A Special Luster
Written by Robert Obojski
Photographed by Michael Di Biase
Since the late 1970's numismatists - coin collectors - have begun to explore a relatively new and potentially invaluable source of coins for their collections: coins in gold from the Muslim world - what they call the "Arab-Asian Empires."
Until then, most Western collectors had skipped over Arabic gold coins, as they had silver coins (See Aramco World, July-August 1978). They avoided Muslim-world coins because, as one expert put it, "all the coins look alike to the average Western eye," and because they simply couldn't read the Arabic inscriptions. But in the late 1970's, gold coins in general began to attract the eye of both collectors and investors - collectors because they needed new fields to explore, investors because the price of gold suddenly skyrocketed; between early 1979 and early 1980 gold shot from about $200 per troy ounce to $800.
Gold has always fascinated man ? for fascinating reasons: because of its luster, its beauty and its value, of course, but also because of its extraordinary properties.
Gold, for example, is highly malleable; it can be beaten into sheets less than 1/250,000 of an inch thick, and one ounce can be drawn into 60 miles of wire. It is also exceptionally heavy ? a 14.2 inch cube weighs one ton - and does not tarnish or rust, since it does not react to moisture, air or most acids. Thus, gold coins of ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium often look as if they're fresh from the mint, and centuries-old coins dredged from the wrecks at the bottom of the ocean still retain their luster?the special luster of gold.
Gold, of course, is also rare; that?s the secret of its value. Since the beginning of recorded history, the story goes, some 6,000 years ago, all the pure gold wrested from the earth could be compressed into a cube measuring no more than 13.5 meters (45 feet) on each side. As a result, gold has been the symbolic - and actual - foundation of monetary economics since civilization began.
In modern times, gold has been a force for stability. When the United States went off the Gold Standard, in June, 1933, the price of the metal had been fixed at $20.67 per troy ounce and then in 1934, under the provisions of the Gold Reserve Act, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by executive order, froze the price of gold at $35.00 per ounce, a price that endured for nearly 35 years, and was, in effect, the world price too, since the United States then held a high proportion of the world's monetary gold reserves.
In 1968, however, gold reached $40 in London, and in 1969 reached $47 in Paris. By 1972 the price was up to $70 and on May 14,1973, the London market closed at $102.50. And that was just the beginning. In 1974 it became legal for U. S. citizens to own gold and not long after prices touched the $200 mark. Then, after three years of fluctuation, gold, in early 1979, skyrocketed. By the end of the year prices reached $500 an ounce and in mid-January, 1980, shot up to $800.
For numismatists who were already showing an interest in coins, those prices were frosting on the cake and the result is a small boom in gold coins with significant interest in Middle Eastern coins. "If s truly amazing how many collectors in the West are now taking a serious interest in Middle Eastern gold and silver coins," commented Louis DiLauro, Los Angeles numismatist, who has specialized in coins of the Arab lands for many years. "Newly-published numismatic catalogs and guidebooks giving translations of Arabic, Persian and Turkish inscriptions have done a great deal to help collectors attribute their specimens properly." DiLauro added.
Such catalogs also measure the degree of collector interest. One example is Robert Friedberg's Gold Coins of the World: Complete From 600 A. D. to the Present, in which he introduced a new "Arab-Asian Empires" section, created especially for the book. The first edition of the book was entirely sold out within a few weeks after it was released in mid-1980 by the Coin and Currency Institute in New York and when a second printing was ordered for the fall of 1980, that, too, was sold out within a very short time.
Even Friedberg's book, however, perpetuates the belief that Arabic coins look alike. The author, for example, says that while it would have been possible to make a complete catalog of the coins struck under each ruler (as has been done for other countries in this book), "it was decided not to do so because all the coins look alike to the average Western eye and because the monotony of type and appearance remains unbroken over centuries of issue."
Actually, as DiLauro has indicated, numismatists are coming to realize that Friedberg's contention is not entirely valid. Designs and inscriptions do vary from one period to another, though the changes are more subtle than variations we see on Western money and catalogs are now beginning to reflect this. Furthermore, a study of these coins - like the silver "coins of history" - offers a convenient view of the history of the Arab lands and the Muslim empire.
In the Middle East, objects crafted of gold were utilized as currencies long before the first coins were ever struck. As early as the 17th century B.C., for example, gold "money rings" circulated throughout much of Egypt and its environs. Examples can still be seen at the British Museum in London, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Much later, as empires waxed and waned, Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins were circulated throughout the Middle East too, some of which were still in use when Islam's Umayyad dynasty was founded and began to accept tribute from its territories.
Up to this point the Arabs had not yet produced coins of their own, having been content to use the Byzantine gold solidi they found in the former imperial provinces now under their jurisdiction. By the end of the 7th century, however, the conquered territories were delivering considerable amounts of tribute to the court at Damascus and a mintage of new coins became a necessity?? though even then the coins were really imitations of Byzantine solidi. The Christian emblems were altered, of course, but otherwise they adhered to Byzantine designs. According to most numismatists, the first purely Islamic coins to be issued were the gold dinars struck by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik at the Damascus mint, and one, minted in 693, shows that they were patterned after a solidus of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-41).
The Byzantine gold piece features standing figures of the Emperor and his two sons, while the reverse side displays a cross at the top of a flight of four steps, presumably meant to represent the cross of Calvary. On the Arab dinar, the figures hold staffs or swords rather than crosses, and on the reverse side, of course, there is no cross and the inscription reads: "In the name of God, there is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God."
These coins, apparently, were an experiment - few specimens have survived - and by the time the Umayyads commenced a fairly large-scale coinage of gold dinars, in 696, Abd al-Malik had settled on more severe, non-pictorial designs that were to distinguish Islamic coinage throughout the centuries. Dinar, the Arab term for a gold piece, is a development of the word denarius, the principal silver coin of Roman times, but under the Byzantines was used as a synonym for the gold solidus.
Some 50 years after the coinage of gold dinars began, the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown, and the powerful Abbasids who succeeded them transferred the capital - and the mint - from Damascus to Baghdad. But though the Abbasids remained as caliphs until they were overwhelmed by the Mongols in 1258, and were responsible for the "Golden Age", their coinage shows little change; the Abbasid caliphs followed the Umayyad patterns closely and any variation in design was minor. One example is the dinar of the Caliph al-Mansur (754-75). Its central inscription, in Arabic, is "There is no god but God", etc., and inscribed around the edge and on the reverse are additional quotations from the Koran and the date A.H. 152, the equivalent of A.D.769 (Muslim dates are given as A.H., meaning "Anno Hegirae" and begin from the year Muhammad went from Makkah to Medina.)
Coins also tell the story of Muslim Spain. Gold dinars, for example; were minted under Abd al-Rahman?III (912-61). Like silver dirhams of the same period they are inscribed with the Shahada, the date, the name of the ruling caliph and the mint. One, for example, was issued under the Caliph Hisham II (976-1013) and was struck in 998 at Cordoba, the Moorish capital. It was one of the most magnificent cities of Europe: a spacious breezy metropolis extending for a dozen miles along the banks of the Guadalquivir River, and one of the world's greatest centers of commerce, learning and art.
Muslim coins of Moorish Spain, especially the gold dinars soon found their way into Christian hands - and were welcome since virtually no European gold coins were being struck at this time, except in the distant Byzantine Empire. Indeed, a sizable percentage of the gold coins circulating in Poland during the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries were of Arab origin.
There are, in fact, gold coins preserved from most of the important periods in Muslim history, and one coin, issued in 1478, announces the arrival of what, for centuries after, would be one of the dominant powers in the world: the Ottoman Emprre. This coin, introduced by the Sultan Mehmet II, was the first of a new series called the altun - "gold" - or, in Europe, sequin, which was itself a corruption of zecchino, the name of a Venetian gold coin, in turn derived from sikka, the Arabic word for mint.
Turkish coinage, like most other Islamic issues, carries inscription designs only. On the obverse we see a line inscription indicating the name of the Sultan, his father (Mehmet I), and the date, according to the Muslim calendar, 883. The two upside down "v's" and the elongated "r" at bottom are the Arabic-Turkish forms of the numerals 883. The reverse inscription translates as "Striker of gold, lord of might and victor by land and sea." Mehmet II was not noted for his modesty.
Modern rulers have also issued gold coins, but many of them tell more of the ancient past than the era of their issue. In 1955 and 1957, for example, the Cairo Mint struck a number of interesting gold pieces that recall Egypt's heritage: the one pound and five pound sets commemorating the third and fifth anniversaries of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution.
The designs on both issues are identical except for the dates: the powerful Ramses II (1304-1237 B.C.) with a bow and arrow, driving a chariot, with the word "Egypt" written out in hieroglyphics above the horse and in Arabic below. On the reverse, there's a winged sun, an Arabic inscription - that reads "Republic of Egypt," one pound - or five pounds - and the date, given according to both the Christian and Muslim calendars.
In 1968 Egypt issued another five pound gold coin; featuring an open Koran set upon a globe, it commemorates the 1,400th anniversary of the first revelation of the Koran to the Prophet. Other modern Egyptian gold pieces commemorate the establishment of the United Arab Republic, the beginning of the construction on the Aswan High Dam, and the diversion of the Nile at the dam site.
Modern coins have also been issued in Saudi Arabia (see box), Syria, Iran and Turkey. Syria's output is low - one set in 1950 - but Turkey's was prolific: 100 varieties from the 1870s to now including a coin for 100 piasters struck under Sultan Mehmet VI in 1919, and a coin for 50 piasters in 1959, portraying Kemal Ataturk, the Father of Modern Turkey.
All Turkish coins issued under the sultanate carry the tugra, the Sultan's calligraphic emblem, on the obverse, and in most cases the value appears directly under the tugra, with the dates, according to the Muslim calendar, on the reverse.
Mehmet II's gold altun is a seminal issue in numismatic history because Turkish sultans for nearly 350 years utilized his basic design; only the sultans' names and the dates were changed from one reign to another. But then, after the Ottoman Empire fell and Kemal Ataturk founded a republic, a new coinage system was introduced in 1933 in which Christian dates and Western numerals were indicated. This reform made it possible for Europeans to handle Turkish currencies far more easily. The 50 piaster coin is part of an Ataturk portrait series, minted between 1942-61; it also includes 25,100, 250 and 500 piasters values which are generally known as "De Luxe" gold coins, actually, souvenir and presentation pieces. Though you won't see them in circulation anywhere in Turkey, they are highly popular as collectors' items. And last, another fine coin from Turkey; there is a 500 lira gold piece of 1973 which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Turkish Republic and, the end of the Ottoman Empire. This coin features a facing bust of Ataturk with a symbolic shooting star on the reverse; it contains about a fifth of an ounce of bullion and in 1980 was selling in the $225-250 range on the numismatic market.
Last, there are the gold coins of Iran which, until 1854, avoided portraits on their coinage, in accordance with tradition. Recent rulers - Riza Shah Pahlevi (1925-1941) and his son, the late Muhammad Shah Pahlevi (1941-1980), were more forthcoming; their portraits appear on gold and silver pahlevi's and riyals; on the reverse side of one coin, the quarter pahlevi there is a striking design: the arms of Persia, a lion standing before a radiant sun with a sword upheld with one paw. The value is inscribed below the lion in Arabic script. The Shah also issued a single gold commemorative coin, a five pahlevi piece struck to celebrate his marriage to Farah Diba in 1961. The coin features the dual portrait of the couple.
All the historic Arab and Turkish gold coins discussed here - except for the dinar of Abd al-Malik - were comparatively inexpensive since they were struck in large quantities for general circulation. Even as the price of gold began to climb, the Mehmet II altun of 1478 was still selling for about $200, and it had a catalog value of only $75 not so long ago. But since the gold bullion prices soared even the most ordinary gold dinars have gone up sharply - in some cases more than 100 percent. While the price of gold is subject to market fluctuations, the historical value of coins from the Muslim world remains undiminished.
Robert Obojski is a regular contributor to Aramco World.