Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Greek Tragedy of an extinct Drachma Coin reminiscing ancient Hellenic glory with Aristotle’s image

Greece has been the centre of a ancient Hellenic civilization which spread all over the known world in wake of the rise of Alexander of Macedonia in the fourth century B.C.; spreading it right from Greece to Persia, Egypt, Central Asia right till the North-West frontier of the Indian subcontinent as a direct result of Alexander's expansionist campaign.

There was significant change in the world of Numismatics in the wake of Alexander’s campaign when many states began adopting the Greek Attic standard of drachms (one drachm approx. 4.37 gm) under the aegis of the Seleucid Empire which rose after Alexander's death across these territories.
India too adopted the drachm as a unit of its numismatic weight system first under the Kushans (1st Century to 3rd Century A.D.) who replaced the Indo-Greek rulers of the North-Western India and then under the Imperial Gupta dynasty in the 4th Century A.D.
The drachma survived as a name of a unit of coin weight in most Indian languages till the early medieval period as ‘dramma’ which was eventually corrupted to ‘daam’ during Akbar’s reign (r.1556-1605) till it became the term for the price of an item in later day Hindi.
Thus, the Greek drachma played a seminal role in the evolution of coins of the world in its initial gestational period.
Cut to the twenty-first century, Greece is a modern state with a flourishing economy benefitting from its shipping industry, tourism, exports, etc. However, the Greek economy has seen its economy floundering under the worst ever crisis in 2009-10 causing it to lean on more prosperous and stable members of the European Union and earning their ire. Worse still, today Greece doesn’t even have its own independent currency, the Euro having replaced the indigenous drachma in 2001. This sad state of affairs is similar to Alexander's expansionism albeit the expansion is under the European Union engulfing the first super state of European civilisation, Greece.

I came across a 5 Drachma coin in my collection having inscriptions in Greek alphabet on its obverse (image on left) written from 7’0 Clock position as
‘ΕΛΛHNIKH ΔHMOKPATIA’ read as ELLENIKE DEMOKRATIA in Roman alphabet meaning ‘Hellenic Republic’ Greece’s official name today.
The centre has its denomination written as ‘5 DPAXMAI’ read as ‘5 DRACHMAI’ in Roman alphabet or plainly 5 Drachma. The date of the coin is given as 1976.

The reverse (image on right) has the image of Greek polymath, Aristotle who amongst his many other interests was also a student of another great Greek philosopher, Plato and a teacher to Alexander of Macedon. The Greek legend on the coin is spelt as
‘APIΣTOTEΛHΣ’ transliterated as ‘ARISTOTELES’ in Roman alphabet or plain ‘ARISTOTLES’

The Drachma was revived with the establishment of the modern state of Greece in 1832 and was issued in three different phases between the two world wars. The third phase coincided with Greece’s domestic crisis in the form of the rule of a military junta between 1967 and 1974.
In 1976, after the fall of the military junta and the installation of a new parliament of the Hellenic Republic, a new series of eight denomination coins carrying images of ancient heroes of the Greek nation was issued and this tiny cupro-nickel coin was a part of that historic series. Hence, this coin today represents a crisis in the world of coins where larger economic interests are subsuming indigenous coinage at a very large cost of loss of national and cultural identities.
A Pan-Asian currency, anyone?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Morocco’s M.A.D. Dirham issued in 1974 by King Hassan II

Morocco is a land with a unique history with episodes of clashes between the Western and Arabic civilisations due to its strategic location at the farthest tip of North Africa bordering with Spain and other Mediterranean countries. In the medieval period, Morocco was a part of a geo-political entity known to the Arabs as ‘Maghreb’ literally the 'Land of the setting Sun' or the Western Land including other North African countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and parts of the Western Sahara desert. Medieval geographers referred to Morocco as 'Al-Maghrib al Aqşá' 'The Farthest West', to distinguish it from it immediate neighbours in the West.
In modern times, the Moroccan government invoked this historical identity by adopting the official name ‘al-Mamlaka al Maghrebiyya’ on all its communications including its coinage.
Morocco has been ruled by the Alaouite dynasty which has ruled its territories since 1666; however, the Alaouite ruler, Sultan Abdel Hafid was forced to give up Morocco's sovereignty in 1912 turning it into a French protectorate under the Treaty of Fez.
The next rulers ruled nominally under French tutelage till Morocco regained her independence in 1956 and became a constitutional monarchy under the leadership of King Mohammad V. He was succeeded by his son, Prince Mulay Hassan who took over as King Hassan II in 1961 and ruled till his death in 1999.
I came across a coin with the legend ‘al-Mamlakatahu al-Maghrebiyya’ with the bust of a leader identified as Hassan II by the legend ‘Hassan al-Thani*' on the obverse. The coin is distinguished by a true-to-life portrait of Hassan II with a grim expression.
The reverse features Morocco's coat-of-arms with the image of two lions upholding a crown and a shield with a star against the setting sun with the crest of the symbol enshrining a Quranic verse ‘An Tansar wa Allah Yansar Kam’ meaning ‘You defend Allah and Allah will defend you’**. The reverse states the denomination as ‘Wahid Dirham’ with the Roman numeral ‘1’ denoting its value as 1 Dirham; the Moroccan dirham’s international acronym lends it a strange connotation, M.A.D. The reverse of this coin has two dates in Roman numerals flanking the coat-of-arms; its date in the Common Era, 1974 and its date in Hijri era, 1394.
Thus, this coin represents Morocco’s unique attempt to straddle between its modern and medieval identity as Morocco’s twin port cities of Casablanca and Tangier which attract hordes of Western tourists to its exotic beaches each summer, contribute to its bustling tourist economy in a major way.

*Thani means Second in Arabic
**This verse is seen on the actual coat-of-arms but is unclear on the coin’s image

Monday, August 9, 2010

Egypt and Syria’s Pan-Arabic coin under the auspices of the United Arabic Republic in 1960

The period of 1950-60s saw political movements all around the Arabic world spanning 25 countries contained in the West Asia and North African regions to unite against the rising power of Zionist Israel under the banner of Pan-Arabism. The proponents of Pan-Arabism, alternatively called Arabic nationalism, viewed the world as divided into two parts, Arabic and non-Arabic and aimed to unite it all Arabic countries under a utopian welfare state with socialism as their main ideology.
The most practical political achievement of this movement was the formation of political federations which were united against common enemies and interests. One such union was between Egypt and Syria under the auspices of the United Arabic Republic which began in 1958 under the leadership of the dynamic Egyptian leader, President Gamal Abdel Nasser and ended prematurely with the exit of Syria in 1961.
I came across a coin with the Arabic legend ‘al-Jamhooriyat al-Arabiya Mutahidah’ on its obverse (see left image) in the upper line which is translated as ‘United Arabic Republic’ making it amply clear that the coin was a joint issue of Egypt and Syria under U.A.R.
The central legend ascribes the denomination ’10 Qirush’ which was a sub-unit of the Eqyptian pound as 1 Egyptian Pound was equal to 100 Qirush.
This Qirush is similar to the Ghirsh of the Saudi Arabian Riyal which we have discussed in the post of Saudi Arabia and is a remnant of the earlier Ottoman currency unit, Kuruş which in turn came from the Italian/Venetian silver Grossi, a coin which was the trade currency of the Middle East prior to the Venetian gold ducat or sequins in the early medieval era.
An interesting feature of this coin is inclusion of the term ‘Suriyya’, the Arabic name of Syria, after the ‘10 Qirush’ indicating that this coin was probably issued for exclusive circulation in Syria only.
The geopolitics of the U.A.R. doesn’t interests us here; however, it is interesting to know that the adoption of a common currency would have bound the two states for a longer period; however such a provincial approach to currency points to the fact that the leaders of the two countries were well aware of the temporary nature of the union.
The reverse of the coin shows the coat-of-arms which displays an eagle known as ‘the Eagle of Saladin*’ bearing a shield against its chest with two stars; perched on the legend, ‘al-Jamhooriya al-Arabiyya Muttahidah’ (partially erased on this coin) and the year in common era 1960 on the left and in the Hijri era 1380 on the right in Arabic numerals.
The 10 Qirush coin is a small denomination and was probably exchanged as small change in the Syrian territory for tea or small snack in 1960s. Today, we see that the Syrian Arabic Republic has adopted a variant of the emblem** as its coat-of-arms with a Syrian Hawk known as ‘Hawk of Qureish’ with the two stars intact albeit with two notable differences, the hawk’s head is turned to the right as opposed to left on our coin and the name of the republic has been changed to ‘al-Jamhooriyat al-Arabiyya Suriyya’ pointing to the evolution begun by this coin during its heyday in the markets of Damascus.

* the legendary medieval ruler of Egypt and Syria
**The evolution of this emblem can be seen on the link

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Iraqi 10 Fils Coin from the Hasshemite dynasty period issued by Ghazi I

I wish to present another Iraqi coin with the side profile of a ruler as a special feature in direct contrast to the Republican coin of the previous post. My hunch was that it was a ruler from the Hasshemite dynasty who ruled Iraq for four decades between and after the two World Wars.
My hunch proved to be correct as the legend flanking the right side of the king’s profile on the obverse side read ‘Ghazi al-Awwal’ i.e. ‘Ghazi the First' proving that this coin was issued in the reign of King Ghazi I who ruled Iraq in the crucial period preceding the World War II.
Ghazi I was the only son of King Faisal I who was the first Hasshemite ruler hailing from the clan of hereditary Sharifs of Mecca. Ghazi assumed regal authority in 1933 on the death of Faisal I and ruled Iraq till his untimely death in 1939 at the young age of 27 in a mysterious car crash; rumoured to be engineered by his all powerful Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said.
Coming back to the coin in question, its reverse side has legends neatly divided into five segments; the central circle ascribes the denomination of 10 fils to the coin; the two side legends flanking the circle state the date, the left one 1938 in the common era and the right one, 1357 in Hijri era albeit in Arabic numerals; the upper and lower legends restate ‘al Mulkah al Iraqiyah’.
The coin is a nickel one and was minted at the Royal Mint, London reflecting the close relations between the Hasshemite regime and the British even after their exit.
Iraq did not submerge into anarchy after Ghazi's death because his 3 year old son, Faisal II was installed with Ghazi's cousin, Abd’allah serving as the Regent. Faisal II took over the throne after coming of age in 1953. However, he was killed in cold blood along with other members of the royal family after the coup d’état by General Abd’al Karim Qassim hailed as the ‘14th July Revolution’ ended the four decade long Hasshemite rule over Iraq.
10 Fils is a very small denomination as the Iraqi currency in Ghazi’ s regime had the following sub-units;
1 Dinar = 5 Riyals = 20 Dirham = 1000 Fils
However, a small coin like the above, despite its low value, has again proved to be an invaluable tool for retracing the path of History in its own inimitable way.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Iraqi Coin from Pre-Saddam Revolutionary Regime of Abdul Karim Qassim (1958-1963)

A coin in my collection has a unique symbol of a starry Sun with a pair of swords on the inner circle with a sheaf of wheat at the centre (Left Image). Another interesting feature is a finely etched date read as ‘14 Tammuz 1958’ in the lower line making it very intriguing. The obverse inscription ‘al-Jamhooriyat al-Iraq’ (in the upper line) meaning ‘Republic of Iraq’ makes it amply clear that it is an Iraqi coin; other features on the obverse include the denomination ‘10 Falus’ and two dates ‘1959 and ‘1379’ in Arabic numerals.

However, I soon reasoned that the former is the date of the coin in Christian era i.e. 1959 A.D. and the latter its Hijri era equivalent i.e. 1379 A.H.
However, a search for Iraq’s connection with 1958 produced more interesting results; Iraq had a Revolution on 14 July 1958 which deposed its ruling monarchy of Hasshemite dynasty through an armed coup executed by a group of army officers with numerous grievances against the decadent regime.
In modern consciousness, Iraq and its History has come to be conveniently divided into two neat blocks; Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the post-Saddam Hussein American occupation era; clearly overlooking the fact that the country has an ancient past stretching right from the Sumerian civilisation c. 4000 B.C. (which invented the world’s first writing system) till the medieval Islamic period of Abbasid Caliphate who established Baghdad as their capital city in A.D. 761. However, this golden period of Islamic culture came to an end when the Mongol warlord, Hulagu (Halaku) Khan massacred the last Abbasid Caliph, al-Musta’sim in A.D. 1257 and ended the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq.
Iraq was then subjected to a host of foreign invasions from the Mongols to Ottomans in fourteenth century who ruled it directly or by proxy till Iraq’s first invasion by a Western power, the British after the Ottomans lost to British in World War I; leading to Iraq’s inferior status as a British protectorate for over a decade and half.

The British left Iraq in 1932 under the care of a monarchy headed by King Faisal I who founded the Hasshemite dynasty which ruled Iraq till July 14 1958 when a group of army officers overthrew King Faisal II under the leadership of Brigadier General Abd’al Karim Qassim.

The coup was later celebrated by Qassim’s regime as ‘July 14 Revolution’. Qassim took over as the Prime Minister of Iraq and initiated a host of reforms in various fields like agriculture, women's rights and education; he ruled till his downfall and death after a coup by the Ba’ath Party in 1963.
The ‘Sun with two sabre and sheaf of wheat’ emblem was adopted by Qassim’s regime as Iraq’s State emblem carefully avoided any Pan-Arabic or religious symbol and represents the regime’s reformist agenda as reflected by the sheaf of wheat.

This coin thus in all probability symbolises a free and progressive Iraq which died a premature death at the hands of the Ba’ath Party supremacists who soon began to suppress all discontent like any dictatorial regime. It is anybody's guess if Iraq would have been a better place had the Qassim regime been allowed to pursue its progressive agenda peacefully!
Image of state emblem courtesy: wikipedia