Michael Bates: A Brief Biography

by Rick Witschonke


Michael Bates

In October, Michael Bates retired as ANS Curator of Islamic Coins after a long and distinguished career. Many members have known Michael over the years and are well aware of his numismatic accomplishments. There is, however, a fascinating personal side to Michael’s life as well, and he graciously shared it with me.

Michael was born in 1941, in Louisville, Kentucky. His mother, daughter of two families long established as farmers in western Hardin County, Kentucky, had attended Kentucky Wesleyan University on a one-year scholarship. When that ran out, she moved to Louisville, where she worked at a lunch counter frequented by Michael’s father, a graduate of Louisville’s prestigious Male High School, who was making a living as a mechanic while pondering his future. World War II soon determined that quandary. He enlisted and became a pilot, flying cargo planes for the Army Air Corps from India across Burma to China and back (“the hump”). He left the army in 1948 and became a civilian pilot, eventually flying 747s for Saudi Airlines. Also in 1948, Michael’s parents divorced. At age seven, Michael returned to Hardin County with his mother and newborn sister. At first, they lived in Cecelia, a waterstop for the Illinois Central Railroad near his mother’s more rural family. Soon they moved to the county seat, Elizabethtown, and later to Louisville, Fort Knox, and Valley Station, near Louisville, where Michael graduated in 1959 near the top of his high school class of 350.


Hugh Bates, Mike’s father, in India, 1943

The Willyard children, Mike’s mother’s family, c. 1920

Mike Bates, his mother Emily, and J.C. Cantrell, school principal, 1959

Despite an early interest in paleontology (inspired, in part, by the Roy Chapman Andrews books, with the famous dinosaur paintings in the American Museum of Natural History), Michael was unsure of his future direction, but drifted toward the humanities. His English teacher had told him, “If I could do it over again, I’d go to the University of Chicago.” So off Michael went, not knowing what to expect, with the assistance of National Merit and General Motors scholarships. His first major was General Studies in the Humanities, which he explains as no major at all, but by the end of his second year he had switched to history, inspired by Chicago’s great History of Western Civilization sequence. The next problem, as he tells it, was to decide what kind of history. He took a year of ancient Mediterranean and U.S. history, audited courses in Japanese civilization, studied Renaissance English poetry and modern art—and so on. One of the most important course series was the year of Indian Civilization, to fulfill his non-Western civilization requirement. It introduced him to the study of other cultures and to the study of one’s own culture from the outside, or rather, to seeing other cultures as one’s own and one’s own culture as another’s. In addition, the course teaching team was largely dominated by anthropologists, whose way of looking at cultures has helped Michael to see the characters of dry texts as living persons in real communities. By the end of his third year, Michael had qualified for Special Honors within the department and, as a senior, was allowed to spend one-third of his time in a self-directed curriculum. By this time, having sampled a bit of every sort of history, he was drawn toward African history, the least known of all. His senior thesis, under Lloyd Fallers, another anthropologist, was on the Fanti Confederacy, an attempt to organize a modern state in the Gold Coast (today Ghana) that led to the invasion of the Fanti country by the Ashantis of the north and the British from the south.

Michael worked throughout his undergraduate career, at first as a “checker” in different dormitory dining halls, checking off the students as they came in for breakfast so no one could eat twice (unless they were very good friends), refilling the orange juice trays, and buttering toast. In his last year he got a job at the Midwest Interlibrary Center cataloging government publications from—yes, India.

He spent much of his time off traveling. Immediately after his first year, he jumped in an old Chevrolet with two other guys and drove to Los Angeles, then he and one of the others went by Greyhound to San Jose, where jobs were supposedly available in canneries. They weren’t, so Michael and his friend rejoined the other friend to drive home via Yosemite and Colorado. In his third year, he joined two Chicago friends to drive a Chevy convertible from Chicago to San Francisco for an auto ferry company. After a few days, he left his friends and hitchhiked to Seattle to see the World’s Fair. From there, he hitchhiked back to Chicago, sleeping one night in a haystack, another on the ground near some highway construction, and the third in the back seat of a Buick in a used car lot in Iowa. Over Thanksgiving that year, he went east with some friends, spending a night in Philadelphia, and then on to New York by train. From there, after a few days on a friend’s couch, he hitchhiked back to Chicago, making it in one day after a false start too late the day before. He also took up hitchhiking as the fastest way (usually) to get to Louisville and back.

Meanwhile, over the Christmas holiday of his third year, Michael was in Louisville with his family, and ran into a high-school friend, Phyllis Hunt, in a bookstore. They started dating, and were married in June, 1963. For their honeymoon, they drove to Los Angeles in Phyllis’s little VW beetle, spent the summer there in Westwood while Michael attended a summer program in African history at UCLA, and returned via San Francisco to start graduate studies at Chicago. Since Chicago, like all other U.S. universities, had no program in African history, he started taking Arabic for the early sources and Islamic history for background. At first, he hoped to find another institution with African history, but he soon realized that Middle East and Islamic history offered a far grander world to discover, and also, the U.S. government began offering National Defense Foreign Language fellowships to almost anyone who would study an “exotic” language. He changed to the Department of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Chicago’s Oriental Institute, and took all of the Islamic history and Arabic courses that the university offered. Professor Wilferd Madelung, from Germany, became his mentor and thesis advisor, and influenced his choice of topic.

Michael’s fascination with Egypt blossomed in 1965, when he spent a summer studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo. He returned, this time with Phyllis, in 1966-67, to study Arabic manuscripts at the National Library on a NDEA/Fulbright-Hays fellowship. In order to finance their lifestyle and stay in Egypt, he answered an ad for an “American voice for the North American Broadcasting Service,” which turned out to be a position as a part-time radio correspondent for NBC. Shortly thereafter, Nasser reoccupied the Sinai, leading to the Six Days War between Egypt and Israel. All “nonessential” Americans were told to leave, so Michael put his wife on a plane to Rome, but he stayed on as the assistant to a more experienced NBC correspondent who flew in. Two days after the war started, Michael and all the other Americans who had not left were locked in a Cairo hotel for three days. Then, Friday evening, Nasser went on the radio to announce the Israeli victory and his own resignation. At two in the morning, all the guests were awakened and told to pack. They were loaded into closed police trucks for their own security (but Michael, characteristically, opened the front window to survey the dark and empty streets) and taken to the train station, whence they were sent to Alexandria and put on a ship to Athens. Once there, Michael wired his father for money and proceeded to Rome, where he caught up with Phyllis. She had found a job as au pair for the Ringling family, and Michael went to work on Arabic manuscripts at the Vatican Library. At the end of the summer, Phyllis returned to the United States, while Michael went to Paris to work on manuscripts at the Bibliotheque Nationale.

At the end of the previous academic year, Michael had succeeded in obtaining another fellowship from the American University in Cairo to continue his manuscript research. When AUC reopened in January 1968, he returned from Paris via Milan (where there were more manuscripts) to Cairo. In January 1969, after another year in Cairo, Michael returned to Chicago to complete his dissertation (“Yemen and Its Conquest by the Ayyubids of Egypt, AD 1169-1202”) and look for a job. At this point, he had never looked at an Islamic coin, but this was about to change.


Mike Bates at the excavations at Fustat in Egypt, 1969

In May 1970, Michael saw a notice in an American Historical Association publication seeking a curator of medieval coins for the American Numismatic Society. He sent off a preliminary reply, describing his undergraduate and graduate work in European medieval history, adding the comment that Islamic history was also largely medieval. A reply came from George C. Miles, former Executive Director and Chief Curator, and still Curator of Oriental Coins. Miles, according to Michael, was not taken in by his putative credentials as a medievalist, but, as it happened, the Society had planned to advertise for an assistant curator in Islamic coinage the next month. Would he like to fly to New York for an interview? Yes, he would. Before leaving Chicago, at about midnight, Michael decided to pull some of the numismatic comments in his thesis together as a paper (it later became his first article, “Notes on Some Isma’ili Coins from Yemen,” in Museum Notes 18, 1972). Miles seemed more impressed by the overnighter than the paper, but in any case, Michael was hired at the salary of $9,000 per year.


Mike Bates at the ANS, c. 1973

Among others who answered the same notice were Jeremiah Brady, hired as assistant curator of medieval coins, and Rose Chan Houston, who was hired as assistant curator for Far Eastern coins. All three were Ph.D. historians; the philosophy then was that it is much easier to teach numismatics to someone who already had the historical background and languages than to try to instill the equivalent of years of graduate school into someone who knew only the coins. Michael’s appointment was, of course, contingent on the completion of his thesis and receipt of the Ph.D., which finally occurred in 1975, with Honors.

Miles’s mode of introducing Michael to Islamic numismatics was to ask him to go through all the trays in the collection one by one, correcting labels and re-ordering the coins as necessary. Of course, this led to many questions, which Miles patiently answered, as well as to many different sidetracks of research—it took several years to finish all the trays. Meanwhile, in 1971, the ANS purchased a large hoard of what seemed to be almost 2,000 Ayyubid silver dirhams of the thirteenth century (for 50 cents each), and Miles had Michael sort and attribute them. This task revealed that about 30 percent of the coins were Crusader imitations of Ayyubid coins. In order to identify them all, a die study was necessary, resulting in hundreds of index cards recording indicative calligraphic squiggles. A preliminary summary of the results was published in the Festschrift for Miles published in 1974, and a broader survey of all the Crusader Arabic coins formed a chapter of volume 6 of the History of the Crusades, edited by Kenneth Setton. More than seventy articles, reviews, and books were to flow from Michael’s pen over the next thirty years (a full bibliography can be found on the ANS website). In 1973, when Miles retired, Michael was promoted to Associate Curator, and in 1977, to Curator of Islamic Coins.

Miles died unexpectedly in 1975. At the 1976 Colloquium honoring him, Michael delivered a paper on the dating of the first Umayyad Syrian coppers of Byzantine type. This started him on a new aspect of his career, the study of the regional coinages of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750). In order to pursue this new interest, in 1976, Michael was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Museum Professional Fellowship to travel to France and England to study these coins. The results of this work and the revised dating were presented at Stuttgart University, and later published in the Revue Suisse de Numismatique 65 (1986) as “History, Geography, and Numismatics in the First Century of Islamic Coinage.”

In 1979, Michael was elected to his first term as a member of the International Numismatic Commission, which met annually in a European numismatic center. In 1980, Michael and Phyllis separated and were divorced. Later, when Michael was in Budapest for a meeting of the International Numismatic Commission, he met his second wife Katalin (Kati), through Paul Balog, a mutual friend. Kati was a Hungarian swimming champion who had married an Italian track coach and had two children. After her separation from her husband, she had met Balog in Italy and, through him, Michael. She and Michael kept up a trans-Atlantic romance for many years, and in 1995, Kati came to the U.S. to marry him.


Kati and Mike Bates, c. 1995

In 1978, Michael was asked to come to Cairo as numismatist at the American excavations of Fustat, the oldest Islamic part of the city, where hundreds of coins were excavated every season. This was repeated in 1980, and in 1982-83, Michael returned to study the coins from all the seasons of excavation. He was responsible for cleaning, attributing (where possible), and putting the coins in order. Michael continued to publish on a variety of subjects throughout the 1980s and 1990s, while carrying out his duties as ANS Curator.

In 1994, Michael had the extraordinary opportunity to spend a term as Shamma Fellow at St. Cross College, Oxford, for research on Islamic coins and history. He also gave a series of lectures. In 1996, Michael was invited to UCLA to teach a class on numismatics and monetary history, but when the class failed to attract enough students, the money was reallocated to enable him to spend a quarter there as a Research Fellow, including a series of lectures on the subject for students and the public, and a seminar on collecting Islamic coins for ANS members in southern California. And in 1997, Michael lectured on Sasanian coins at the Department of Near Eastern Languages at the University of Toronto, where he had been appointed a Research Associate, to enable him to use the excellent library there, during his frequent visits to friends of Kati’s in the city. He is also a Research Associate at NYU, providing access to the library there.


Mike Bates and Nicholas Lowick

At the ANS, Michael, like the other curators, created a series of seminars during the tenure of Education Officer Connie Weisman, and liked it so much that he continued to organize annual seminars up to 2003, including topics such as collecting Islamic coins, the Arab-Byzantine coinage of Syria, the Arab-Sasanian coinage of Iran, coinage of the Turks throughout history, and the coinage of the early Islamic caliphates (the latter two organized by Dr. Stuart Sears with Michael’s help). He has organized numerous panels at annual meetings of the American Oriental Society and the Middle East Studies Association, and set up a panel at the Society itself, “Coinage in Egypt,” as part of the 1982 American Research Center in Egypt meeting.

Clearly, Michael has had a long and productive career at the ANS. And now that retirement has relieved him of his day to day curatorial duties, he plans to work on a variety of projects that had previously been set aside. We all wish him well in this new phase of his career.


Mark Salton, Mike, and Kati Bates