Review: Arab-​Sasanian Copper Coinage

Rika Gyselen. Arab-Sasanian Copper Coinage. Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. philosophisch-historische Klasse. Denkschriften, 284. Veröffentlichungen der numismatischen Kommission, Band 34. 208 pages. 15 plates (each plate = full page), notes, selected bibliography. Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. 2000. ATS 1390, DEM 190, CHF 169 (paper) ISBN 3-7001-2893-2.

This work represents the culmination of many years of work begun by the author in the 1970s and 1980s in conjunction with R. Curiel and later carried on by her alone. It gathers together in one place virtually all known material on the copper coinages of greater Iran for the first century and a half of Islam, with the exception of the regular all-epigraphic coins found in J. Walker’s A Catalogue of the Arab-Byzantine and Post-Reform Umaiyad Coins (London, 1956). The catalogue documents and describes coppers imitating late Sasanian types but has, in addition, coins with one or more faces in Byzantine style, with innovative figural designs or with epigraphy only. This includes most odd-ball copper types and unusual copper series of the early Muslim period as such types and series happened to be struck mainly in the East.

The work consists of a discussion of typologies followed by a catalogue, annex, indices and plates. The prefatory discussion surveys Sasanian and Byzantine prototypes as well as early Muslim types. A third chapter treats name legends, mint legends, dates and formulae. The catalogue lists 99 types. An illustrated conspectus at the beginning provides a quick overview of its organization. In general, types are arranged alphabetically by mint, and then chronologically or sequentially according to typology. Where the mint name is obscure or the type carries no mint legend, types are grouped according to the certainty of their provenance. Among the criteria are the predominant find sites of specimens. In total, there are six sections, though the first section comprising reliably identified mints is larger than the rest combined. All entries are illustrated with drawings in text followed by a short description of the iconography and legends, and references. The references cite all extant specimens published and unpublished in public and private collections. An annex documents an additional 10 types struck by either the Sasanians or Muslims. The iconography and legends of these types are insufficient for definitive attributions. Indices provide general references to Pahlavi and Arabic inscriptions, names and individual coins. The plates are superb considering the difficulty of photographing often poorly preserved coins.

This is a pioneering work which will be indispensable for many years to come. It is an impressive corpus of types previously generally neglected by collectors and scholars. Numerous fascinating minutiae will spur the interest of diverse groups of specialists. Economic historians will, for example, appreciate the extensive documentation of Iran’s small change, in one case inscribed with an exchange rate in dirhams. Art historians will find a rich source for figural motifs. These include representations of animals, both real and imagined, and humans. Scholars of religion will note a variant Qur’ānic verse on a coin of al-Hajjāj b. Yūsuf.

Infelicities in the terminology, content and organization are relatively minor and do not detract from its overall value. “Arab-Sasanian” is obviously a misnomer. “Iranian coppers of the early Muslim period” might have been preferable. No single term, however, adequately covers the disparate series of types in this work. The work fails to include the epigraphic types in Walker’s catalogue. Their inclusion would have established more complete mint chronologies. The different series overlap extensively. This deficiency, however, may be remedied with consultation of Walker’s work. No doubt, other scholars may wish to arrange the types according to different criteria. Yet, the conspectus, the numerous illustrations and the indices make the organization of the catalogue transparent.

—Stuart D. Sears