Review: Encyclopedia of Syrian Paper Money

Adnan Djaroueh. Encyclopedia of Syrian Paper Money. Beirut: Dar al Mourad, 2005. Hb., 594pp., color illus. throughout. ISBN 9953-406-13-8. $160.00. Available from the author at http://www.syrianpapermoney.com.

While interest in the study of the world’s paper currency has grown steadily since the late twentieth century and continues to expand, the issues of the modern Middle East have sometimes failed to garner the same close attention as the traditionally more popular issues of Europe and East Asia. While there is no doubt that the current crises in Iraq and Palestine will make Middle Eastern notaphily a topical pursuit, to date there have been very few specialized catalogues published that offer detailed coverage of the notes issued by the various political and banking entities of the region. Adnan Djaroueh’s new work attempts to improve this situation by providing a thorough and stunningly produced look at the paper money of Syria from the time of the French mandate (1919-1942) down to 1998.

Before launching into the study of the notes, the author provides a historical overview of paper money in Syria from the issues of the Banque imperiale ottomane used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while the region still formed part of the dying Ottoman Empire, to the colonial paper money of the French mandate (1920-1942), to the various notes issued by Syrian banks after the state claimed its independence in 1942. Here Djaroueh does an admirable job of contextualizing Syrian currency not only from a historical perspective but also with respect to the several coinages and foreign paper money that circulated alongside—or in place of it—at various times.

The first chapter serves to introduce the design and political circumstances of paper money issued for use in Syria. Using an impressive array of printer’s proofs, primarily for the 1919 and 1920 Banque de Syrie issues and the Banque centrale de Syrie/Central Bank of Syria emissions of 1958 and 1966, as well as a sampling of specimen notes, the author charts the development of Syrian banknote designs prior to printing. A table of signatures appearing on Syrian paper money from 1919 to 1998 is also provided to aid in issue identification. Particularly valuable for the specialist is the inclusion of a large dossier of laws, decrees, and resolutions relating to Syrian currency of the French mandate period and the modern Syrian republic.

While this chapter provides much useful background information on the production and issue of paper money in Syria, we would have liked to have seen some detailed discussion of overprinting and the reissue of older emissions. The various political crises that afflicted Syria during the French mandate and the early independent period meant that the currency was frequently subject to revalidation through overprinting until the formation of the Central Bank of Syria in 1958.

In chapter 2, the author catalogues some two hundred individual issues of Syrian paper money, beginning with the 5 piastres of 1919 issued by the Banque de Syrie and concluding with the Central Bank of Syria’s 500 Syrian pounds of 1998. The currency of the late Ottoman period is excluded from the catalogue, since it was not issued specifically for use in Syria. Likewise, the Egyptian pound, initially used in Syria between the collapse of Ottoman authority in the region and the French mandate, is not listed, as its circulation in Syria was largely a stopgap measure. The 1949 Bon de Caisse provisional issues of 250 and 500 livres are also omitted because they were almost immediately withdrawn from circulation in accordance with the legislation of August 6, 1950. Besides, as these issues were really filled-out forms rather than the usual paper money, they belong somewhat more to the purview of the scripophile than the notaphile.

The face and back of each catalogued note are fully described and, perhaps most importantly, illustrated by beautiful color photographs in 1:1 scale, or more frequently, in enlargements. The quality of the photography is superlative and raises the bar of excellence for all future currency catalogues. After feasting on the vibrant colors and sharp definition of the notes illustrated in the Encyclopedia of Syrian Paper Money, it is very difficult to go back to looking at photographs in earlier works on paper money without some sense of disappointment and longing for images like those that Djaroueh has now provided. We hope that other cataloguers will take note.

Among the many highlights of the catalogue are the rare 500-piastres note issued by the Banque de Syrie in 1920 (SY 17), the 25 livres provisional issue of Banque de Syrie et du Grand-Liban of 1939 (SY 46), and an undenominated, unsigned, and undated specimen note of the Bon de Caisse branch of the Banque de Syrie et du Grand-Liban (SY 103). Also of interest to specialists in monetary stamps is the full run of undated provisional timbres fiscals of the early Syrian Republic (c. 1942) (SY 89-93).

The third and final chapter is dedicated to the security features found on Syrian currency. Until the late 1990s, the primary security feature was the watermark, which frequently depicted the head of an Arabian horse but sometimes also various images of ancient Syrian artefacts or the portrait of President Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000), whose cult of personality dominated the Syrian political landscape in the late twentieth century. Here the author provides a table of all the watermarks with enlarged photographs of each type. The issues of 1997 and 1998 receive a special section of their own, because they included a number of additional modern safeguards such as microprinting, a foil security thread, and a see-through rendering of the Syrian coat-of-arms.

The book concludes with an index and table listing the various issues by year and denomination, as well as an index of architectural monuments and artefacts depicted in the vignettes and watermarks of Syrian currency. In keeping with the rest of the volume, even the indices are lavishly illustrated. Both issue indices include thumbnail images of the notes in question, while the index of monuments includes small sepia-toned photographs of the real buildings and objects illustrated on the money. The latter are especially helpful for those wishing to make comparison with their artistic rendering as vignettes.

The only real drawback to the present work is the fact that it is written almost entirely in Arabic, with English parallel text provided only for the foreword, prelude, and indices of emissions and denominations. This is somewhat unfortunate, because this subject is not only of interest to specialists in Middle Eastern currencies, who are likely to have Arabic reading knowledge, but also to students of the broader monetary history of the French colonial empire, who perhaps may not have such a solid grasp of Arabic. Thankfully, the author is presently working on a full English translation, which will do much to increase the accessibility of the Encyclopedia. Still, anyone with access to the second and third volumes of Pick’s Standard Catalog of World Paper Money should have little difficulty navigating the present catalogue, but without Arabic they will miss out on the majority of Djaroueh’s introductory text, as well as the commentary on security features, vignette sources, and the dossier of documents relating to Syrian paper money.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Adnan Djaroueh’s book is a monumental work that lays the foundation for future research on the money of modern Syria. While it is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any notaphile, its large size (32 x 28 cm) and beautiful execution also make the Encyclopedia of Syrian Paper Money an appropriate book to grace the the coffee table. Because of its extremely high production values, it is not only a pleasure for one to read, but also for one to be seen reading it.

—Oliver D. Hoover