By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
AT THE BEGINNING of the 14th century (c. 1300 CE), Anatolia (modern Türkiye) was a patchwork of “beyliks”, small, semi-independent states ruled by Turkic chieftains, often owing nominal allegiance to the distant and declining Mongol Ilkhans of Persia. One of these Turkic warlords, Osman, (or Othman) became the founder of one of the world’s greatest empires, giving his name to the Ottoman dynasty, ruling a vast swath of the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa until the early 20th century. Ottoman coins were produced in enormous quantities and circulated widely. Like most Islamic coins, they have long been under-appreciated and under-valued by Western collectors, but interest in these fascinating exotic pieces is growing.
Osman’s son Orhan (or Orkhan) was the first Ottoman ruler to issue coins in his own name. He established his capital at Bursa (ancient Prousa). There was one denomination, the silver akçe (from a Turkish root ak, meaning “white”) weighing about 1.15 grams. The design was purely calligraphic, without pictorial images, in the style of Arabic script called “Kufic”. The obverse bore the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is his messenger.” The reverse inscription was al-sultan al-‘adil Orhan bin Osman khallada mulkahu (“The just sultan Orhan son of Osman, may his kingdom flourish”).
Orhan ruled for 36 years, dying at the age of 80. His eldest son, Süleyman, was killed by a fall from his horse in 1357, so Orhan was succeeded by his second son, Murad, in 1362.
He reigned for a generation, through the latter part of the fourteenth century. As a man of war, unflagging in his martial zeal and inspiring in his vigorous leadership, he extended Ottoman territories to the farthest limits of the Balkan peninsula, consolidating conquests that were to endure for five centuries. (Kinross, 45)
Murad was nicknamed Hüdavendigâr, meaning “Devotee of God” in Persian, which was widely used as a language of the Ottoman court. He ruled for 27 years, establishing Adrianople (now Edirne, Türkiye) as a second capital of his empire. He forced Serbia, Bulgaria, and the declining Byzantine Empire to pay tribute to him. On June 15, 1389, at the Battle of Kosovo, Murad was assassinated by a Serbian knight who had pretended to defect. The Ottoman ruler was succeeded by his eldest son, Bayezid. Murad’s coinage consists of silver akçes and copper mangirs (valued at one-quarter of an akçe), most quite common.
Bayezid I earned the nickname Yıldırım (“Thunderbolt”) for his impetuous action in battle. In 1394, he unsuccessfully besieged the formidable Byzantine capital of Constantinople. In 1396, he smashed a Crusader army at Nicopolis in Bulgaria.
Bayezid ruled for 13 years until he was captured at the Battle of Ankara (July 20, 1402) by the Central Asian warlord Timur (“Tamerlane”). He later died in captivity, leading to a protracted succession struggle, the “Ottoman Interregnum”. Bayezid’s silver akçe is common and high-grade examples are quite inexpensive.
When Bayezid I died as Timur’s prisoner in 1403, his sons began a civil war that dragged on for 11 years until Bayezid’s third son, Mehmed Çelebi, eliminated his brothers to become sultan in 1413. His silver akçe is fairly common. Mehmed reigned until his death at the age of about 35 in 1421. His eldest son came to the throne at the age of 16 as Murad II.
Murad II ruled from 1421 to 1444, when he briefly abdicated in favor of his son, Mehmed II. A mutiny by the Janissaries (a powerful branch of the army) forced him to return to the throne from 1446 until his death at the age of 46 in 1451. An unusual copper mangir dated to 1433 bears a stylized bird, ignoring the conventional Islamic prohibition on depicting living creatures on coinage.
As the ruler who besieged, stormed, and occupied Constantinople, putting an end to the Byzantine Empire, Mehmed II earned the epithet Fatih, meaning “Conqueror”. Mehmed’s coinage falls into two periods: a brief first reign (1444-46) following his father’s abdication, and his triumphant second reign (1451-81). An important mint was located at Serez (now Serres in northern Greece).
Because the silver akçe was inconveniently small for the needs of a growing economy, Mehmed introduced larger silver coins, including a now-rare 10 akçe piece. His most important coinage innovation was the 1477 introduction of the gold sultani, struck to the same high purity and 3.5-gram weight as the Venetian ducat and the Florentine fiorino d’oro, which served as the standard international trade currency in the Mediterranean world. The value of the sultani fluctuated according to the market value of silver; initially, it exchanged for about 45 silver akçe. A century later, the exchange rate had risen as high as 65 or 70 akçe.
Short of cash to pay for his many ambitious projects, Mehmed resorted to the dangerous expedient of debasing the currency. Between 1444 and 1481, the weight of the akçe fell by 30 percent, although the purity of the silver remained high. Older, heavier coins had to be turned in to be melted down and reminted, although widespread hoarding meant that many survived. When Mehmed II died, the treasury contained 240 million akçe, plus another 104 million akçe worth of gold coins (Pamuk, 42).
Fluent in several languages, Mehmed was a patron of Italian Renaissance artists. His best-known portrait was painted in 1480 by Gentile Bellini. Several contemporary medallists created portrait medallions of him, notably Bertoldo di Giovanni and Costanzo da Ferrara.
Mehmed died at the age of 49. Some historians suspect he was poisoned on the orders of his son, who came to the throne as Bayezid II.
Reigning for 31 years, Mehmed’s eldest son earned the epithet Bāyezīd-i s̱ānī (“Bayezid the Just”). During his youth, he governed the Turkish province of Amasya. He won a brief successionary struggle against his younger half-brother Cem (or Jem), who fled to Egypt and later to Europe (see below). Bayezid II fought repeated campaigns to drive the Venetians out of their footholds in Greece. He gave refuge to the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.
Bayezid II’s abundant coinage followed the pattern set by his father, but he ended the unpopular periodic debasement of the akçe. Bayezid was forced to abdicate by his son Selim in 1512, and died shortly afterward at the age of 64, leading to suspicion that he was poisoned.
On the Conqueror’s death Jem at once took up arms and staked his claim to the throne, which his father had favored. But the Ottoman succession was coming increasingly to depend on the power of the Janissaries, and they favored Bayezid… (Kinross, 161)
During his brief reign of a few weeks (May 1481) at the old Ottoman capital of Bursa, Cem issued some rare silver akçe. Defeated in battle, he found refuge in Cairo as an honored guest of the Mamluk Empire, a longtime enemy of the Ottomans. When Cem’s attempted invasion of Anatolia failed in 1482, he fled to the Knights of Rhodes. The Knights secretly agreed to hold Cem prisoner in return for an annual payment of 40,000 ducats from Bayezid. In 1489, the Knights transferred his custody to Pope Innocent VIII. Cem died a Very Important Prisoner at Capua in 1495. Four years later, his remains were repatriated for burial at Bursa.
Remembered as Yavuz Sultan Selim (“Selim the Grim”), he ruled for eight years, beginning his reign with the strangulation of his brothers and nephews – something that became an Ottoman tradition. Famously short-tempered, he had seven of his grand viziers (chief ministers) beheaded; “May you be Selim’s Grand Vizier!” even became a common Turkish curse. He came into conflict with the Shi’ite Safavid Empire of Persia. In a great battle at Chaldiran in northwestern Iran, on August 23, 1514, an Ottoman army equipped with cannon and matchlock muskets prevailed over the bows and spears of Shah Ismail (ruled 1501-24), who was wounded in action and nearly captured. Selim then turned to the conquest of the Mamluks of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. He thereby gained control over the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Arabia.
For use in Egypt, Mamluk-style ashrafi (a silver coin of about 3.4 grams) were struck in Selim’s name. Selim’s regular coinage included the copper mangir, the silver akçe, and the gold sultani.
Selim died at the age of 49, possibly from plague or cancer, although – as usual – there was suspicion of poison.
Known in the West as “Suleiman the Magnificent”, for the splendor of his court, he is remembered in Turkish as Süleyman Kanuni (“Süleyman the Lawgiver”). Coming to the throne at the age of 26, he reigned for an extraordinary 46 years. At its peak, his empire had a population estimated at 25 million.
At the Battle of Mohács on August 29, 1526, Süleyman commanded an Ottoman army that crushed the Kingdom of Hungary, killing King Louis II and many Hungarian nobles. Advancing down the Danube to Vienna, Süleyman’s army failed to capture the Austrian capital, suffered heavy losses, and was forced to retreat. Crude square silver six-kreuzer pieces inscribed TURCK BLEGERT WIEN 1529 (“Turks Besiege Vienna, 1529”) were struck in the name of Emperor Ferdinand I to pay the defenders. For the next 150 years, the Austrian and Ottoman Empires would be locked in conflict.
Süleyman’s silver akçe, weighing about 0.75 grams, was struck at a large number of mints across the Empire, and are quite affordable, even in high grade. The gold sultani struck in large quantities is also relatively common.
With the death of Süleyman on September 6, 1566, we reach the end of the Medieval era, but the resilient Ottoman Empire and its increasingly troubled coinage would endure up until the early 20th century. A marble relief portrait of Süleyman is one of 23 sculptured panels depicting historic lawgivers above the gallery doors of the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol.
Collecting the Sultans
For most Western collectors, Arabic inscriptions with their elegant swirling calligraphy, present an obstacle to understanding and appreciating Ottoman coins. The booklet Arabic Coins and How to Read Them (Plant, 2000) is a useful introduction. The standard reference to Ottoman coinage cited in auction catalogs is Pere (1968) in Turkish. An accessible English-language reference is Album (2011). Pamuk (2020) is a superb scholarly history of the coinage. Ottoman gold, silver, and copper coins appear frequently in the sales of many European dealers.
Under a 2021 U.S. State Department Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Türkiye, most Ottoman coins dated before 1770 CE cannot be legally imported into the United States. Like most of these restrictions, it is absurd since many of these coins were struck, circulated, and are found in areas that lie well outside the boundaries of the modern Turkish Republic.
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 The Turkish government prefers the official spelling “Türkiye” for the name of the country.
 CNG Electronic Auction 409, November 8, 2017, Lot 889. Realized $60 USD (estimate $100).
 Solidus Numismatik Auction 75, March 23, 2021, Lot 182. Realized €15 (about $18 USD; estimate €15).
 Numismatik Naumann Auction 79, July 7, 2019, Lot 934. Realized €50 (about $56 USD; estimate €40).
 Stephen Album Auction 27, January 19, 2017, Lot 648. Realized $350 USD (estimate $80 – $100).
 CNG E-auction 491, May 5, 2021, Lot 623. Realized $160 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Auction 88, September 14, 2011, Lot 1799. Realized $1,505 USD (estimate $2,000).
 CNG Auction 112, September 11, 2019, Lot 720. Realized $1,900 USD (estimate $1,500).
 New York Sale XXV, January 7, 2015, Lot 1253. Realized $1,500 USD (estimate $1,200).
 Numismatic Naumann Auction 65, May 6, 2018, Lot 922. Realized €650 (about $775 USD; estimate €750).
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 10, December 7, 2019, Lot 212. Realized CHF 4,000 (about $4,047 USD; estimate CHF 300).
 Numismatik Naumann, Auction 112, January 2, 2022, Lot 1087. Realized €950 (about $1,075 USD; estimate €400).
 Spink Auction 6026, November 30, 2006, Lot 353. Realized £400 (about $787 USD; estimate £150-200).
 Numismatik Naumann, Auction 60, December 3, 2017, Lot 770. Realized €20 (about $24 USD; estimate €25).
 Stephen Album Auction 40, May 13, 2021, Lot 393. Realized $450 USD (estimate $200-$250).
Album, Stephen. Checklist of Islamic Coins, 3rd Edition. Santa Rosa, CA (2011)
Balfour, John Patrick Douglas, 3rd Baron Kinross. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York (1977)
Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York (1998)
Holberton, William D. Coins of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic: A Detailed Catalogue of the Jem Sultan Collection (2 volumes). Thousand Oaks, CA (1977)
Mikhail, Alan. God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire and the Making of the Modern World. New York (2020)
Palmer, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. New York (1992)
Pere, Nuri. Osmanlilarda Madeni Paralar (Coins of the Ottoman Empire). Istanbul (1968)
Pamuk, Sevket. A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge (2020)
Plant, Richard. Arabic Coins and How to Read Them. London (2000)
Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Ottomans. London (1993)
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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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