The Coins in Your Pocket

Coins are wonderfully useful objects for scholars, and are one of the few types of evidence that transition easily between the spheres of archaeology and history. They appear in metal hoards and burials, in marketplaces and jewellery. Because they are so often dated, or at least minted under a specific individual, they can play a crucial role in dating otherwise nebulous collections. Despite these many uses, numismatics, or the study of coins, is often considered a specialist discipline, with its own terminology and technical methods, all of which can be incredibly intimidating for the uninitiated.

Umayyad Script Dirham

This silver coin, or dirham, illustrates the first aniconic, or picture-less, Islamic coins minted in the 7th century. This type would have enormous influence on all other Islamic coins. (http://www.icmgz.com/IC3.html)

As the numismatist Gene W. Heck has argued, however, coins are invaluable sources for writing even ‘mainstream’ history:

“If one seeks clear insights into a dynasty’s imperial policies, then one must first study its monetary system—both the basic metallurgy involved in its creation and the inscriptions that signal its formal mission and intent.” 

These benefits to using coins are particularly pronounced in areas with sparse or difficult written records.

One such scenario is the immediate aftermath of the Arab conquests in the 7th century, which resulted in the destruction of the Sasanian Empire in Persia and a serious reduction in Byzantine territory. The Arabs who created the first Islamic Caliphate during these events had only recently been united in a common cause, and their sudden success brought them power of diverse territories speaking a variety of languages and answering to very different administrations. What’s more, no coins were minted in pre-Islamic Arabia, and the trading of Arab merchants was undertaken using either bullion or coins from other states.

Sasanian style silver Dirham

A silver dirham, with a typically Sasanian design–including an image of the Shah–minted after the Arab Conquest. (http://www.icmgz.com/IC3.html)

The first decades of an emerging Islamic coinage, therefore, offers fascinating insights into the formation of a world power, as well as a world religion. As one might expect, the earliest coins continue the traditions of coinage found in pre-Islamic states, using images of Persian shahs and Byzantine emperors, as well as a host of other motifs.

A 7th century Arab version of a 6th century Byzantine coin. At right you can see an emperor-figure, with cross-capped orb. (http://www.icmgz.com/IC3.html)

The continuity in iconography illustrates one of the fundamental truths about money: it’s only accepted when recognised as such. It also points, however, to the continuing traditions of craftsmanship, since those responsible for minting coins before the conquest also continued to do so afterwards. At times, this continuity also points to the limits of Islamic government.

In Persia, for example, copper coins could be minted by a large number of local leaders, and their measurements are so inconsistent in the first decades after the conquest that no standard model (in weight, in thickness,) can be discerned. Its an eloquent testimony to the highly local nature of money production at this time.

Around 690 CE, however, coins began to change. Older patterns were adapted, Arabic began to appear, and the weights of silver coins were reformed to conform to an Arab system of measures. Here, too, though, coins can help to illustrate the limits of change. This can be seen in Egypt, whose coins and weights were measured in an Egyptian carat (unit of weight=the weight of a carob seed pod) rather than the standard carat used elsewhere in the Caliphate.

The Standing-Caliph coin type, minted in gold by Caliph Abd al-Malik in the 690s. © Trustees of the British Museum

We have a striking snapshot of these changes to the coinage in action, the so-called Standing Caliph coin type. Minted by the Caliph Abd al-Malik, it depicts an altered Byzantine design–the cross on the steps–one one side, and a standing figure on the other. If you look closely, however, you’ll see that the cross has lost its horizontal beam and that Arabic lettering follows the edge of the coin.

The interpretation of this coin is somewhat controversial. Some take the figure, with his hand on his sword hilt, as a portrait of Abd al-Malik, made to challenge the Byzantine emperor in their gold coinage. There is a slight possibility, however, that this coin depicts the Prophet Muhammad, who is named in the inscription surrounding the figure.

Either way, these coins demonstrate a brief moment of experimentation, when this new Islamic state was attempting to establish its own visual idiom.

Aniconic gold coin of Abd al-Malik

Aniconic gold coin of Abd al-Malik, featuring the shahada, or profession of Muslim faith, in Kufic lettering. © Trustees of the British Museum

Only a few years later, this process would be drawing to a close as austere, but elegantly minted aniconic coins became the norm. On these, the Arabic script–God’s chosen language–takes centre stage. We can not only sense patterns of government and local variation as the first Islamic Caliphate adapted to its environment, therefore, but also see a new style come into being as economy and religion combined–all through the coins in your pocket.

Learn More:

Heck, Gene W., ‘First Century Islamic Currency: Mastering the Message from the Money,’ in John Haldon (ed.), Money, Power, and Politics in Early Islamic Syria, (Farnham, UK, 2010), pp.97-124.

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