres to the lire - with such illustrations as Phoenician galleys and the cedars of Lebanon replacing the tughrah. In Syria, also a French mandate, the French phrase Etat de Syrie ("State of Syria") was added to Arabic inscriptions. And in Iraq, first a British mandate, then, after 1932, an independent kingdom, the portrait of King Faisal appeared on the 200-fils coin, one of the first series of Iraqi coins ever issued.
Later, as the various Arab countries won their independence from Western control, coins proliferated, most of them reflecting their new status. Syria, for example, chose an eagle with three stars on its breast as its national emblem and stamped it on virtually all Syrian coinage, while Iraq introduced new coinage - in values of 25, 50 and 100 fils - bearing an elaborate coat of arms designed as the national emblem.
Egypt, on the other hand, stressed achievement. The country's 25-piastre coins of 1956 and 1957, for example, commemorate the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the inauguration of the National Assembly, while four coins issued in 1964 mark the dedication of the Aswan High Dam. On a one-pound silver coin issued in 1970, Egypt also commemorated President Nasser, and on another reminded citizens of Egypt's long ties with Islam; that coin commemorates the 1000th anniversary of al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest university in the world and the most famous Islamic university. (See Aramco World, September-October, 1973).
On the Arabian Peninsula, where the Ottoman rule was more nominal than real, the chief silver coin in circulation at the time 'Abd al-Aziz founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was one of the thalers issued by the German and Austrian states since the 15th century. This was the "Maria Theresa thaler," a large silver coin bearing a profile of Maria Theresa, the 18th-century Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and mother of the famous Marie Antoinette of France. This coin was also the most popular unit of currency in Abyssinia, Yemen and Oman, but has since been replaced by national coinages.
In the 1920's, however, King 'Abd al-Aziz began to issue a silver coin called the riyal, and coins of copper and nickel called qirsh; there were, originally, 22 qirsh to the riyal and later 20. As do the original Islamic coins and the early Ottoman coins, the Saudi riyal bears inscriptions, but since 1925 has also included the crossed swords and palm tree, the Kingdom's national emblem. This riyal, one of the most popular of the Saudi coins, was also minted in proof, but both the regular coins and the proof strikes are often found with iridescent toning - that is, the silver, with the passage of time, has taken on the colors of the rainbow.
In the Arab East, therefore, coins do more than provide a medium of exchange. Like flags (see Aramco World, March-April 1978), they also record in subtle, often beautiful, forms the history of the peoples who designed them and used them over the centuries.
Robert Obojski is a contributing editor to Acquire Magazine and a consultant to several New York numismatic firms.