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al-Andalus: Coinage of Islamic Spain

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

But you know, Lieutenant, in the Arab city of Cordoba were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village?

Prince Feisal, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

The Muslim Conquest (711-732)

THE VISIGOTHS, WHO had misruled Spain for two centuries, were unpopular with their subjects. Theirs was a shaky kingdom, wracked by internal conflicts.

In 711, Muslim general Tariq ibn-Ziyad invaded Spain with seven thousand Berber horsemen. He landed near the rock that would later bear his name, Jabal Tariq, or “Tariq’s mountain” (over time this became Gibraltar). Within a few years, Muslims conquered most of the peninsula. The Islamic coins they struck in Spain closely imitated North African coinage: small, thick gold pieces[1] inscribed in Latin with a Muslim message: “There is no god but God and He has no associate.”

The obverse bore an eight-rayed star, and the reverse inscription read hic nummus solidus feritus in Spania (“this solidus coin was made in Spain”), along with a date in Roman numerals using both the year of the imperial “indiction” (a 15-year tax assessment cycle) and the Islamic calendar[2] in which the year 1 was reckoned as 622 CE (when the prophet Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina with his followers). The gold is often alloyed with silver and even copper; one theory is that the coins were a way to distribute mixed precious-metal booty collected by the conquering armies.

After a few years, the reverse inscription changed from abbreviated Latin to Arabic. Such bilingual Islamic coins are very rare; a VF specimen in a 2006 auction sold for US$15,000.

Umayyads of Cordoba (756-1031)

Spain, which had been successively tinctured with Punic, and Roman and Gothic blood, imbibed in a few generations the name and manners of the Arabs.

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, v. 5, Ch. 51

UmmayadsThe Muslim conquerors called their new land “al-Andalus”; the origin of the name is still debated. The Visigoth capital had been Toledo in the center of the Iberian peninsula, but the Arabs established their capital further south at Cordoba (or Qurtubah) in al-Andalus, which has the warmest climate in Europe.

A series of governors appointed by the distant Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus, Syria issued gold dinars (about 4.25 grams), silver dirhams (about 2.9 grams) and bronze fulus (of variable weight, 4 to 6.5 grams initially, declining eventually to less than two grams) according to standard designs established by the currency reforms of Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (ruled 685-705). The only mint name that appears on coins of this period is “al-Andalus.”

George Miles (1904-1975), an eminent American numismatist noted:

The attribution of al-Andalus dirhems [sic] of different styles to specific cities remains one of the unsettled problems of Hispano-Arabic numismatics (Miles, 224).

In 750 CE the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown by a rival dynasty, the Abbasids. The Umayyads were slaughtered at their palace compound near Damascus; only one young prince, Abd ar-Rahman (731-788), escaped. He found refuge in Spain, gathered supporters and eventually ruled as “Emir”. He was effectively independent but nominally subject to the distant Abbasid caliphs, who had moved their capital to the new city of Baghdad. Under his successor, Abd ar-Rahman III (c.889-961) who assumed the title of caliph and ruled for half a century, al-Andalus reached heights of prosperity and cultural, artistic, architectural, and intellectual splendor. The most populous city in Europe, Cordoba reportedly had over 600 mosques, 900 public baths and 200 thousand houses, not to mention street lights[3].


Umayyad Caliphate. temp. Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik. AH 105-125 / AD 724-743. AR dirhem (27mm, 2.79 g, 6h). al-Andalus (Qurtubah [Cordoba]) mint. Dated AH 116 (AD 734/5). Gomez, Hispano 17 var. (AH date); Klat 129; Album 137.

In Spain’s mountainous north, a shifting set of squabbling Christian kingdoms held out against the Muslims: Asturias, Leon, Castile, Navarre, and Aragon. Eventually, they would unite to begin the centuries-long Reconquista that would end Muslim rule in Spain.

The Taifas ( 1009-1106, 1140-1203, 1232-1287)


Left: Taifa of Valencia. Abd al-Malik al-Mudafar. 1061-1065 CE. Fractional dinar in debased gold 1.21 g. Right: Taifa of Seville. Abd al-Mutadid 1047-48 CE. Dirhem in billon. 

In 1009 a civil war led to the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate. Islamic Spain broke up into a patchwork of independent city-state known as the Tawaif or “Taifas”, from an Arabic word meaning “factions”. Over a hundred of these micro-states emerged during the subsequent century; at least 44 issued local coinage (Martinez de Marigorta). The Taifas were individually weak, and for protection many paid heavy tribute to neighboring Christian kingdoms. They repeatedly debased their currency; eventually their “gold” dinars were mostly silver, and their “silver” dirhams were mostly copper alloy. Many fractional denominations were issued, notably the qirat[4], a silver alloy piece weighing less than a gram, 10-12 mm in diameter.

Almoravids (1085-1145)

In 1085 Alfonso VI (called “Alfonso the Brave”) of Castile and Leon captured the great city of Toledo. In a panic, the Taifa kings summoned aid from Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the Almoravid ruler of North Africa. The Almoravids (Arabic: al-Murabitun, literally “those who are ready for battle”) were tribal Berbers who practiced a militant fundamentalist form of Islam. They sent a strong army, which defeated Alfonso at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086[5].

almoravidishaqibnaliWithin a few years the Almoravids took control of Muslim Spain and enforced their harsh brand of religion on the generally tolerant Andalusians.

The Almoravids issued coins in Spain and North Africa, but since their coins often lack a mint mark it is not always clear where they were struck. With control over the trans-Saharan trade in West African gold dust, the Almoravids issued handsome gold dinars with a menacing inscription from The Qur’an (3:85) on the reverse:

And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers.

After enjoying the luxuries of Spain for a few generations, the Almoravids lost their militancy, and a new, more fanatical sect of Berber tribesmen seized power, the Almohads (al-Muwahhidun, “the unifiers.”)

Almohads (1147-1238)

The Almohads issued heavy dinars (4.6 grams) and half-dinars. The Christians regarded the half-dinars as the basic unit, and called the dinars doblas or “doubles”. The design featured a square filled with calligraphy, inscribed in a circle, with additional inscriptions ornamenting the marginal arcs. The obverse features Qur’anic texts, while the reverse proclaimed the ruler’s titles and genealogy. They also issued square silver dirhams on a weight standard of about 1.5 grams. These were widely copied by the Christian kingdoms, often with deliberate errors in writing the name of Muhammad. In Spanish these copies were called milliarés, after the name of an ancient Roman silver coin.

almohadChristian rulers also copied Muslim gold dinars, which circulated freely in Europe during centuries when there was little or no European gold coinage. Ramon Berenguer I, Count of Barcelona (1035-1076) struck dinars with blundered Arabic inscriptions, and his own name in Latin. Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158-1214) issued a dinar that bore a cross, and his abbreviated name in Latin letters (ALF) along with a defiant Arabic inscription:

The emir of the Catholics Alfonso son of Sancho, may God support him and make him victorious.

On 16 July 1212, Alfonso VIII led the armies of a coalition of Christian kingdoms in a decisive victory over the Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa. Muslim al-Andalus never recovered. It was gradually reduced to a narrow toehold, the Emirate of Granada, which barely survived by paying tribute to the Christians for 250 years.

Emirate of Granada: The End of al-Andalus (1238-1492)

A new dynasty, the Nasrids, ruled Granada. These Islamic coins followed Almohad prototypes but with a greater richness of texture and technical sophistication. Their splendid gold doblas typically sell for US$3000 or more at auction. The borders of the coins bear an inscription that served as the dynasty’s motto:

Wa lā ghāliba illā-llāh
There is no conqueror but God

On 2 January 1492, the last emir, Muhammad XII, surrendered to King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, completing the Reconquista.

Collecting al-Andalus

Over the course of seven centuries, Spain produced a huge volume of Islamic coins and many have survived. A casual search on the CoinArchives Pro web site generated 2,353 hits for the search term “Andalus.”

For most Western collectors, the language barrier is an impediment to appreciating the complex coinage of the Islamic world. But it is not insuperable. Richard Plant’s Arabic Coins and How to Read Them (2000) is an essential resource, and there are many good introductions to the Arabic alphabet (Awde & Samano (1998), for example).

For collectors who read Spanish, there are some three centuries worth of scholarly numismatic literature on Islamic Spain. In English, standard references include Album’s Checkist of Islamic Coins (2011) and Mitchiner’s World of Islam (1977). As you might expect, most coins of al-Andalus that reach the market first appear in the auctions of Spanish or Portuguese dealers.

* * *


[1] These “globular” coins match the shape and weight of the last Byzantine solidi struck at Carthage about the year 700; they would have seemed familiar to Latin-speaking city folk.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_calendar

[3] Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Ch. 51

[4] The Arabic word qirat has the same meaning as our word “carat”; presumably the coin was originally considered to be equal in value to one carat of gold (0.2 gram or 0.007 ounce).

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Sagrajas


Album, Stephen. Checklist of Islamic Coins, 3rd ed. (2011)

Awde, Nicholas and Putros Samano. The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read & Write It. Lyle Stuart (1998)

Bates, Michael. “The Coinage of Spain Under the Umayyad Caliphs of the East, 711-750”, Actas III Jarique de Numismática Hispano-árabe. Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid (1992)

Dodds, Jerrilynn (ed.) Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. New York (1992)

Marsden, William. Numismata Orientalia Illustrata. London (1823)

Martinez de Marigorta, Eneko. “Acuñaciones monetarias de al-Andalus rn la primera mitad del siglo V/XI: fin de un modelo, consolidacion de las emisiones regionales (Coin minting of al-Andalus in the first half of the Fifth/ Eleventh century: the end of a model, the consolidation of the regional issues)”, Al Qantara 36. (2015)

Messier, Ronald. “The Almoravids: West African Gold and the Gold Currency of the Mediterranean Basin”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 17. (1974)

Miles, George. The Coinage of the Umayyads of Spain. New York. American Numismatic Society. (1950)

–. Coins of the Spanish Muluk al-Tawa-if. New York. American Numismatic Society. (1954)

–. “A Hoard of Arab Dirhems from Algarve, Portugal”, ANS Museum Notes IX (1960)

Mitchiner, Michael. Oriental Coins and Their Values: The World of Islam. Hawkins (1977)

Plant, Richard. Arabic Coins and How to Read Them. Spink (2000)

Tameanko, Marvin. “El Cid and the Coins of the Early Spanish Reconquista.” Coin News (UK) October 2011.

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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