By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
A great wellspring of revolution, the First World War upended the Middle East and totally eroded Ottoman control in the region. This led to extensive unrest and paved the way for the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. British authorities used this agreement to create the Palestine Mandate, a political territory encompassing the modern nation of Israel, the Palestinian Administrations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Before the Palestinian Mandate was founded, the region used the Egyptian pound as its primary currency. This was to change in the coming decades, and in 1920, Herbert Samuel was appointed to the position of High Commissioner. Acting swiftly, Samuel was sent to Palestine three months prior to his appointment, with the goal of completing an economic and political assessment of the regional landscape. As part of his assessment, Samuel concluded that Palestine was “impoverished … with no real natural resources” and still suffering from the devastation of the war (Wallach, 132). Yet in his report, he recommended the establishment of a unified currency to circulate within the Mandate.
It is important to understand why Samuel, a Jew and an avowed Zionist, would propose such a measure. Noted Palestinian currency authorities Raphael Dabbah and Barbara Smith both assert that the motivation was a combination of a need for seigniorage revenues and “a pledge of future independence to the [Arab] population” (Wallach, 132). However, Samuel himself stated that this new currency would act as a form of banal nationalism and help tamp down latent Arab national ambitions in the region.
This colonial currency, set apart from practically all others, would not have economics as its raison d’etre. In fact, due to the region’s economic issues, it was “unclear” if the new currency would have any significant economic benefit for the colonial authorities (Wallach, 130). Instead, the symbolic importance of the currency as a potentially unifying force was much more relevant. Even contemporary citizens understood this and viewed the currency as a political tool.
Actually, the British could not have been more obvious, especially since they released the Palestinian Pound only one day before the 10th anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration!
Seven years after Samuel recommended the formation of a unified currency, the British passed the 1927 Palestine Currency Order authorizing the design, striking, and issuing of the Palestine Pound, as well as the establishment of a Palestine Currency Board. While this body, headed by P.G. Ezechiel, was based in London, it did station a Currency Officer in Palestine. With the Pound as the base denomination, the coinage of this new system would consist entirely of the sub-unit Mils. As stipulated by the Currency Order, 1,000 Mils would equal 1 Pound. Additionally, every Palestinian Pound was backed by British Sterling held in London, at a 1:1 exchange rate.
The coins were to split into seven denominations: the 1 and 2 mils (bronze); the 5, 10, and 20 mils (holed nickel-bronze); and the 50 and 100 mils (silver). For these two largest denominations to be struck in silver, the Currency Board was granted approval by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. Despite having approval for a gold £1 coin–set at a silver to gold ratio of 10.5:1–no such pieces were minted.
Since it was vital that the coinage’s design did not create further tensions, the Board decided that all coins would be trilingual (Arabic, English, and Hebrew) and not include any religious symbols.
Designed by Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the architect of the Palestine Public Mandate’s Works Department, the one and two mil coins depict the legend PALESTINE – פלשתינה – فلسطين, with the date below. On the reverse is an olive sprig encircled by the trilingual denomination. On the 50 and 100 mil coins, the olive sprig can be seen on the obverse surrounded by the legend PALESTINE פלשתינה – فلسطين. The reverses of these two denominations display the numerical denomination encircled by the trilingual denomination. In a concession to the Zionist movement, the Hebrew acronym for Eretz Yizsrael (“The Land of Israel”) was included at the bottom of all the designs.
The three holed coins (5, 10, and 20 mils) all have similar designs. The 5 and 20 mils have an olive wreath surrounded by legend, trilingual country name, and date on the obverse and denominations on the reverse while the 10 mils has the wreath on the reverse. While no designs were changed during World War II, the holed coins were struck in bronze instead of cupro-nickel from 1942 until 1944.
Before final approval was given by King George V, St. Barbe Harrison’s designs were reviewed by an advisory committee formed by the Royal Mint in London and the legends were approved by language experts in England. In an effort to ensure Imperial control, all of the coins for all denominations were struck by the Royal Mint at the Tower of London.
Starting with their release in 1927, these coins were minted only when necessitated by economic demand. For example, the 1 mil coins were struck in 1927, ’35, ’37, and from 1939 through 1947, for a total issuance of 31,112,000 coins. The 2 mil coins were struck only in 1927, ’41, ’42, and 1945 through ’47, for a total of 11,400,000 coins.
Production of the 50 and 100 mil denominations ended in 1942, with a final mintage of 5 and 2.5 million pieces respectively. After the war, the only denominations struck at the end of the Mandate were the 1, 2, 5, and 10 mil denominations.
But while the British Palestine Mandate itself ceased to exist in 1948, all coin production ended the year prior in 1947. Coins produced in that final year were never released into circulation and were instead melted, making them the great rarities in Palestinian currency. Of the entire 1947 mintage, only 10 examples are known to have been sold on the open market, with several additional pieces held by museums.
While no coinage was struck in 1948, the fledgling State of Israel did not initially have the ability to produce their own coinage, and so retained the Palestine Pound for five months until it was officially demonetized on September 15, 1948. The Gaza Strip and Jordan continued to use the Palestine Pound until June 9 and 30 in 1951, respectively. Eventually, the coins were all demonetized and pulled from circulation.
The local Jewish population, who saw it as a step towards a Jewish nation state, viewed the currency as a positive measure. However, the Arab reaction was notably hostile. They instead saw the Palestinian Pound as a “conspiracy” aimed at furthering their economic and social subjugation (Wallach, 143).
Today it is relatively difficult to put together a complete set of all 59 denominations and dates, not including those from 1947.
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Berlin, Howard. The Coins and Banknotes of Palestine Under the British Mandate, 1927-1947. Mcfarland & Company, Inc. (2001)
Wallach, Yair. “Creating a Country Through Currency and Stamps: State Symbols and Nation-Building in British-Ruled Palestine”, Nations and Nationalism 17(1), 129–147. (2010)
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).