Islamic Curator’s News (Spring 2005)

by Michael Bates

More than 40 years ago, the great ANS numismatist George C. Miles showed that the Roman Byzantine miliaresion, a silver coin introduced by Leo III (717-41), was not only a Greek Christian adaptation of the Islamic Arabic dirham, but often was, in physical origin, a dirham, overstruck with a cross and Greek inscriptions. The evidence for this phenomenon is the substantial proportion of miliaresia still showing traces of the Islamic design that was only partially obliterated by the Roman overstrike. The argument is generally known and accepted, but a recent photo order from Mr. Robert L. Quinn of Beál an Daingin, County Galway, for his book The Atlantean Irish brought about a re-examination of these coins in the ANS, including those acquired since Miles wrote. Mr. Quinn wanted images of three Islamic coins that influenced the monetary system of Europe in the middle ages. From a list of suggestions sent to him, he selected an Abbasid dinar of the eighth century typical of those copied by western Europeans such as the Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia, Offa (757-96); a Samanid dirham of the tenth century, representative of the tons of silver coins exported from Muslim Central Asia to northern Europe; and a miliaresion showing traces of Arabic inscription (see page 153 of hisbook). Many miliaresia show vague traces of an undertype; some have letters or words from the standard religious inscriptions on dirhams; but very few display enough of the undertype to identify the mint city, date, or issuing official of the original coin. Miles, in his 1960 article, had only three such examples, all from other collections, among the 23 he knew.


Obverses of a Constantinople miliaresion with an Arab undertype and the corresponding Arab dirham (left, ANS 1980.5.3, purchase; right, ANS 1949.163.63, gift of Walter L. Wright). The Arabic mint name and date are at the bottom of both coins, reading from 7:00 to 4:00.

Since then, 100 miliaresia have been added to our collection, of which at least eight have some visible trace of Arab undertype. Among those, the last one examined turned out to be the real find, with a fully legible mint name and enough of the date inscription to restore the year of issue. Stephen Album came into my office just when I had first picked up the coin and was puzzling over it, and showed his 2003 ANS Huntington medallist stuff by reading the mint as al-Abbasiyya, a place in northwest Africa that is yet to be precisely located, and the last number of the date as 5. Since al-Abbasiyya’s main period of output was only some 35 years—nearly all our holdings are in a single tray, put in order by Dr. Sam Gellens when he was a Graduate Seminar student in 1980—it didn’t take long to find a match for the overstruck dirham in the ANS collection. It was minted in 165 (781-82) with the name of the governor Yazid (figure 1). Between that date and 797 (the end of the reign of Constantine VI and his mother Irene who are named in the Greek inscription of the overstrike) a dirham like ours made its way in circulation from hand to hand, from its north African birthplace to Constantinople, where someone took it to the mint, probably in a bag with thousands of other dirhams, to be turned into a miliaresion.

A few other mint names and dates are legible as undertypes of miliaresia, enough to show that the eighth-century flow of Islamic silver did not all spring from one particular place or period. The dirhams that came to Constantinople are typical of the mixed varieties in any hoard containing eighth-century Islamic silver. The discovery of this mint name, however, is of some special interest to the present writer, in connection with his larger study of the close relationship between mining and minting throughout history. The output of the mint al-Abbasiyya, even though it is a place otherwise unknown to history, comprises about 14% of the total of any hoard sample of contemporary dirhams, no matter where the hoard is found–and Abbasid dirhams of these years, roughly 770 to 805, are one of the most abundant coinages of history. The explosion of dirham minting at al-Abbasiyya is to be explained by the discovery of productive silver mines in various parts of Morocco. The most explicit evidence for these mines is constituted by the silver dirham coinage of the Idrisid Alid imams and their contemporaries at a dozen or so mints in obscure places: a burst of silver coinage production not equalled at any other time in the long monetary history of the country. Al-Abbasiyya was the name given to another place fed by the output of the Moroccan mines.

The new overstrike shows that the outpouring of silver from Morocco also reached Constantinople. This is not surprising, considering that the abundant flow of Islamic silver to Constantinople would inevitably have included a substantial proportion of al-Abbasiyya issues, like the hoards. Silver mines were opened or further developed in several parts of the caliphate in the eighth century; in addition to those of Morocco, there were important mines north of Herat, in Armenia, and in Yemen. The contemporary Roman empire did not have silver mines, so it would be natural for silver coins to be transported from an economy where they were abundant to an economy that lacked intermediate specie between copper folles and gold solidi; in different words, from an economy where their purchasing power was relatively low to one where they had a higher real value. It is entirely possible that some of the cheap silver of North Africa also flowed into Muslim Spain and the Carolingian empire, helping to enable the establishment of the silver penny as medieval Europe’s standard coin, but Iberia and Gaul had productive silver mines of their own, perhaps making silver there as cheap as it was in the Muslim countries and commerce in that metal therefore unprofitable.

European Imitations of Abbasid Gold Coins in a New Article

The brief reference above to Abbasid dinars of 157 as the prototype for western European dinar imitations was inspired by earlier discussions with Lutz Ilisch, curator of the Islamic coin collection at Tübingen University, who was then assembling the material for a catalogue and survey of eighth-century dinar imitations. Robert Hoge and I were pleased a few days ago to receive offprints of the resulting article by Dr. Ilisch. The title translated into English is “The imitative solidi mancusi: ‘Arabic’ gold coins of Carolingian times.” Solidi mancusi are mentioned in western European documents and texts as early as 778. Ilisch assembles convincing evidence to confirm the long-held opinion that mancusus is derived from the Arabic word manqūsh, meaning “engraved.” There is evidence to suggest that the term mancusus was picked up from Arabophone use of manqūsh as a colloquial name for Islamic-type coins with engraved inscriptions only and no images.


An Abbasid dinar of 157 H. (773-74) and its Carolingian imitation (left, ANS 1917.215.28, gift of Edward T. Newell from the collection of Prof. Charles Torrey; right, ANS 1931.115.1, purchase).

Ilisch had written last year to request images of an ANS coin, 1931.115.1, that had long since been identified as an imitation. The original accession record describes it as “made by Offa of Mercia” (an idea correctly described by former ANS curator Jeremiah Brady in a note in the coin box as “wishful thinking”). Ilisch suggests plausibly that it had been in the collection of Prince Philipp von Sachsen-Coberg-Gotha put on auction in 1928. While I was working on my response to Ilisch, I mentioned the inquiry and showed the coin to Hoge, who exclaimed “I’ve got a coin that looks a lot like that one!” Sure enough, his small collection of Arabic gold coins included another example of the series, from different dies. We sent images of both coins to Ilisch, and Hoge measured their specific gravity. Both coins belong to Ilisch’s group I, including nine examples from eight different pairs of dies. Almost all the European imitations are characterized by a circle of dots around the outer edge of the obverse and reverse. The imitations of this group and group II are easy to identify by the representation of the word bism, “in the name of,” as a mere series of dots from about 2:30 back to 1:00 on the reverse (on the prototypes, it is four short vertical strokes followed by a circle). They are also somewhat alloyed, as Hoge’s measurements helped to show, and almost 20% underweight. All these dinars have substantially correct Arabic inscriptions and the false date 157. Doubtless readers of the ANS Magazine have more examples in their collection; they should notify me or Ilisch.

Ilisch regards these coins as examples from a rather large issue, probably from a single official mint in Charlemagne’s empire somewhere near its eastern frontier. He suggests the faint possibility that they were minted from a large treasure taken as booty from the Avars in 791-94, and at any rate, that this particular series of imitations was produced sometime after 774, the date of the prototype dinar, and before the end of the 790s, when they were followed by another series of imitations including the famous unique British Museum coin with normal Arabic inscriptions and the words OFFA REX written upside-down between the lines of the obverse.

A New Joyce Medal

Among the donations received at the New York International Coin Show this year was a medal commemorating the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s arrival in Trieste, where he spent fifteen years and established himself as a major author. It was given by Giovanni Paoletti through the well-known Trieste coin dealer Giulio Bernardi who commissioned the issue. The obverse is a very fine depiction of Joyce’s prickly cantankerous personality, as well as a good portrait of the author as a young man. The dates 1882-1982 at the lower left seem out of place; he died in early 1941. The reverse is not artistic, except for an unusual background effect that makes the lettering seem to float above the surface when the light reflects at a certain angle. It has only inscriptions, including a statement of the occasion of the medal, “100 years since the arrival of James Joyce in Trieste, 20.X.1904.” At the time, Trieste was the great seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was also the only place in Europe where Joyce, who had just run away from Ireland with his girlfriend, Nora Barnacle, could find a job with his sole marketable skill, teaching English as a foreign language. In Trieste, in the intervals of instructing private pupils for Berlitz, he wrote the largest part of Dubliners, rewrote Stephen Hero into Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and did about a third of Ulysses. The central reverse inscription of the medal is a line from a letter he wrote back to Nora in October 1909, during Joyce’s brief and last visit to Dublin: “My soul is in Trieste!” In 1915, his position made untenable as a British subject in a realm at war with the U.K., Joyce moved to Zurich. In October 1919 he tried to resume his old life in Trieste, but it was not the same after the war, and in June 1920 he moved permanently to Paris.


Medal commemorating 100th anniversary of the arrival of James Joyce in Trieste (ANS 2005.17.1, gift of Giulio Bernardi).

Further reading

Daniel Eustache, Corpus des dirhams idrisites et contemporains: Collection de la Banque du Maroc et autres collections mondiales, publiques et privées (Banque du Maroc. Études sur la numismatique et l’histoire monétaire du Maroc, I). Rabat, 1970-71.

George C. Miles, “Byzantine Miliaresion and Arab Dirhem: Some Notes on Their Relationship,” American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 9 (1960), 188-218.

Elizabeth Savage and Adon A. Gordus, “Dirhams for the Empire,” in Genèse de la ville islamique,” in: P. Gressier and M. García-Arenal, eds., Al-Andalus et au Maghreb occidental (ed. Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1998), 377-402.

Bob Quinn, The Atlantean Irish: Ireland’s Oriental and Maritime Heritage (Dublin: The Liliput Press, 2005).

Lutz Ilisch, “Die imitativen solidi mancusi: “Arabische” Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit,” in: Reiner Cunz, ed. Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften: Festschrift für Niklot Klüßendorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Veröffentlichungen der urgeschichtlichen Sammlungen des Landesmuseums zu Hannover, 51; Neustadt an der Aisch: Verlagsdruckerei Schmidt, 2004), 91-106.

“The Brazen Head” http://www.themodernword.com/joyce/index.html

James Joyce – Triestine Itineraries (a virtual walk through Joyce’s Trieste provided by Laboratorio Joyce of the Università degli Studi di Trieste), http://www.univ.trieste.it/~nirdange/netjoyce/e_netjoyce/e_index.html