Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Iran’s very own 'Roman' coins: The Last Shah’s stamp on posterity

History has a very unkind habit of repeating itself and often in settings vastly different than the original one albeit in the same fashion. A particular Iranian coin from my collection amazed me at its similarity to archetypal Roman coins with the bust of the Roman Emperor surrounded by Roman legends found scattered all over the world known to Romans; except the script was Persian (with a Persian Pa in the upper line clinching it in favour of Persian as it’s absent in Arabic script and language) and its reverse showed the image of an imposing Lion brandishing a sword standing in front of resplendent Sun!
Intrigued by the initial findings, I relied on my magnifying glass to tell the rest of the story. The coin’s obverse had the side profile of an Iranian ruler as well etched as a Roman Emperor’s with the legend in the upper line reading:
‘Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Arya Mihr Shahanshah-i-Iran’
The regnal titles translate as ‘The Light of the Aryans the King-of-Kings (a very old Persian title from its Sassanid era)
The lower line gave the date ‘2536’ which does not translate into any meaningful Islamic date; however crosschecking with my Persian teacher, an Iranian expatriate, I discovered that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (r. A.D. 1941-1979) initiated a new Imperial Calendar in 1976, using the birth of ancient Persian Emperor Cyrus as the first day, replacing the Hijri era of Prophet Muhammad. Hence as far as coinage is concerned, the numeral year leaped by almost a millennium from 1355 A.H. to 2535. Thus, the date ‘2536’ on my coin signaled that it was dated in the Imperial Era of Iran and its date in Christian era was 1977.

The reverse of Muhammad Reza Shah’s coins show the image of an Asiatic Lion holding a sword with the Sun in the background. The amazing part of this regnal symbol is that it was also employed in medieval India by Mughal Emperor Nur-ud-din Jahangir (r.1605-1627) (You can check the image on British Museum’s website at the following link
The Lion with the Sun represents two unmistakable symbols of power and the Sun (Mihr/Miiro or Khursheed) has been a revered natural deity of the Persian people thus lending the Shah of Iran a distinct temporal power over his people. We are all aware of the Lion’s share from Aesop’s Fables which is why kingship is often represented by a Lion.
The coin shows the Shah’s crown placed above these two powerful symbols implying the Shah’s omnipotent power over his people; the Shah’s assumption of such supreme power brought him into direct conflict with the Islamic clergy of Iran which bid their time till the final ushering in of an Islamic revolution in 1979.
The coin’s denomination is '20 Riyal' is generally a written denomination since a more popular unit of account called 'Toman' (equal to 10 Riyal) is more preferred in day-to-day transactions in Iran. In this context, a letter from John Horne, the Governor of Bombay to Nadir Shah* in 1738 at the Maharashtra State Archives speaks of British losses to the tune of 12000 Tomans due to extortion by Nadir Shah's officials in Teheran. The modern Riyal is said to contain 100 Dinars as sub-units but the low value of Riyal itself conceals this sub-unit.
According to Iranian expatriates, although the value of goods in a market are officially expressed in Riyals, the vocal transaction is always in Tomans!
This single coin from pre-Islamic Revolution Iran tells us the story of a bygone era in the history of an ancient nation which is increasingly wiping off all traces of its rich past in the garb of misguided Puritanism.
* The Persian invader who devastated Delhi under Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah 'Rangeela' in 1739 and extracted the Kohinoor and Shahjahan's Peacock Throne along with 14 crore rupees as booty!

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Tunisian Dinar Coin with the image of a beautiful farmer maid to promote the country's progressive image

Coins have always served a more important purpose for ruling elite the world over. A coin is the best propaganda tool since time immemorial. Another fanciful coin in my coin collection which set my imagination soaring was a silverish looking coin with the image of a beautiful farmer lady with Arabic inscriptions in my collection.
I was sure it was the coin of an Arabic country poised to break free from its medieval past and adopt a modernist agenda.
Reading the obverse legend (see below) gives the ruler's name in the upper line as 'al-Habib al Burqiba' with the lower line stating 'Rais al-Jamhooriyat al Tunisiyya' meaning 'President of the Republic of Tunisia' making it obvious that the coin hails from modern Tunisia, a tiny country in the northern most part of Africa. The ruler mentioned was Habib al Burgiba, a person who presided over the country's future right since its independence from France in the 1940s till he was forced to abdicate in favour of his Prime Minister.
The coin further shows a semi-modern approach by use of modern dating -'1976' instead of the Islamic calendar in Hijri era. The woman is shown harvesting crops in her field with a modern tractor in the background completing the image of a progressive nation breaking free from its past shackles.
It shows it takes a woman to make vital changes in the economy of both her home and her nation; driving home a modern message now acknowledged world over.
The legend above the lady states 'al-Bank al-Markazi al-Tunisiyya' meaning 'Central Bank of Tunisia' and the lower line shows its denomination as 'Dinar Wahid' meaning 'One Dinar' with the Roman numeral '1' in the centre.
Tunisia is a relatively peaceful country despite its authoritarian regime; its populace is like modern Turkey free from radical agenda which makes it acceptable to the West which supports its economy by importing Tunisian goods in a good measure. Modern Tunisia claims to be one of the most surging economies in the African sub-continent. Thus, a country's coins are valuable indicators of the 'state of mind' of its rulers, their aims and goals that they wish to project to both domestic and international audiences.

Friday, July 16, 2010

An assassinated Saudi King’s numismatic legacy retraced from a small denomination coin

Delving further into my pot of old collected coins; I came across another unique Islamic coin which I did not know from a scratch. However, I could however soon make out the King’s name written in Arabic on the obverse side above the heraldic symbol of the kingdom; aided by a date in presumably the Hijri era on the reverse to help me ascribe it to a specific country. The name inscribed on the coin is ‘Faisal-bin-Abd’ Al- Aziz Al Saud’ (left image) in the upper line in a continuous Arabic legend from right to left (see image) hinted that it was a coin from Saudi Arabia. The lower line read as ‘Mallik Al Mulk Al Arabia Al Saudia’ roughly translated as ‘King of the country of Saudi Arabia’ confirmed my initial impression.

Searching the internet for information, I discovered that King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz was born in 1904 in Riyadh and was the third son of the founder of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, popularly known by his patronymic name Ibn Saud.
Although Faisal ruled Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975, he was initially installed as the Crown Prince and later was the Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia on two occasions under the kingship of his elder brother, Saud bin Abdul Aziz since 1953. However, after a prolonged struggle with Saud, he took over the reins of the kingdom in 1964 to pursue a semi-modernist path till his death on March 25 1975 at the hands of his half-brother's son, Faisal bin Musa'id in a public gathering. Faisal was succeeded by his half-brother, Khalid.
As a part of his pan-Islamic ideology which largely guided his foreign policy, Faisal developed a close alliance with Sunni Pakistan. He was very close to
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan. Many places in Pakistan were posthumously named in Faisal’s honour; Lyallpur city in Punjab Province was renamed as Faisalabad in 1979; the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad is also named after him; the main highway in Karachi was renamed ‘Shahrah-e-Faisal’ ‘The Royal Road of Faisal’, etc.
In fact, this coin owes its existence to this Saudi-Pakistani collaboration as it is said to have been minted at the Lahore Mint in Pakistan for the Saudi Government in large numbers in a singular date of 1392 A.H.
The reverse legend (right image) tells another tale which required some ingenious net searching on my part. The date on the reverse is 1392 A.H. which translates into 1972 A.D. The other legend in the circle at the centre reads as ‘Qirsh A’nain’ However, in my net searches I found that in Saudi Arabia this unit, Qirsh is pronounced as ‘Ghirsh’ in Saudi Arabia despite the use of the letter ‘Qaaf’; searching the names of Arabic numerals, I discovered Ath- nain is Arabic for ‘Two’ and hence the denomination was ‘Two Ghirsh’. The English and Arabic numerals flanking the circle suggest another denomination of ‘10’ which was intriguing. The Arabic word for ‘Ten’ is ‘Ash-Ra’ which is inscribed on the first part of the upper legend and the next word is ‘Halalat’ which I assumed is the name of the unit.
I searched the internet especially Wikipedia and found the following information about the Saudi Arabian currency system.
The Official currency of Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Riyal which is officially divided into two subunits 20 Ghirsh and 100 Halalas; making 1 Ghirsh equal to 5 Halalas. The Halala system was introduced only in 1963 (probably when Faisal was the Prime Minister for the second time) prior to which the Ghirsh was the only sub-division.
In 1972 under Faisal, cupro-nickel coins of 5, 10, 25 and 50 Halalas were introduced. Since then, the use of the term Ghirsh has slowly been abandoned as the Halala system of sub-division is more popular.
Thus, King Faisal was a pioneer in the field of Saudi currency as his leadership gave birth to a new numismatic sub-division which slowly replaced the old system in the next few decades.
Once again, a single coin opened a cornucopia of information for me based upon its Islamic method of systematic information dissemination through right deduction.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Tale of two Omani Coins

Recently I started examining my old collection of coins which I had collected as a schoolboy. This collection had many hastily collected coins from Islamic countries of the Middle East which I had acquired through my uncles who stayed in UAE for a while in the late seventies. In the collection I came across two similar looking coins with a common central emblem. Reading the script of the two coins I discovered the image on left had the legend 'Said-bin Taimur' (Upper line right to left) 'Sultan Muscat wa Oman' (lower line right to left); whereas the right coin had the legend 'Qaboos-bin-Said' (upper line right to left) 'Sultan Oman'.
I was highly excited as the two coins suggested a father-son relationship but one was said to rule 'Muscat & Oman' whereas the other only 'Oman'. I examined the reverse of the coins for further clues. A study of the images of the reverse sides as listed above showed the following important facts; the coin of Sultan Said-bin-Taimur was dated 1390 A.H. (After Hijri era which commenced around 622 A.D.) which translates into 1970 A.D. of the Christian calendar and Sultan Qaboos-bin-Said's coin is dated 1395 A.H. which mean 1975 A.D.
A careful study of Oman's history on Wikipedia revealed the following important facts which came out of studying the two coins; Sultan Said-bin-Taimur ruled the Sultanate of Muscat & Oman with dictatorial control over its oil-rich resources from 10 February 1932 till his overthrow in 1970 by his only son, Qaboos.
Qaboos was a trained soldier in the British Army who returned to Oman and was resisted by Said who placed him under a virtual house arrest. Qaboos overthrew Said in a palace coup in late 1970. He renamed the Sultanate as 'Sultanate of Oman' with Muscat as its capital and reformed Oman currency with Riyal Omani replacing its previous form Riyal Saidi.
This brings us to the next important information about these coins; both are valued at 10 Baisas; however in Said-bin Taimur's time the Riyal Saidi was sub-divided into 100 Baisas whereas Qaboos-bin Said sub-divided the Riyal Omani into 1000 Baisa.
Baisa is an Arabic corruption of Indian word Paisa; Arabic languages do not have the alphabet 'Pa' hence it is substituted with 'Ba'.
Before 1940, the Indian Paisa was the dominant currency prevalent in coastal regions of Muscat & Oman; hence when Omani currency was introduced, the Baisa system was conveniently used. Thus, two tiny coins in my long forgotten collection opened a chapter in history for me in the most memorable fashion. Indeed more such gems will be dug out and dwelt upon in my future posts.