Review: Akches

Slobodan Srećković. Orhan Gazi-Murad II (699-848 AH). Belgrade, 1999. 190 pp., illus., 18 b/w pls. Pb. $65.00. ISBN 86-902045-1-2.
Slobodan Srećcković. Akches (Volume Two): Mehmed II Fatih-Selim I Yavuz (848-926 AH). Belgrade, 2000. 186 pp., illus., 22 b/w pls. Pb. $50.00. ISBN 86-902045-2-0.
Distributed in North America by Tom Clark, Box 290145, Davie, FL, 33329-0145.

In 1987, Slobodan Srećković (S. hereafter), a long-time collector and student of Ottoman coinage, published his first numismatic book, Osmanlijski novac kovan na tlu Jugoslavije (Belgrade, 1987), dedicated to the Ottoman coins issued in the environs of FSR Yugoslavia. The success of this work, along with the author’s strong desire to expand interest in Ottoman numismatics and to help save its study from the obscurity that has occasionally threatened to overwhelm it in the past, has led to the creation of the two present volumes (Akches 1, p. 6). They represent the first part of a projected five-volume catalogue that will chart the development and decline of the silver akche coin (roughly equivalent to the medieval European denier) from the origins of Ottoman coinage under Orhan Gazi (724-763 AH/AD 1324-1362) to the reign of Mehmed III (1003-1012 AH/AD 1595-1603). Despite the starting date of 699 AH on the cover of Akches 1 and the erroneous replacement of Orhan with his father, Osman Gazi, on the frontispiece, S. follows the convincing views of D. Schnadelbach and does not recognize the famous “Osman akche” in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum as a true issue of the Ottoman founder (Akches 1, pp. 11-13).

The arrangement of the material and type numbering system follows that of the author’s first book. Each ruler (including both recognized Sultans and usurpers) receives his own chapter, beginning with a history of the reign and commentary on the development of the types. The occasional problems with English grammar, which appear with greater frequency in Akches 2, are not overly serious and may perhaps be forgiven when we consider that English is not the author’s native language. A nice aesthetic touch in the historical introductions is the inclusion of royal portraits, most of which are taken from paintings by European artists.

Throughout both volumes S. frequently touches on two important themes in his discussion of Ottoman typology for akche issues: designs as a tool for legitimating the ruler, and the complex use of marks and ornaments as a preventive measure against illegal coin production within the Ottoman mint system. We are shown that despite the Ottoman custom of changing types every hijira decade political interests also frequently dictated changes or retention of types. During the Fetret (interregnum) period (805-825 AH/AD 1402-1422) brought on by the incursions of Tamerlane into Anatolia, Mehmed I was forced to change the design of his akches at Edirne in order to promote his claims to legitimacy in Rumelia (Ottoman Europe) against those of his brother Mustafa Çelebi (Akches 1, p. 110). Conversely, the reverse die that produced posthumous 886 AH/AD 1481 akches in the name of Mehmed II at Bursa was requisitioned by Jem as a sign of legitimacy during his failed bid for the throne against Bayezid II. In the aftermath of Jem’s defeat, Bayezid took care to destroy most of his coins, thereby blotting out the numismatic record of the usurper (Akches 2, p. 87). Nevertheless, S. is still able to provide a beautiful image of one of Jem’s extremely rare akches (Akches 2, pl. XI), the star coin depicted in either volume.

The interpretation of the numerous marks and ornaments that appear on the akches of various rulers is very complex and one suspects that there is still much to be learned before they can be said to be fully understood. For example, sometimes the marks and their location seem to be indicators of the issuing mint, such as the three points that can appear on either side of the date on akches of Bayezid I. When they appear on the left they are thought to represent the Edirne mint and when they are on the right, they represent Bursa (Akches 1, pp. 39-40). However, at other times, according to the author, symbols, such as the asterisks and shede on coins of Murad II are unrelated to mintmarks, but rather represent an attempt by the Ottoman authorities to prevent counterfeiting (Akches 1, p. 152). How this could be the case is not fully explained until the discussion of the new designs for the akches of Mehmed II in 865 AH (Akches 2, p. 28). Here S. points out that Ottoman custom required old coins and dies to be collected at the end of every hijira decade. The former were melted for reissue and the latter were destroyed. Anyone in the Ottoman mint system illegally producing coins from old dies could be easily discovered, since the old dies would not have the same symbols and inscriptional variants as the new dies issued by the central mint at Edirne. This anti-forgery system reached its height under Mehmed II and Bayezid II. The apparent Ottoman paranoia concerning the mints in the mid 9th/15th century AH/AD makes one wonder whether the marks on coins of Beyezid I, mentioned above, might not actually reflect similar concerns at the beginning of the century. The impressive variety of ornaments (S. counts 56 distinct styles [Akches 1, pp. 114-115]) used on the akches of his successor, Mehmed I, and which the author does not associate with different mints (Akches 1, p. 110) also give the impression of a possible security feature.

Following the introductory historical and numismatic discussions for each ruler is a set of line drawings and tables designed to provide the numismatist with the most detailed information possible for properly identifying akches. The first table illustrates the different calligraphical forms of the relevant mint names in various periods. This is especially important information to have because it became an Ottoman mint custom to change the coin designs every ten years. If one can identify the mint and match the calligraphy style of a mint name on a coin to one of the models provided by S., it becomes easy to identify the ruler and roughly date that coin.

Line drawings depicting the varieties of obverse and reverse types known for each period of issue appear after the section on mint names. These are also particularly valuable because Ottoman custom and concerns to strictly control the minting process dictated frequent changes in coin design. S. even provides special detail drawings to illustrate the often subtle inscriptional variants of sub-varieties. Recognizing these variants is key to understanding the order of large emissions, like those of Mehmed II and Bayezid II, for which numerous variations in the inscription (particularly in the title Han) were intended as a check against illegal die-cutting. Drawings are also used to focus attention on the different varieties of ornamentation used by the early Sultans, most notably Mehmed I.

The catalogue of coins for each ruler follows the general material on mint name calligraphy and typology, and consists of two main parts: a table indicating the die combinations with references and any special comments about the types, and a detailed listing of each coin with an accompanying line drawing. While this arrangement of the catalogue works, it is unclear to this reviewer why the information in each list and table was not reorganized into a single catalogue table for easier reference. As it stands, the information on die combinations and references that appears in the initial table is needlessly repeated again in the descriptive catalogue. Streamlining the catalogue layout would no doubt enhance its utility.

Greater attention to metrology might also be helpful for future volumes of Akches, since the gradual reduction of the denomination’s weight is an important feature of its history. In the present volumes, weight data is provided rather haphazardly, which is somewhat surprising since at least some of this information must have been available to the author. Particularly unfortunate is the total lack of any weight information for the 69 coins of Bayezid II (Akches 2, pp. 107-121), despite the fact that 16 (nos. 5, 7, 8, 12, 17-19, 23-24, 26-27, 31, 33, 35, 40, 46) are from the author’s personal collection and should have been easily available for weighing.

The line drawings found throughout each volume of Akches are probably one of the most valuable resources that S. supplies to the student of early Ottoman silver coinage. Because akches were often poorly struck on small flans, many of the drawings are actually composites derived from several examples of the same coin showing different features of the design. However, the author has wisely recognized that drawings are no substitute for images of the coins themselves and provides an ample number of photographs to illustrate the coins in the catalogue. The majority of the illustrations are taken from coins in the author’s collection, as well as from coins in several other private collections. A number of akches from important early Ottoman hoards (Sofia, Schinetea, and Buzću hoards), some of which are currently unpublished, also appear in the plates of Akches 2. For the most part the photographic plates are of good quality, although some of the images in the first volume are a little too dark.

In addition to the material described above, Akches 2 also includes tables listing the types and quantities of coins discovered in hoards for Mehmed II to Selim I. An additional table (pp. 9-10) lists eleven published and eight unpublished akche hoards including coins dating up to 926 AH/AD 1520 along with bibliographical information. While this information is valuable, particularly the unpublished data, the tables should not be considered an exhaustive listing of akche hoards for the period. The hoards listed are only from the Rumelian side of the Ottoman Empire and primarily from modern Romania. The author’s special interest in the latter is underscored by the occasional and somewhat odd use of pages from E. Nicolae’s 1997 thesis on Ottoman hoards from Romania for decorative illustrations. A more complete overview of the hoards, including the material from Anatolian Turkey, might have been more helpful. Likewise, it is unfortunate that hoard tables similar to those in volume 2 were not provided for the first volume. We hope that S. will continue to collect and publish the hoard evidence in future volumes of Akches.

The interest of the Akches series will be particularly obvious to North American students of Ottoman coinage who may not have easy access to the various Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian language materials that the author frequently cites. However, it should also be of great interest to numismatists working at archaeological sites in Turkey or Eastern Europe that have Ottoman occupation levels. At such sites, the Ottoman coins have often received less detailed attention than they probably deserve, in large part because most of the major references are difficult to find, or, if they can be found, they are much too expensive to justify in the budget of the average dig. Now, thanks to S. almost any excavation that involves Ottoman period remains should be able to afford references to identify akches in the field. The detailed line drawings provided to illustrate each known type and variety allow numismatists with little or no knowledge of Arabic to make decent identifications. When used in conjunction with R. Plant, Arabic Coins and How to Read Them (London, 1973), the average field numismatist can be considered well armed to deal with most excavated akches. The present reviewer certainly found the current volumes in the Akches series to be useful during summer seasons at Aphrodisias, a Greco-Roman city of southwestern Turkey that had an Ottoman settlement built over it.

We hope that once the series is complete S. may turn his attention to the akche emissions of the Anatolian Beyliks, the autonomous principalities that avoided direct Ottoman domination until the 10th/16th century AH/AD, thereby providing a thorough reference for all akches that will benefit both archaeologists and collectors. Like their Ottoman brethren, the akches of the Beyliks are also frequently found, but often poorly catalogued, at sites in Turkey. In the present volumes the only Beylik issue (Akches 1, p. 179, no. 71) to be fully described is a coin of the Germiyan Han, Yakub bin Süleyman, which also bears the name of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad II. S. mentions the Beylik akches of Ishak Bey and Beylerbey Çelebi in the same volume (p. 16) because their dies are believed to have been produced together with those of Orhan Gazi, but unfortunately, neither is pictured.

According to Ottoman tradition, Osman Gazi once dreamed of a plane tree of prodigious strength and with many branches reaching into the sky. The Sufi mystic, Sheikh Edebali, interpreted this dream as a sign that one day Osman would found a vast empire of long endurance. This reviewer hopes that the author’s important work studying and publishing the coins scattered at the base of what was once Osman’s great tree will continue and gain a wider audience, particularly on this continent, which has never known the touch of either Ottoman root or branch.

—Oliver D. Hoover