Imitation and officialdom in early Islamic Syria

I want to write today about something I want at some point to be working on. This has been in the plans since I was at the Barber Institute and first met the relevant coins, but at the moment I have too many other things to finish to give it the time it needs; I’ve done enough reading to teach it, which worked well, but not enough to write with assurance. So I’ll just set it up to think about and promise to return to it in more depth later. The subject is what happened to the organisation of government in the areas taken over by Islam in its rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century.

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

In Egypt, at least, it is now fairly clear that the immediate difference the Islamic conquest of the 640s made was minimal. The very top level of government, the Byzantine imperial governors and their staffs, was sliced off and replaced by an Arab governor appointed from Damascus, and that often proved to be problematic, but the people who ruled in localities, usually officials called pagarchs, were often allowed to remain in office, raising taxes in more or less the same way (and quite possibly less, which may have meant they were keeping more) and just rendering them to officials from Fustat for transmission to Damascus rather than Alexandria for Constantinople.1 We know this from Egypt because of the prolific, if localised, survival of the papyrus documentation of the administration that dealt with all this, but Egypt’s level of survival, especially for papyrus, is kind of unique. What can we use where there are no papyri? And the answer is, as so often, coins.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

The areas that Islam took over in the seventh century were coin-using ones. In the west, as seen from Medina, there was the Byzantine (or, as they saw it, Roman) Empire, with a tax system based on the gold solidus and made practical by voluminous copper-alloy small change that also fed market exchange and kept city economies running. This system had been in trouble over the previous thirty years because of the ‘last great war of Antiquity’, that between the Romans and Persians during which Persia had for a decent while occupied the Middle East and Upper Egypt, and in that time not only do we apparently find the Persians striking pseudo-Byzantine coinage to keep things running, we also have several of the smaller cities of the occupied zone apparently making their own emergency coin to keep things going; that that is what it is seems obvious by how very much it doesn’t look like the real stuff, as if they feared to be accused of forgery if and when regular government returned.2

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Meanwhile, in the relative east, the system of what had been the Persian Empire, based on a tax system working in silver drachms with only locally-issed copper-alloy small change, also seems to have continued almost unaltered. That is really interesting, not least because of the Zoroastrian and royal imagery of the coinage which was maintained with only the smallest Islamic additions, but it’s not where I want to go today because that system does actually seem to have continued pretty much as before, with provincial governors in the same provinces striking coin of the same sort at the same mints. Not so, however, in the west.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III {Edit: struck at Jayy (Isfahan),and] islamized only by the addition of the words ‘Muhammad the prophet of God In the name of Allah’ in Arabic by the Shah’s left shoulder, image from I forget where alas. Thanks to Yngve Karlsson for corrections in comments below!

In the Roman zone, much of the coinage had previously come from Constantinople or its two satellite mints of Nicomedia and Cyzicus, all of which were now outside the political area. More local mints had been at Antioch (not conquered until 637) and Alexandria (which was taken in 641, reconquered in 645 and definitively fell to Islam in 646), with some coinage perhaps coming in from Cyprus (where Roman-Islamic power-sharing was agreed in 649).3 We know of emergency issues that are probably from Jerusalem and Cæsarea, but these are very scanty and since we can’t date them, we also can’t be sure they were still being issued.4 What this means is that the ex-Roman area of the new Islamic dominion at the point of takeover had no regular mints in it, and even the addition of Alexandria didn’t solve that because Egyptian coinage was struck at a different standard to the rest of the Empire’s.5

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616, Stoa Image Gallery

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Alexandria in 613-618

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of the same rulers struck at Alexandria in 613-618, HJB Coins sale 16 August 2001, not to scale (in fact, none of these are to scale)

So, what did they do? The study I’ve learnt most from so far breaks it down into four phases, all of which can seem a bit surprising.6 In the first place, the captured provinces continued to ship in Byzantine coin; we know this because issues struck after the date of the conquest, for Emperor Constans II (642-664), turn up there still in considerable numbers. Quite how that was arranged, I would love to know… After a while, which we can’t date and could actually have started straight away, local versions of Byzantine coins started to be made, which we can mostly identify because the details start to be slightly wrong. At the extremities of that range they feature things that were never on the same coin together, or which didn’t turn up on coins at all but seem to belong to the general symbolic library.

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

“Er, Severos, usually that B goes below the M, and vertically? What? No, no, it doesn’t matter…” ‘Derivative’ Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Almost none of these coins identify their place of issue, though some of them carry Greek or, perhaps increasingly, Arabic, words meaning ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ or the like. There is assumed by the numismatists a general progression from real-looking pseudo-Byzantine coins towards things that are essentially Arabicised variations on a vaguely Byzantine theme. If that’s right, then we get more and more Arabic, and among those coins emerge new mints, at Damascus, Tiberias (a. k. a. Tabariyya), Manbij, Scythopolis (Baisan), and many other places, none of which except perhaps Jerusalem and Cæsarea, neither of which stuck at it long, had ever struck coin under the empire [Edit: for nearly four centuries].

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

But almost all of these coins seem also to be imitated quite widely, at varying standards that have made one scholar, Clive Foss, write of a spectrum ranging from official issues to things that could have been made by a local blacksmith.7 At the extreme ends of this there are coins overstruck on whole or partial old coins, but this is hard to be sure about because the actual empire did a lot of that too, by now. And running alongside all of this is a myriad of very very worn Roman and Byzantine bronze, as well as some of the new stuff, that was validated or otherwise updated with Islamic countermarks, about which we know hardly anything (though a selection of it is now on display at the Barber Institute, if you’re interested).8

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

And this whole situation lasts until the 690s or so, at which point Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have tried a number of ways of joining Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sasanian coinages up then replaced them all with the more standard Islamic coinage of the Middle Ages that we recognise somewhat more easily.

Silver dirham of Caliph Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Silver dirham of al-Walid struck at a mint I can’t identify between 713 and 715 AD Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

So, if you were one of my Empire and Aftermath students, at this point I would be asking you what this all means in terms of authority and government in the area. Usually coinage is a state monopoly; if everyone and his or her neighbour is making coins, who’s in charge? Isn’t it a problem for our picture of the early caliphate if there were ‘official’ mints like Damascus striking coin and then there was another mint, somewhere we can’t place, imitating them to the point where numismatists actually distinguish it as pseudo-Damascus? How can the ‘official’ coinages and the countermarked quarters of coins hundreds of years old have been part of any system together? What can the point have been of marking some things ‘good’ or ‘of legitimate weight’ when their weights vary by sometimes as much as 50%? Why was no-one stopping the imitation? Could they not do so? These are the kind of questions that understanding the coinage might help with, and I intend to try, with the help of some esteemed collaborators, but any understanding of it is going to have to include the imitations.

1. This has been pretty much established by the work of Petra Sijpesteijn: see for example her “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2009.00198.x.

2. I follow here Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 1 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 1-17, with the Persian coinages described on pp. 9-12. For the phrase ‘the last great war of Antiquity’ I have to acknowledge James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity” in idem, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: historical and historiographical studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006), VI.

3. On the coinage system as it had existed here, see for preference Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 43-77. My dates for the conquests could be challenged; I follow Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam shaped the world we live in (London 2007).

4. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, pp. 14-19.

5. Ibid., pp. 87-98.

6. Ibid., pp. 18-57, on which most of the next two paragraphs rest. Important differences with Foss’s account can be found in Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 144-149, and Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), pp. 77-112.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, p. 26.

8. Nicholas M. Lowick, Simon Bendall and Philip D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic Countermarks on Byzantine Folles. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Coins from the “Mardin Hoard” of Byzantine Folles, Many with Islamic Countermarks, in the University of Birmingham, 1976 (London 1977).


13 responses to “Imitation and officialdom in early Islamic Syria

  1. Allan McKinley

    I think there’s a modern assumption sneaking in there – coinage as a state monopoly. Whilst most effective medieval (not sure about ancient) regimes did control minting to some effect it was mainly the profits they were interested in. Contemporary to the coins you discuss here a number of independent policies around the southern North Sea were all producing or using coins of the same standards with little obvious royal control, yet we know of kings with the ability to control religious practice in these same polities, so royal power existed. It’s also worth noting the origin if the Royal Mint’s monopoly in England is not ancient but eighteenth century, in response to the success of scrip currencies in towns like Birmingham where the supply of small denomination coinage from the Mint had not been sufficient. That is to say the legal monopoly is a state reaction to non-state issued currencies that threatened it’s hold in the relatively recent past.

    You’ll probably know better than me, but my impression of late antique and early medieval coinage laws is they were targeted at forgers and debasement not legitimate but independent minting. I am happy to posit an idea whereby control of the coinage was always an area of tension between different loci of authority, so in situations like the collapse of Roman imperial authority and it’s replacement by a non-minting authority, local centres of power would mint to produce the necessary coinage. I might even suggest this model could explain the proliferation of mints in say sixth-century Gaul or Æthelred Unræd’s reign in England…

    I’m sure there’s a lot wrong with my logic there, not least the fact I haven’t studied coinage laws since my undergraduate days, but would be interested to see what I’ve got wrong…

    • There is much in what you say, and one of the problems people have in thinking in those terms for the early Middle Ages is that the Roman and Byzantine Empires apparently did consider minting a state monopoly, and so the question then becomes how far the ‘successor’ states wanted to be like that. As you say, sixth-century Gaul looks like something else entirely is going on, though the centres of power are really hard to characterise. Michael Hendy had a really good article on the different structures behind the barbarian coinages in Viator for 1985 that is my guide here. I’d be less sure about eleventh-century England; that is still a place where the government can call in the whole coinage and have it restruck to one design every few years! If that’s not state control I’m not sure what is…

      As to the Royal Mint’s monopoly, I think that that goes back to 1660, in fact, when the unofficial small change issues that had sprung up in the Civil War were first banned. It may have lapsed again, though, because by the late eighteenth century people were making them again, and that continued into the early nineteenth century. And there are still local currencies occasionally floated, like the Lewes Pound, so, what does monopoly mean here, really? The exclusive right to license?

      • Allan McKinley

        I guess that’s the key – monopoly here is what is enforceable not what is absolute. It should be noted that there may also be different sorts of monopoly. The Byzantine and late-tenth-century English governments clearly had effective monopolies on the legitimate appearance of money as witnessed by the standardisation of currency and (in the latter case at least) the apparent effectiveness of reminting. But monopoly of production is a different matter. In both cases we know of imitative coinage struck outside the boundaries of the polity for a start. Where mints multiply within a territory it may also speak if an inability to control dies or to stop replication. I can actually see a nice hypothesis here that the frequent recoinages that are meant to represent a strong monopoly for the English government were a sign of weakness, with the royal administration using its monopoly over form to try and combat lack of control over production once it started. It might even be testable… The same model may also explain minting at new sites utilising existing models in the conquered territories of the eastern Mediterranean as well: the monopoly on production was perhaps more easily broken than the monopoly on legitimising money, especially if any attempt to redesign money might be seen as a statement of exercise if an imperial prerogative, something neither former nor new rulers were likely to view favourably.

        Or to put it simply: production of coins may simply be an assertion of relative local power, be it independent or as an agent of a central power. Design of coins was much more an assertion of independent power, albeit perhaps an assertion with differing significance in different contexts.

        • The Byzantine case, as I suppose one would expect given the duration of the Empire, is not uniform; around 970 its bronze coinage ceased to be issued in the imperial name and started being issued solely in the name of Christ Emmanuel, King of Kings, in a myriad of versions we can’t date or attribute to a mint. One of the obvious explanations for this that no-one seems to like is that the production of it had been contracted out to non-state issuers. That takes about fifty years to stop and by the end of it the emperors are issuing bronze coinage again alongside it; we know it because imperial and anonymous issues are both overstruck on each other. So even that Empire can relax its monopoly. I think it’s probably really important to separate precious-metal coinage from copper-alloy small change; there’s no real profit margin in copper-alloy coinage but precious metal is where the money is, as it were. And you’re quite right about the English case too, with imitative coinages springing up everywhere there were Vikings, but somewhere in there we have to factor in that some of the Swedish stuff was actually struck with dies previously used at WInchester. So again it’s not quite the strict protectionism one might expect, not quite. And then again, whereas England recoins, Byzantium never does, just too huge. I think you might be right that England is asserting a control it otherwise only shakily has by calling in the coinage, but in that case Byzantium never bothers (although arguably it is calling in, melting down and restriking masses of its gold every year as tax).

          I don’t think we’re a million miles apart here, though… Whereas on the design of coins you could hardly find me more agnostic. There are a very few points in time where I think we can be fairly sure that a ruler’s policy is reflected in his or her coinage. Whose call that reflection was, however, we simply do not know, and neither despite some historians’ obstinate insistence that it could not be otherwise do we know that the early and I think, central medieval kings ever approved a coin design. Maybe they did! But between the ‘authorship’ of the ruler, mint-master, moneyer or die-engraver I don’t think we have any way to choose.

          • Allan McKinley

            Regardless of who authored it, there was in many coinages an acceptable appearance which implies a central power which determined this. You are quite correct this needs not be a king or emperor, although I would be wary of arguing for a centre of power distant from them unless it is independently documented. In cases where a coinage was used across multiple polities the decision to accept the coinage as legitimate clearly did not imply acceptance of a design as acceptance of authority. I would not want, therefore, to argue the design of a coinage reflects the interests of kings, or their courts. But the nature of the construction of power is such that the consent to using the coinage was a creation of a centre of power, albeit power that might mean different things to different participants in the relationship. To be able to determine what the pictures in people’s pockets were was a position of some authority after all, but as you say we are unclear about who actually exercised it (although experience of Anglo-Saxon history suggests Wilfred and Archbishop Wulfstan would be candidates – they did everything else apparently…).

            • You’re obviously right that some kind of power has to back a coinage; this is what conceptually differentiates coins from bullion, that their appearance conveys some assurance that their value can be guaranteed, which can only work if that guarantee can be enforced by someone, even if minimally (as witness our current glut of fake pound coins and the complete failure of the existing sanctions against their use). The ‘authors’ of those coins have every incentive to consult with the guaranteeing power about what their coins need to do to be acceptable. But the seventh-century sceattas show how little this can have to do with actual design, as long as metal and weight standards are close enough to the shared standard (one which ran over enough polities that it seems impossible to have been decided within any one of them). At the exact other end of the scale, the Byzantine bronze of the same period, irregular in weight and form, usually overstruck on older coins or on bits of older coins cut up, sometimes (in Sicily) countermarked one or more times to the point where the original design was obliterated, has almost nothing to guarantee it by way of appareance—almost anyone with a hammer could make such a coin out of an older coin—but they were presumably still acceptable, precisely because there was a big government out there which would still take them in payments, just as ours will the fake pounds. In the sceatta economy it seems to have been the users of the coins who determined their acceptability, but in the Byzantine Empire and probably other situations, it’s mainly whether you can pay tax in it that determines whether it’s going to work on a market, it seems. In either situation, it’s conceptually possible for design to be entirely private as long as the tolerance of the limiting bodies is broad enough…

  2. “the areas taken over by Islam in its rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century”: I’ve read some writers recently who would probably have preferred that you’d written “the areas taken over by Arabs in their rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century”. Their intention is to leave open a question they wish to investigate, namely when did something unambiguously identifiable as Islam develop?

    I suppose they’re saying that the eruption of Arabs warriors led by an ex-merchant warlord called Mahomet does not necessarily imply the existence of anything closely approximating the Islam of many decades later.

    Does your knowledge of coinage cast any light on what they are driving at?

    • Well, certainly, the coinage doesn’t comfortably support a vision of the Islamic conquests as a top-down obliteration of previous religious expression: in the Byzantine zones crosses continue in abundance just where they had previously been, and the Persian areas maintain a coinage showing not just the star and crescent associated with Mazdaism but the very fire altar of Zoroastrianism which had been the reverse device of the Persian shahs since pretty much 224. There are attempts to ‘sanitise’ some of those devices at what is usually taken to be a late stage (although without explicit dates on the coins), like turning crosses into globes or staves (see here for an example). On the other hand, from as early as 638 there are Persian-area coins naming Muhammad, and before long as we see in this post giving the shahada in part or in full. It seems pretty clear that it’s Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-702 I think?), in the middle of the civil war that established him as such, who started attempts more fully to Islamicise the coinages of his empire, and eventually to unify them, but before that time continuity had apparently been more important than dogmatic exclusion of older religious imagery.

  3. Pingback: Dealings with Jerusalem before the eleventh century | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. The Umayyad silver dirhem illustrated above is minted in Wasit in southern Iraq. The year is 116H, which corresponds to CE 734/5. This is right in the middle of the reign of Caliph Hisham. Feel free to send pictures of Sasanian or early Islamic silver coins to me for identification and I will try to help. I am the author of the book “Sasanian Silver Coins” and I will soon finish the next book “Silver Coins of the Muslim Caliphate”….

    • Thankyou! That’s nice to have settled. I’ve corrected the caption above. I wonder who did the original identification and how much Arabic they knew. And another Sassanian specialist is always useful to know about, too! I may be able to direct you to an interesting opportunity…

  5. While we are at it, why not correct the Arab-Sasanian drachm too? The reading of the arabic text is “BSM ALLAh” – “In the name of Allah”. The name Muhammad did not appear on the coins until later. The year is 20, which is the last year of the Yazdgerd era, The Muslims continued to use the Yazdgerd era on the Arab-Sasanian coins. 20 is a “frozen year” and it was used for a number of years from CE 651 and onwards. The mint is GD for the name Jayy. Jayy was the Arabic half of the city Isfahan and the other half was the Jewish settlement al-Taymara.

    • Done! Thankyou again, and also, very good to meet you! I’ve also taken the chance to correct some typos and add one other correction. This is going to be one of my most edited posts, but it’s also one of my favourites so it may as well be right!

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