CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz…

BY THE BEGINNING of the seventh century, the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean had been ravaged by plague, earthquake and decades of war between the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) and Sasanian Persian empires. Along the coast, the great cities were mostly Greek-speaking. In the fertile hill country, villagers spoke Aramaic (a Semitic language) and Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic). And in the inland deserts, nomadic tribes of Bedouin Arabs tended their flocks and occasionally raided their neighbors.

Caliphate Map of 750 AD
Map of the Caliphate in 750 CE, from Spain to Afghanistan

Far to the south, a new religion–Islam–was emerging that would unite the fractious Arabian tribes and propel them on a century of conquest. We call the state created by these Muslim conquests the Caliphate, from the Arabic word Khalifa, which means both “successor” (to the leadership of prophet Muhammad) and “deputy” (of Allah.) The Caliphate would transform many things, not least the coinage of a vast region.

When the prophet Muhammad died at Medina on June 632 CE he was succeeded by a series of close companions and relatives: Abu Bakr (632-634), Umar (634-644), Uthman (644-656) and Ali (656-661). Collectively they are known as the Rashidun, or the “Rightly Guided” Caliphs.

Before the Storm

For the first generation or so, the new Muslim rulers of the Levant were content to use the existing stock of Byzantine and Sasanian money. It was practical and had strong “brand-recognition” among their subjects, including Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and pagans.

The Arabs themselves were likewise well-known to the Romans and Persians. A Syrian-born Roman emperor, Marcus Julius Philippus (who reigned from 244 to 249), was known as “Philip the Arab.” In the endless wars between Rome and Persia, Arab tribes fought on both sides. As a result of this proximity and familiarity, the circulating coinage in Arabia was a mixture of Byzantine gold and copper and Sasanian silver.[1]

Gold Solidus
Heraclius, w H. Constantine, 610-641. Solidus Gold

The Byzantine gold solidus of about 4.5 grams had maintained a high standard of purity and was accepted everywhere. The obverse imperial portraits might vary, but the standard reverse was a cross on three steps, which served as the denomination mark.

The Sasanian silver drachm or dirham, of about 4.1 grams and struck on a broad, thin flan, also had a reputation for quality.[2] The obverse bore the shah’s portrait wearing an elaborately decorated winged crown (Arabs jokingly called these coins “donkeys” because the wings reminded them of donkey ears). The reverse showed a Zoroastrian fire altar flanked by two attendants, with inscriptions in Pahlavi (“Middle Persian”)–a difficult script that few of the shah’s subjects could read. The coin’s double or triple dotted borders were decorated with stars and crescents.

Byzantine silver had almost disappeared except for the hexagram, an emergency coinage introduced circa 615 and struck on silver recycled from Church altar fittings.

The copper follis, used for everyday small change, had declined sharply in weight and workmanship. The now five-to-six-gram coin was often crudely overstruck on cut-down coins from earlier reigns. A large “M” on the reverse served as the denomination mark; the coin was nominally valued at 40 nummi–a tiny unit that had gone out of circulation over a century earlier–and “M” was the Greek numeral for 40. In Egypt, where wages and prices were lower, small change consisted of 12-nummi pieces (dodecanummia), featuring the Greek numeral “IB”.

Arab-Byzantine Coinage

In 636 the Arabs defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of the Yarmuk. Jerusalem surrendered to the Caliph Umar the next year. As the circulating coinage in Arab-ruled Syria and Palestine wore out, there was an urgent need for fresh supplies of money.

Local authorities began striking copies of the Byzantine copper follis. The prosperous Jordan valley town of Scythopolis (Beit She’an, Israel) issued a heavy follis copying the coins of long-dead Justin II (reigned 565-574). Most other towns issued light coppers of four to six grams, closely following the types of the current emperor in Constantinople (Heraclius until 641, then Constans II until 668). As the weight standard of Byzantine coppers declined, Arab imitations kept pace, but the workmanship and quality of the imitations is often better.

Arab-Sasanian Coinage

After crushing a Persian army at Qadisiyyah in November of 636, the Muslim Arabs quickly overran Mesopotamia. At Nahavand in 642 the last Sasanian ruler, Yazdegerd III (r. 632-651), was decisively defeated, although it would take many years to incorporate all the Iranian territories into the Muslim Empire. For decades, governors ruling a population that was still largely Zoroastrian (with Christian and Jewish minorities) were content to let local mints (34, by one estimate) continue to issue silver coins with the portraits and Pahlavi inscriptions of long-dead Khusrau II (r. 591-628) and the reverse image of a fire altar and attendants. Some local authorities added a simple Arabic phrase in the obverse margin, Bismillah – “In the name of Allah.”

Arab-Sasanian. Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad. 674-683
Arab-Sasanian. Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad. 674-683

Later, the names of Arab governors were added, along with Islamic texts, such as the shahada (“There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”).

Gradually, Arabic inscriptions replaced Pahlevi, and dating based on the regnal year of the shah was replaced by the Islamic calendar, which takes Muhammad’s June 622 CE migration from Mecca to Medina (the Hijra) as a starting point. For example, 661 CE is 41 AH (Anno Hegirae – “year of the Hijra” in Latin).[3]

From Solidus to Dinar

Possibly as early as 660, the minting of gold coins began at the Caliph’s capital of Damascus. These now-rare pieces were near-exact copies of the Constantinople solidi of Heraclius and Constans II except for deletion of the crossbar from the cross on steps on the reverse.

The usual interpretation of this “column on steps” is that the Christian cross was offensive to Muslim religious feeling, but in a world without “Separation of Church and State”, the cross may have just as well been regarded as a political symbol of Roman authority. So these imitative solidi were “de-Romanized” as much as “de-Christianized.”

Abd al-Malik

In 685, after a chaotic period of civil war, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan became the fifth Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. During his 20-year reign he established Arabic as the official language of the Muslim world, and set a pattern for Islamic coinage that has persisted until the present.

Abd al-Malik’s gold coinage developed through a gradual period of experimentation, beginning about 691 with an adaptation of the design of a Byzantine solidus of Heraclius (who died in 641.) On the obverse, which has no inscription, three standing figures in long robes hold globular objects (on the original design these orbs are topped with small crosses, but here the crosses are replaced by pellets). The reverse has the “column on steps” flanked by the letters B and I (of uncertain significance). The whole symbol is then surrounded by Arabic text: “Bism Allah la ilah illa Allah wahda la sharik lahu Muhammad rasul Allah” (In the name of Allah, there is no god but Allah alone, he has no associate; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.) This type was only struck for two or three years and is very rare.

Standing Caliph Dinar
Standing Caliph Dinar

About 694, the “Standing Caliph” design appeared. On the obverse, a bearded, long-haired figure in Arab dress holds a sheathed sword. The surrounding text repeats the Muslim profession of faith. The reverse retains the column on three steps, but the Islamic calendar date is written out: “This dinar was struck in the year Seventy Five.” These coins, on the 4.5 gram solidus weight standard, were struck for only about two years.

Beginning in 697 (77 AH) there was a radical redesign, eliminating all pictorial elements from the gold dinar. Each side now bore a circular inscription around three lines of Arabic text. The obverse reads:

“There is no god but Allah alone, he has no associate,”

surrounded by:

“Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, He sent him with guidance and the true religion to make it victorious over every religion.” (Quran, 9:33)

The reverse reads:

“Allah is one, Allah is eternal, He did not beget and He was not begotten,”

surrounded by:

“In the name of Allah, this dinar was struck in the year 77.”

It’s possible that this radical redesign was a response and a challenge to the Emperor Justinian II, who had placed the image of Jesus on the obverse of his gold coinage with the inscription Rex Regnantium (“King of Those who Rule.”) Justinian put his own standing image on the reverse, identifying himself as Servus Christi (“Servant of Christ.”)

Abd-al-Malik’s design remained basically unchanged until year 132 AH (750 CE). Beginning in year 79 AH (698 CE), the silver dirham was similarly redesigned. The larger flan allowed the inclusion of dotted circles and more Arabic text, including the name of the mint city.

Umayyad Caliphate Gold Coin
Umayyad Caliphate Gold Coin

Collecting the Earliest Islamic Coins

Arab-Byzantine coppers are quite common, and can often be found in Good to Very Fine grades for under $100, although rare types in exceptional condition go for much more.

Arab-Sasanian silver dirhams are also affordable. Common types often sell for under US$100, with a few rare types reaching into the low thousands.

The imitative gold coinage is extremely rare; an example of Abd al-Malik’s “Three Kings” solidus brought almost $500,000 in a 2010 Swiss auction.[4]

Post-reform Umayyad gold coinage is relatively plentiful, except for the first year of issue (AH 77), which is a great rarity. For beginning collectors, the language barrier presents a major obstacle. Richard Plant’s little book Arabic Coins and How to Read Them (1980) is a good investment.

Notes

[1] In the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), the gold coinage of the Ethiopian Axumite kingdom also circulated; see https://www.coinweek.com/featured-news/the-coinage-of-aksum/

[2] Late Sasanian rulers also issued a small bronze coin, the pashiz, weighing less than a gram. It evidently didn’t circulate much and is relatively rare.

[3] A useful online date converter for the Islamic calendar is at http://www.islamicity.com/PrayerTimes/hijriconverter1aPartner.htm.

[4] Numismatica Genevensis, Auction 6. Lot 285 (30 November 2010).

References

Bates, Michael. “History, Geography and Numismatics in the First Century of Islamic Coinage.” Revue suisse de numismatique 65 (1986).

Breckenridge, James D. The Numismatic Iconography of Justinian II. American Numismatic Society. New York (1959).

Crawford, Peter. The War of Three Gods: Romans, Persians and the Rise of Islam. Skyhorse (2014).

Fanning, David. “Coinage from the Dawn of Islam”. Numismatist, October 2012.

Foss, Clive. Arab-Byzantine Coins: An Introduction with a Catalog of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. Washington, DC (2008).

Foss, Clive. “Arab-Byzantine Coins: Money as Cultural Continuity” in Evans, Helen and Brandie Ratliff (eds.) Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition. New York (2012).

Foss, Clive. “A Syrian Coinage of Mu’awiya?”. Revue numismatique. 158 (2002).

Heidemann. Stefan. “The Standing Caliph Type – The Object on the Reverse” in Oddy, Adrew (ed.) Proceedings of the 12th Seventh Century Syrian Numismatic Round Table. London (2010).

Heidemann. Stefan. “Numismatics” in Robinson, Chase (ed.) The New Cambridge History of Islam: Volume I, The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries. Cambridge (2010).

Plant, Richard. Arabic Coins and How to Read Them. 2nd edition. London. (1980).

Treadwell, Luke. “Abd al-Malik’s Coinage Reforms: the Role of the Damascus Mint”. Revue numismatique. 165. (2009).

Walker, John. Catalogue of the Arab-Byzantine and Post-Reform Umayyad Coins. British Museum. London. (1956).

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