Category Archives: Islamic Crescent

Things I did not know about coinage in al-Andalus

I owe you all some blog posts! So I hope you don’t mind if they’re mostly about coins, because apparently at the beginning of 2017 I was dealing with coins at pretty much every level. The Roman stuff just discussed was being catalogued while I could still catalogue, but I’d chosen that stuff to catalogue because I needed to know what there was for teaching my late antique survey module. Teaching with coinage on my final-year special subject is harder, because for much of the period of Iberian history it covers there was no, or almost no, coinage being issued in the Latin kingdoms, and I don’t read the Arabic with which I might better understand the Muslim state’s or states’ stuff, and either way the Leeds collection has basically none of it. I did, however, run one class on the economy of al-Andalus, focusing on money and slaves, and for that I wanted to show the students some coins, even if the most they got from it would be that the state had considerable powers of standardisation, that the Islamic standard of coinage was fairly universal and that when the caliphate began it reintroduced gold coinage and that was no coincidence. Those all seemed like worthwhile teaching points…

Gold dinar of Caliph 'Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

Gold dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

So I went hunting for a resource to use and remembered the existence of something I had once found, the Tonegawa Collection. If you haven’t met it, this is an increasingly-comprehensive open online and expressly anti-copyright collection of images of and information on coins of al-Andalus; but right now, it was an English-language resource with many pictures and so I leapt at it. Of course, I had actually to look at it first to ensure that this would probably work, and in the course of that I learnt many cool things about Andalusī (i. e. Iberian Muslim) coinage and stubbed this post in which to tell you all of them.

Gold solidus struck in Spania in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Gold solidus struck in ‘Spania’ in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Some of these things I knew already, like this one. The Visigothic kingdom that the Muslim forces took over in the Iberian Peninsula in 711 had had a mostly-gold coinage of so-called tremisses, technically one-third of a Roman/Byzantine solidus. Unlike most places where Islam took over a tax system, where it just maintained the existing coinage until the application of a new one had been worked out, here something more studied was done: the new régime struck solidi, which the Visigoths had not for a long time, on the Byzantine weight standard and with halves and thirds like the Byzantines, but of a new design with Latin inscriptions recording the value, country of issue (Hispania) and the Islamic date, and a star on the other side. There were also copper-alloy coins of a less standard kind.1 Conventional wisdom is that this was the application of the system the Muslims had met at Carthage when they took that, but that had been thirty years before, since which time coinage there had been regularised with that of the rest of the Islamic world, and in any case the last solidi from Islamic Carthage were fat globby things quite unlike these in both fabric or design.2

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Next, five years later, came coins closer to Islamic dinar weights, with both Latin and Arabic inscriptions as you see above, and then five years after that regular Islamic dinars, then soon after that gold ceased to be issued and it was only silver dirhams and copper-alloy fulūs till the new Caliphate in 929 (see the first illustration). Whatever was going on here involved some deliberate decisions about how this was going to work and perhaps some early sense that this was going to be a new province of a different kind to the other Islamic possessions. There’s a story from the later Arabic sources that the first delegate governor of al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Azīz, son of the governor of Ifrīqīyya who had conquered the peninsula, married the widow of the last Visigothic king and started looking as if he would set up as the new one, so that his men murdered him for his pretensions; I wonder if this coinage is showing us the same thing, a potential breakway régime which thought it was too far from Damascus to be stopped and in the end proved to be wrong.3

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187x1

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187×1

Likewise, it’s interesting to me that throughout the history of the rule of some kind of the first, Umayyad, ruling dynasty of Islam in the peninsula, the mint named on the precious-metal coinage was almost never more specific than the whole province, first Hispania then al-Andalus, as if any minting place was the same given the uniformity of control.4 Given how shaky Umayyad control often was here, that might have been quite an important thing to assert: coinage of Toledo or wherever would have been politically contentious when the city rebelled, as it often did, but while all the coinage was from ‘al-Andalus’, even when the governors or emirs controlled relatively little of that space, at least their money would not make that obvious. It’s frustrating not knowing where they were made, of course, but there was probably a point to it.

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10. The Arabic which identifies the issue apparently more or less renders as ‘Son of Cassius/Qāsī’ and ‘Conquest’, which is fascinating if so, but obviously isn’t all the script on the coin so if anyone feels like decoding the rest for me I would be in their debt and would footnote their assistance in subsequent publication…

Now this much I already knew, largely because of long ago having copy-edited the volume I’ve been citing for it all. But the Tonegawa Collection showed me lots of new things. For example, I dimly knew that Islamic law considers only precious-metal coinage to be the business of the state, so that base-metal small change can effectively be provided privately.5 It could, though, also be provided at intermediate level, such as by city or March governors, and that’s how come the above is a coin of the infamous Banū Qāsī, the frontier warlords about whom at this point I’d only a year before written the first English-language synthesis longer than a paragraph.6 Was that just necessity, at one of the periods when they held the big city of Zaragoza, to keep the markets and tax systems running, or was the chance to issue even base-metal coin part of how they tried to embed themselves into the area before anyone could come along and push them out of it again? I hadn’t realised that the coinage could be a source here, because no-one who works on them mentions it, but now when I finally revise that paper, I can.

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

I could go on for a while, but I’ll keep it to just these two further things. This is a copper-alloy fals, and I can’t tell you anything really about who issued it or when—though if anyone reading can make anything of the legend I would love to know—but I can tell you that it didn’t start this way, as this has been struck straight onto a Roman nummus of Emperor Maximian (285-305, 307-308 and 310). Coins like this have been the seed of a long (friendly) argument between me and Eduardo Manzano Moreno, who has indeed now published his side of the dispute (on which more in a couple of posts). I maintain, backed by now considerable finds evidence, that there were Visigothic base-metal coinages struck in the Peninsula; he maintains that coins like these show that the circulating medium of small change was actually reused or still-used Roman coins.7 I thought that unlikely, but there are, as this demonstrates, coins that make him at least part right. They don’t make me wrong about the Visigothic stuff, though! Nonetheless, what this is is a coin that, even if not continuously, had been in use for at least 429 years when this happened to it, perhaps rather more, and which presumably then went to be used some more before someone helpfully lost it or hoarded it. You can see why I was sceptical, but as it’s true it is, as Neil would have said, pretty heavy, man.

Double-pierced silver dirham of 'Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Double-pierced silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Lastly, as any of you who have worked closely with me and my numismatic buddies will know, we think piercing of coins is really interesting.8 Apart from anything else, it tells us that despite the presumably-fixed value of the coin in precious metal, it was still worth more for someone to bore some of that metal out of it and hang it on a string or whatever than to maintain that. You can sometimes tell a lot by how a coin is pierced; if it was hung on a string, for example, what face would be the right way up? Which way through was the hole pushed? Does that match? If there are two holes, it was probably going to be stitched to fabric; how does that change our picture? Here, we seem to have both: the damage at the edge seems to be where a single piercing caused the edge to crack off, and then someone put two holes through it more centrally. Or perhaps those things happened the other way round, who knows? So had this coin been crossing some kind of culture divide, was this change of use, or had it just fallen off whatever it was attached to and someone decided to make sure? We can’t answer these questions, of course, at least not normally, but their answers would make up individual object biographies in which the coin interacted with its different and equally individual users, and this coin apparently did more obvious interaction than many.9 I wonder what?

Anyway. That is enough numismatic effusion for now, especially given that the next post will contain more. Imagine how much worse it would be if I could read these things…

1. My guide here is of course Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: The Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 54-61.

2. See Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 147-148.

3. On the story and its background see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain 710–797 (Oxford 1989), pp. 37-38.

4. Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, p. 59. The exception is the period 947-961, when the coins of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III were issued from his palace at Madinat al-Zahra’, outside Córdoba.

5. See Stefan Heidemann, “Numismatics” in Chase F. Robinson (ed.), The New Cambridge History of Islam: Volume 1: The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries (Cambridge 2010), pp. 648–663 at pp. 649-651.

6. Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qasī, 842-907”, unpublished paper presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9th July 2015; it does, alas, remain unpublished, but I can also offer you Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia 718 to 1031” in Javier Muñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40 at pp. 28-29, assuming of course that you cannot access the much more comprehensive Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografias 17 (Madrid 2010).

7. Eduardo Manzano Moreno and Alberto Canto, “The Value of Wealth: Coins and Coinage in Iberian Early Medieval Documents” in †Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711-1085) In Honour of Simon Barton, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 76 (Leiden 2020), pp. 169–197. In my defence I cite Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Madrid 2015), pp. 125–160, for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. On coin piercing see Rebecca Darley, “Money, Art and Representation: the powerful and pragmatic faces of medieval coinage” in Rory Naismith (ed.), A Cultural History of Money in the Medieval Age, Cultural History of Money 2 (London 2019), pp. 99–124 at pp. 119-121.

9. You probably don’t need a reference for the idea of object biographies but if you want one, here are two, Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” in idem (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 3-63, and Karin Dannehl, “Object Biographies: from production to consumption” in Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London 2009), pp. 123–138.

Rites de passage: judging a doctorate for the first time

As said last post, as 2017, when the world was quite different, rolled around, I began the year by examining my first doctorate. Pretty much as soon as the public transport started working again, in fact, I was on my way to Cambridge. Now, in fact, the thesis was fine; I’ve not yet been placed in the position of examining a thesis that wasn’t more or less OK, thankfully, and if and when I am I doubt I’ll write about it here.1 When I say it was fine, I mean our biggest objection as examiners was that there was more in it about elephants than was strictly speaking required by the topic, but I want to reflect on the actual process a bit, just because it is a set of rituals not shared everywhere and merits reflection.

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby speaking to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Cambridge

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, discoursing on ‘”Useless Peace”: Carolingian-Umayyad Diplomacy, 810-820’, for the University of Cambridge in 2014; click through to find it as a podcast…

In the first place, my involvement in this was very much being stepped back into old networks. The person being examined was Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, seen above, whom I had met at seminars at the Institute of Historical Research and who had also helped put on a conference three years before at which I presented. I was co-examining with someone I’d known for much longer, Dr Marios Costambeys, of the University of Liverpool but who, because of holding his doctorate from Cambridge, allowed to function as internal examiner there. Meanwhile I was the external, who has the easier job (as I now know): all the external has to do is read the thesis, write a report, sit in a room with the candidate for a couple of hours talking about their thesis, decide the judgement with the internal examiner, inform the candidate and then write up actions for the candidate if necessary, and then hand the rest over to the internal examiner for dealing with, take one’s honorarium and go home. Given the timing, I was reading Sam’s thesis over the Christmas holiday and New Year, but I have had worse tasks to take away to relatives to pore over while everyone else is celebrating the change of the calendar, and this task got much easier once it became clear that the thesis was going to be perfectly possible to pass.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from Wikimedia Commons

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, photograph by Ardfernown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, naturally enough we had arguments and quibbles here and there. Sam’s topic was ‘Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World’, which necessitated at least some examination of early medieval elephants in order to understand what would, at the time, have been understood by it when Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, of Arabian Nights fame, sent Charlemagne a lone bull elephant whose name was Abul ‘Abbas, this being a historical thing that actually happened between the real historical persons of those names in the late ninth century.2 It just, maybe, didn’t need quite as much about elephants as Sam had put in. We advised him to cut that back and pour out his elephantine concerns in a separate article.3 I was interested in deconstructing a distinction Sam was making between diplomacy of necessity (intended to produce an outcome between the two parties) and diplomacy of prestige (intended to impress and make you look splendid but not necessarily to change anything), on the grounds that some embassies could do both; as Sam pointed out, the other option is deliberate disengagement, which can also be pursued for different reasons. Marios was interested in what Sam thought he was adding to our overall picture of the Carolingian world, to which Sam’s answer was that Charlemagne and his court were much more capable of handling contradictions in their attitudes and philosophy than our own tradition of analysis by logic and categories makes easy for us to understand; that seemed to me and still seems to me a big point, which if we could grasp properly would help us understand these worlds better. In general, to whatever we asked, Sam had good answers, which is roughly what is supposed to happen in this exercise, and we were able to pass his thesis with only a few recommended corrections, which he completed in pretty short order and thereafter, once the University bureaucracy had processed Marios’s acknowledgement of that fact, he was and is entitled to call himself Dr Ottewill-Soulsby, and richly and rightly deserved too.

The School of History, University College London

The School of History, University College London

Still, it is strange to reflect upon. In 2006, in a room in University College London, I went through this same process as examinee, with quite a similar outcome (and I then got on a train to Brighton to see Clutch play with Stinking Lizaveta in support, got more than a little drunk and finally collapsed happily in what I then thought was the best company in the world, and it was really a very good day in my life).4 Then I went back to working in a museum for nearly five years, at last got an academic job, briefly went back into museums and then got my job at Leeds, and that last, along with having got through the process myself, now qualified me to judge whether someone else should be allowed to set out on this somewhat shaky bridge into academia, if they want to. My having some knowledge of Sam’s field was obviously also important, but it’s not the only qualification required. Consider also that, if they’ve done it right, the person being examined knows a lot more about the topic than the persons examining do; part of the job of the viva is almost to make sure of that. At the same time, it is ‘only’ an examination of a piece of written work done for a degree qualification, not a golden key to academic employment or anything. The fact that this process is the only summative assessment of a multi-year project means that the sunk costs and aspirations in it are huge but don’t change what it actually is. But nonetheless, it can mean somebody’s world. I’m very glad that the first one I was asked to do was possible to pass so uncontentiously. Thanks, Sam; you were not the only one performing a rite de passage in that room, and you made it a lot easier for both of us than it might have been…

1. I’m now up to four, because that’s what this blog’s backlog looks like. Each will be told a little of in its due season, though, because all their respective victors deserve their time on the podium.

2. On which, apart of course from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 2017), pp. 83-92, you could profitably see Leslie Brubaker, “The Elephant and the Ark: Cultural and Material Interchange across the Mediterranean in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 58 (Washington DC 2004), pp. 175–195, or more broadly Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York City 2004), pp. 43-68.

3. It must be said that no elephantine article has yet come forth, but what has is Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Leiden 2019), pp. 263–292, if that’s any use to you instead…

4. The matter of that day then being Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005), online here, as well of course as Clutch, Robot Hive / Exodus (DRT Entertainment 2005) and Stinking Lizaveta, Caught Between Worlds (At A Loss 2004), among others of their works.

I found this coin, 4: a Hungarian enigma

Marking jail continued further into the Easter vacation than it was supposed to and will resume tomorrow, but despite an intensive program of sleeping and eating between those sentences, I have found this time to write you a very quick blog post. And as so often when I need a quick post, this one is about a coin, another of the ones from the University of Leeds collection that I was using for teaching and had thus photographed, as you can now see below.

Obverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Obverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Reverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Reverse of the same coin

Now, I have taught with this thing for several years, because I have a small teaching set I use for the university’s MA in Medieval History which display cultural identification of some kind, and these include a few which are apparently signalling ‘wrong’, such as Crusader dirhem imitations or Islamic coins with figural imagery. This would appear to be one of the former, at first glance, in as much as it appears to display Arabic but it’s only pseudo-Arabic, but the problem is firstly that a dirham should be silver and this is copper-alloy, and secondly that these coins are found nowhere near the Holy Land but instead in Hungary, a Christian kingdom more or less from the year 1000 until 1946.1 So why do we get these Islamic imitation coins? When I first put this coin in a teaching set I thought I dimly knew the answer, and then when I tried explaining it realised that I really didn’t. So I thought I should find out the answer and make a post of it, but it turns out that the answer is somewhat uncertain…2

Manuscript illumination showing King Bela III of Hungary

Manuscript illumination showing King Bela III of Hungary, from the 14th-century
Chronicon Pictum, image by unknown author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, because the text is all only pseudo-Arabic and doesn’t actually mean anything, attributing them is difficult. We tentatively assume that, because they occur in finds with pseudo-Byzantine copper-alloy coins (as seen below) in the name of King Bela III of Hungary (1172-1196, as seen above), and because otherwise no medieval Hungarian ruler seems to have issued copper-alloy coins, that these are probably also his. I knew one of the pseudo-Byzantine coins from the Barber Institute Collection, and that’s why this one seemed familiar to me when I first met it in Leeds. The pseudo-Byzantine type could be sort of explained by Bela having passed some time in exile at the court of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos as a youth.3 I grant you that that doesn’t wholly explain why you’d decide you needed copper small change that looked Byzantine, but it at least explained where he’d got the idea from. It doesn’t really explain pseudo-Islamic coinage at all, though, and that’s roughly where the words dried in my throat in that first class.

Concave copper-alloy coin of King Bela III of Hungary, Ars Coin Wien, VCoins SKU: B42

Concave copper-alloy coin of King Bela III of Hungary, Ars Coin Wien, VCoins SKU: B42

Now, there was a Muslim population in Hungary of this period, and when these coins were first identified the suggestion apparently was that these were struck for them.4 There are Iberian-peninsula parallels for this but some of those coins, the Castilian morabitinos of Toledo, carry correct Arabic proclaiming King Alfonso VI and Christianity, and the others only have pseudo-Arabic but are gold, trying literally to cash in on the use of Islamic coin already circulating in the Christian kingdoms.5 This here, however, is neither an attempt to broadcast to an Islamic (or at least Arabic-reading) population nor an attempt to break into a market of Islamic coin use, not least because as far as we can tell from finds Islamic coins proper were not used in Hungary.6 Weirdly, this one’s antetype does seem to be Iberian-peninsular, which just complicates matters further.7

So the question is not solved. The work from which I glean a lot of this information suggests that Bela III found his kingdom in need of small change, for which it had no local prototypes, and had copper-alloy coins designed that imitated the two prestige denominations of the day, the Byzantine nomisma and the Islamic dirham, but even though this does seem to have happened, the reason why is still not very obvious.8 But they exist, and they confuse people, so now that I am happier that my ignorance at least accurately replicates the state of the field, I expect I shall go on putting it in front of students and saying, ‘Hungarian! How do we explain that?’ Maybe one of them will come up with an answer!

1. When I was reading up on Hungary very fast for the Inheriting Rome exhibition, I used Miklós Molnár, A Concise History of Hungary, transl. Anna Magyar (Cambridge 2001), and found it very useful, but I’m no kind of expert.

2. Most of the substantive information about these coins in this post comes from Péter Tamás Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Hungary”, unpublished M. A. thesis (Central European University 2015) online here, pp. 33-41.

3. Molnár, Concise History, p. 31.

4. Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts”, pp. 37-38, where this idea is also refuted. On the Muslims in Hungary see Nora Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims, and ‘Pagans’ in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-c. 1300 (Cambridge 2001), DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511523106.

5. Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 24-28 for an outline.

6. Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts”, p. 40.

7. Ibid., pp. 35-36.

8. Ibid., pp. 38-40.


Istanbul VIII: remains at the museum

This gallery contains 21 photos.

You may have gathered that the UK’s academics are on strike again, and more of us this time, 74 institutions where before it was 60; nothing got solved and people are even angrier now. It’s not a particularly good time … Continue reading


Istanbul VII: a mosque with a longer history

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Sorry that this post wasn’t, as promised, delivered last week; I have been having difficulties, and let’s just leave it at that. Anyway, today, having celebrated a centenary and sorted the last of my Istanbul photos, it is now blog … Continue reading


Istanbul II: relics and remains from two perspectives

This gallery contains 25 photos.

Returning for a post to the earlier-proclaimed trip I made to Istanbul in 2016, it seems sensible as blogger to impose some sort of order on an itinerary that was as much based on where things were in relation to … Continue reading


Istanbul I: trying to give a sense

This gallery contains 15 photos.

The UK’s university lecturers are back at work, albeit on Action Short of a Strike, and the dispute goes on, but from now on you can find out about it from the press, rather than here, and a more sadly … Continue reading