Review: Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean: Volume 1

Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean. Volume 1: The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2002. Hb. 121 pp., 47 b/w pls. ISBN 1-85444-173-6. US$ 96.00

The description of the present volume and the two others (Volume 10: Arabia and East Africa [1999] and Volume 9: Iran after the Mongol Invasion [2001]) that have already appeared in the Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean (SICA) series, as sylloges, is perhaps a little disingenuous. Although the term sylloge (Greek for “collection”) is certainly correct in that the SICA series catalogues the important collection of the Ashmolean Museum, supplemented by the important collection of Samir Shamma, the volumes that have been produced to date move beyond the limits of the traditional sylloge format, first devised in 1931 to make the raw data of Greek coin descriptions and photographs easily available to numismatic scholars. This bald, but effective, format was adopted wholesale (including the bulky folio size) for the catalogue of Islamic coins in the University of Tübingen collection (Sylloge Numorum Arabicorum Tübingen [SNAT]) begun in the 1990s. Like the fascicles of SNAT and in keeping with the traditional sylloge format, The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period contains 47 excellent black and white plates with facing pages of catalogue text. However, very much unlike the traditional sylloge, the present volume also offers extensive introductions to both the Arab-Sasanian (pp. 1-73) and Arab-Byzantine (pp. 74-112) series — virtually short monographs in their own rights — by Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, respectively.

Album takes up the difficult task of presenting a coherent historical survey of the main early Islamic coinage struck in imitation of earlier Sasanian Persian types at numerous Near Eastern and Central Asian mints in the period AH 31-85 (AD 651-704). To facilitate the study of this complex coinage, the author divides it into three main phases of historical and technical development, each of which is analyzed in detail, along with the individual governors responsible for their production. Students of the Arab-Sasanian series will find especially useful the lists of known date and mint combinations provided for most major issuing authorities in the three phases.

Discussion of the first phase (AH 31-41/AD 651-660), characterized by the general production of imitations struck in the name of the deceased Sasanian Shahanshahs, Yazdigerd III and Khusraw II, primarily focuses on issues of chronology. Basing his commentary on a presently unpublished ONSNL article, the author argues that in addition to the usual Yazdigerd Era dates normally found on Arab-Sasanian coins in this period, certain issues of the Basran prefecture with the dates from 33 and 35 are actually based on the Hijri dating system, rather than the Yazdigerd Era commonly employed at other Arab-Sasanian mints in this period. If this view, largely based on epigraphical and stylistic evidence, is correct, then these coins must represent an early experiment, prefiguring the use of Hijri dates at mints of the Basran prefecture under ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amir b. Kurayz (AH 41-44/AD 661-664) and Ziyad b. Abi Sufyan (AH 45-50/AD 665-670).

In the section on the second phase, framed chronologically between the accession of Mucawiya in AH 41 (AD 661) and the consolidation of the Basran and Kufan prefectures under Ziyad b. Abi Sufyan in AH 50 (AD 670), Album charts the different developments in each region, while presenting a new chronological order for the Basran issues in the names of Khusraw II and ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amir.. One of the more interesting features of this section is the discussion of the AH 44-47 (AD 664-667) coins in the name of ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amir, in which the possibility is raised that these may represent an act of rebellion against Ziyad.

The third and final phase of the main Arab-Sasanian coinage (AH 50-85/AD 671-704) is subdivided into three sub phases in order to focus attention on developments that took place during the periods of the Zubayrid ascendancy (3a), the second fitna (“uprising”) (3b), and the Marwanid ascendancy (3c). With the exception of issues struck by ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Zayd and al-Hakam b. Abi al- ‘As, the somewhat mysterious and possibly Kharijite governors of Kirman, and the anomalous series of ‘Ubayd Allah b. Ziyad, the coinages of the initial sub-phase 3a (AH 50-64/AD 670-683) are not particularly controversial in their attribution or interpretation. Notable, however, is the discovery of a link between an original die of Khusraw II and the Darabjird (PYE 26) coins of ‘Ubayd Allah and Salm b. Ziyad.

In the course of providing an overview of the coins issued by the eighteen governors of sub-phase 3b (AH 61-73/AD 679-692), Album addresses questions of mint attribution for several rare issues of the late AH 60s. Perhaps most notable of these is the suggestion that the rare drachms of Salm b. Ziyad dated AH 68 (AD 687) and bearing both the Pahlavi mintmark MRW (Marw) and the Bactrian mintmark OMBIRO (Anbir) were actually struck at Marw by the Ephthalites during an otherwise unattested occupation of the city in AH 68-69 (AD 687-688) (p. 23). This theory is especially ingenious as it accounts for the otherwise total absence of regular Arab-Sasanian coinage dated AH 68 at Marw in either the name of Salm b. Ziyad, or his competitor, ‘Abd Allah b. Khazim. If not for the gap in the regular coinage at Marw, one might have expected the MRW of this bilingual coin to represent the mintmark of a regular issue of Ibn Ziyad, subsequently “frozen” by Ephthalite imitators at Anbir. Still, it is not entirely clear why the Ephthalite capital should be named on this issue and a MRW/Anbir coin of AH 69 (AD 688) marked ZOLOOO GOZOGONO, apparently referring to the Ephthalite district of Juzjan (p. 41), if Marw was the originating mint.

The author also reinterprets the Pahlavi mintmark _TWRSTAN (Shahristan) on the strange TAY Y PYLGWN/TAR Y PYLZWR drachm of AH 67 (AD 686) as a generic word for “province,” “capital” or “city,” in an attempt to place its origin in eastern Khurasan, rather than in the northern Khurasanian city of Shahristan. Although he cites some stylistic parallels in support of an eastern attribution, the philological argument seems a little strained. It is very difficult to see why the issuing mint should have marked its product with a generic term that could refer to just about anywhere. Thus, until there is more solid evidence for an eastern mint, it seems more prudent to attribute the _TWRSTAN (Shahristan) coin to the city of that name in northern Khurasan.

Coverage of sub-phase 3c (AH 72-85/AD 691-704) includes the five rare “experimental” types of AH 72-74 (AD 691-693), two of which appear in the catalogue (nos. 107, 278-279, and 305), and discussion of all of the Marwanid governors known to have issued Arab-Sasanian coinage in this period. The commentary on the latter will be of interest to specialists, as it now adds to the list of Marwanid gubernatorial issues a unique coin of ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amir al-Mujashi’i, the viceroy of Sistan during the absence of ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad. Previously, this coin, which only gives “Ibn ‘Amir” as the patronymic, was included among the second series coins of ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amir b. Kurayz during phase 2, but a reassessment of style and historical evidence makes b. ‘Amir al-Mujashici a more likely issuing authority.

In addition to the main Arab-Sasanian coinage, Album’s introduction also covers the Arab-Ephthalite series, of which there are only three examples (nos. 7-9, all of “Gorigo Shah”) in the catalogue, and the hemidrachm issues of the later rulers of Tabaristan and Sistan, despite the fact that few of these coins appear in the catalogue. The Arab-Ephthalite series is represented by only three examples (nos. 7-9), while the Tabaristan pieces are mainly issues of the more common ‘Abbasid governors (nos. 397-471) with only a single coin of the Dabuyid ispahbads (no. 396). Likewise, later Sistan is only represented by a single specimen (no. 372).

Although they too are underrepresented in the collection (nine examples), Album also takes a close look at the rare copper issues of the Arab-Sasanian series and provides a singularly important service by attempting for the first time to construct a coherent chronology for them. Again, building on another unpublished study, he divides the copper into three distinct typological groups and convincingly argues that issues bearing types borrowed from Arab-Sasanian silver (AH 57-78/AD 676-697) preceded those with other pictorial types (AH 78-95/AD 697-713), which in turn preceded coins combining images and Umayyad inscriptional types (AH 105-137/ AD 723-754).

Tony Goodwin’s introduction to Arab-Byzantine coins is similarly global in its outlook, including commentary on all of the known mints and series, despite the fact that many scarcer issues are not present in the collection. It is particularly useful in its attempt to solidify the somewhat hazy terminology used for the several different series that make up Arab-Byzantine coinage. Although the Standing Caliph series is easily recognizable by its distinctive typology, the author argues for dividing the preceding issues into two groups: “Pseudo-Byzantine,” which encompasses early local copies of imperial coinage (mainly issues of Heraclius and Constans II) that may or may not have been struck by the Arab authorities, and “Umayyad Imperial Image,” used to describe imitations of Byzantine types with literate Greek and Arabic legends to identify the mints of Bilad al-Sham. As a guide to identifying and distinguishing between Pseudo-Byzantine and Umayyad Imperial Image types, a helpful descriptive list of types and legends for each series with accompanying illustrations is included. The Pseudo-Byzantine series is broken into nine distinct types, six of which are represented in the catalogue, while the Umayyad Imperial Image series is divided into ten, eight of which appear in the catalogue.

For each type, Goodwin not only gives a detailed description, but also attempts to uncover the original Byzantine types that inform them. In most cases he is highly successful, but a few of the Byzantine derivations may be questioned. For example, it is difficult to see why Pseudo-Byzantine type D, depicting a “single figure in military dress and holding a long cross” should be modeled on type C, which in turn is based on folles of Heraclius or Constans II that bear two figures. A more likely prototype for the type D obverse is a Constantinopolitan follis of Constans II showing the emperor holding a long cross in his right hand and with his left hand on his hip (W. Hahn, Moneta Imperii Byzantini III, [1981], no. 175). The pose of the emperor is identical to that of the figure on the Pseudo-Byzantine type.

Likewise, the final Umayyad Imperial Image type (X), depicting an “orans figure,” should also be reconsidered. Close inspection of the photograph used to illustrate this type, which the author describes as having “no Byzantine numismatic prototype” (p. 83), shows that the figure’s hands are not simply raised in an ancient attitude of prayer, but with his left hand he holds a long cross and in his right he carries a globus cruciger. These attributes, combined with the treatment of the hair and crown strongly point to common folles of Constans II (MIB III, class 5-7) as the source of inspiration. Such a model would not be particularly surprising, since these same Byzantine coins provided the prototype for a variety of other Arab-Byzantine emissions in both the Pseudo-Byzantine and Umayyad Imperial Image series. Since the “orans figure” type is assigned to the “Pseudo-Damascus” mint largely on the grounds of stylistic innovation, the presence of the long cross and globus cruciger, now makes the typology seem much more common, perhaps making a reassessment of the attribution necessary.

Students of the three main Arab-Byzantine series will also find Goodwin’s introduction especially valuable because of its thorough treatment of mint organization and the problems in establishing the chronology of the various groups and issues. The author’s analysis of the fabric and style of the Pseudo-Byzantine and Umayyad Imperial Image issues suggests that for the most part these coinages were struck in response to local or regional needs, rather than at the instigation of the central authority. The apparent lack of strong central control over types and production is probably to be expected in light of the relatively high level of local autonomy shown at the contemporary Arab-Sasanian mints. Real centralization only seems to come with the Standing Caliph series and its universal typology.

A general overview of the various tools that might be used to elucidate the chronology, including hoard evidence, overstrikes and countermarks, metrology, die studies, and excavation evidence, makes it clear that the serious study of the Arab-Byzantine series is still in its infancy and that much work still remains to be done before the dating of the coinage will come fully into focus. Nevertheless, despite the somewhat frustrating state of the evidence, Goodwin manages to construct a plausible new chronology that attempts to synthesize elements of the influential, but conflicting, “short chronology” of M. L. Bates (“The Arab-Byzantine Coinage of Syria: An Innovation by Abd al Malik,” in A Colloquium in Memory of George Carpenter Miles [New York, 1976], pp. 16-27) and the “long chronology” of S. Qedar (“Copper Coinage in Syria in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD,” INJ 10 [1991], pp. 27-39), while also taking account of L. Treadwell’s recent assessment of the dating controversy in The Chronology of the Pre-Reform Copper Coinage of Islamic Syria. Supplement to ONSN 162 (2000). The most notable development is Goodwin’s view that while the main period of coordinated Umayyad Imperial Image coinage probably began around AH 65-70/AD 685-690, shortly before the appearance of the Standing Caliph type, this was preceded by about a decade of Umayyad Imperial Image coin production at the local level, beginning at the mints of Baysan, Ludd, Iliya, and Hims.

The introduction to Arab-Byzantine coinage concludes with a brief discussion of the somewhat less well-known series produced in Egypt (nos. 732-735) and the pre-reform coinages of North Africa and Spain under the Umayyads (nos. 736-742). Although the latter are not technically considered “Arab-Byzantine,” they are included here because of their iconography, which is derived from Byzantine, Roman and Standing Caliph as well as the use of Latin legends. The Egyptian commentary is particularly important as it draws upon a newly published study by L. Domaszewicz and M.L. Bates, which recognizes only three main varieties and rejects two types formerly accepted by H.A. Awad (“Seventh Century Imitations of Alexandrian Dodecanummia,” ANSMN [1972], pp. 113-117) as post conquest issues.

Goodwin follows Walker in his interpretation of the Latin legend on a rare Roman style copper issue of Tanja (no. 741) as an abbreviated religious inscription. However, under magnification the inscription on the plate coin looks more like DB(?)SCE(?)…IT., a legend that bears little connection to the religious inscriptions of other North African coins (cf. nos. 736-737, 740, 742). Thus, it may be better to consider the legend to be a corrupt version of that found on the late Roman (more likely Vandalic, or Visigothic) model used for the obverse portrait type.

The Ashmolean collection of Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sasanian coinage is not especially full of rarities, although it is generally representative of the major issues in both series. While the scarce Pseudo-Byzantine issues of Baysan, Jerash, Amman, and “Pseudo-Damascus,” the Umayyad Imperial Image coins of Jerash, Ludd, and Iliya, and the Standing Caliph issues of Jibrin, Baysan(?), Yubna and Ludd are lacking, most of the other copper Arab-Byzantine issues are present, as well as a beautiful Standing Caliph gold dinar (no. 705) and two imitative solidi (nos. 606-607). Likewise, the selection of Arab-Sasanian copper coins is quite limited. Still, readers should be very pleased to find a broad cross section of Arab-Sasanian mints and governors peppered with the occasional rarity, such as the “experimental” issues of Dimashq (nos. 278-279) and Hims (no. 305 [unique]), and an AH 66/AD 685 drachm of Malik b. (‘Aws?) from Sistan (no. 367). All of the coins in the collection are catalogued with detailed descriptions and are extremely well photographed, although the reverse images for nos. 740 and 742 have been printed upside down. The high quality of the photography is especially apparent in the plates of bronze coins, which are often in less than perfect condition and in most need of skillful lighting to bring out their iconographical details.

Even if the plates and facing catalogue entries had not been included, the introductions alone would make Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Volume 1: The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period well worth the purchase price. It is because of them that we expect this volume to become a key reference, as well as the new jumping off point, for further study of the complex problems surrounding the first coinages produced in the aftermath of the Islamic conquest.

—Oliver D. Hoover