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Dirhams, Sultans, Crusaders and the Pope

Today's post wanders into the middle ages during the time of the crusades. The crusades were a series of wars between Christians and Muslims to gain control of holy sites in Jerusalem that both groups considered sacred. Eight major expeditions took place between 1096 and 1291. These coins that I am trying to make sense of and sharing today are all silver dirhams (a.k.a. dirhems) from the 13th century. These are not coins that I collect, but I have accumulated a few.

The crusades began with a request for support in AD 1095 from Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to Pope Urban II. Byzantium had lost territory to the Seljuk Turks and Alexius asked for mercenaries to defend against the Turkish threat. Here is an Aspron Trachy of Alexius I Comnenus.

Byzantine, Alexius I Comnenus, AD 1081-1118, Constantinople, BI Aspron Trachy, 29mm, 3.30g

Obv: Nimbate Christ enthroned facing, wearing pallium and colobium, holding book of Gospels in left hand; [IC-XC] across fields

Rev: + ΑΛ ΔЄC, bust facing, wearing crown and jewelled chlamys, holding cruciform sceptre and globus cruciger.

Alexius I Comnenus, AD 1081-1118, Æ Tetarteron, (20mm, 3.06g, 12h). Constantinople mint

Obv: Crowned facing bust, wearing loros, holding cruciform and globus cruciger

Rev: Jeweled cross with central saltire and globule at end of each extremity set on two steps, C / AΛ - Φ / Δ in quarters across field

Bust of the emperor facing. Reverse with, in the quadrants of a jeweled cross:

Legend: C - a lunate "S" =

ΣΤAYΡЄ ΦΥΛATTЄ translated "O Cross, Protect"

ЄΞION ΔЄCΠOTH translated "Alexius Despot"

Ref: DOC 40; SB 1931

The metal on this next coin is a bit unusual; is it a fouree? or perhaps some copper from a long time buried in a pile? a low silver coin with some sort of leaching effect? It appears to be an imitation, either a contemporary counterfeit or a crusader imitation of an Islamic dirham from AD 1236-59. In the 1870s numismatists recognized that some (many?) of the Islamic coins were minted by crusaders for use in trade.

Islamic, Ayyubids, al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf II, Prince of Aleppo, 634-658 AH 1236-1259 AD, BALOG 755 (655 AH), AR Dirham, six-pointed-star type, Halab (Aleppo) mint.

There are anachronisms in the dates and style differences that can be used to distinguish these coins. However they are often high quality and hard to distinguish. The practice continued for many years. In the Spring 1250, Odo of Chateauroux from the Court of Louis the IXth of France, was scandalized by the idea that the Franks were minting coins professing Muslim faith and the name of Mohammad and dated from the birth of Mohammad. He wrote to Pope Innocent IV to inform him and stopped immediately the issuance of Arabic coins.

The crusaders, however, still needed coins for trade. They tried minting coins in 1251 in Arabic with Christian legends and some with crosses. This coin is an example from a 2018 Leu Web Auction; 4 Lot 1335 (not my coin):

In AD 1253, a letter from Pope Innocent arrived in Syria and called out the practice as unworthy and abominable, and forbade the practice of minting coins with the name of Mohammad and with date based on his birth. Excommunication was the consequence for violations.

Nos igitur, attendentes non solum indignum esse, sed etiam abominabile hujus modi blasphemum nomen tam solemnae mémoriae commendare, mandamus quatenus sententiam ipsam facias auctoritate nostra, sublato appellationis obstaculo, inviolabiliter observari.

Roughly translated: We therefore, maintain that is is not only undignified, but indeed abominable to commit in this way to solemn memory this blasphemous name, and we mandate by our authority that this sentence be imposed, stricktly observed without option of appeal.
- Letter of Pope Innocent IV, from Perugia in his 10th year as pope (AD 1253)

Hoard evidence suggests that dirhams weren't accepted by Muslims. The crusaders found a compromise, and began again to mint coins imitating Ayyubid dirhams, with a modest change to a non-sectarian legend in the margins "In the name of God, the Merciful, the compassionate" on the reverse (Bates Type V or VI) - this legend worked well for both Christian and Muslim. It is not clear how they evaded the Hijira date problem but it may have been by using a fictitious date not based on the birth of Mohammad, or alternatively they reached a compromise with Odo.

Crusader coin imitating AR Dirhem or Ayyubid al-Salih I Isma'il, mint Acre Israel ~AD 1252-1253 (Bates Type V or VI)

Here are two additional coins that are crusader imitations of dirhams from Ayyubid Sultan al-Salih Isma'il and Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir from Damascus.

This coin appears to be a genuine islamic dirham of al-Salih Isma'il from Dimashq (Damascus), citing the caliph al-Mustasim and Ayyubid overlord al-Salih Ayyub.

This next coin, from a few years earlier, comes with an interesting story of St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan Mohammad al-Kamil.

Islam, Artuqids of Mardin, Nasir ad-Din Artuq Arslan (597 - 637 AH / AD 1201 - 1239), AR dirhem (silver), 628 AH, Dunaysir mint (or Kayfa mint?)

Obv: In the six-pointed star mention of the superior ruler Al-Kamil Muhammad, title and name; outside mint and year

Rev: In the six-pointed star the title and name of the caliph al-Mustansir; outside Kalima

Ref: Album 1831.1;

Dunaysir is a city south of Mardin, the coin is of the hexagram type, Ayyubid style with the Ayyubid al-Kamil Muhammad cited as overlord. When it comes to Ayyubid dirhams - this last coin is a well struck, well tones, well preserved, and beautiful example.

Early Medieval & Islamic, Islamic, Ayyubids, Egypt, al-Kamil I Muhammad, AH 615-635 / AD 1218-1238, Dirham (Silver, 22mm, 3.00g, 10h), citing the caliph al-Kamil I Muhammad, Dimashq, AH 618 = AD 1221/2. Balog, Ayyubids, 430.

Al-Kamil is known as a just and compassionate ruler who sought peace with the crusaders, and peaceful co-existence for Christians and Muslims. He is also said to have met for peaceful dialog with St. Francis of Assisi during the 5th crusade ~1219 AD. He negotiated a peace treaty in 1229 with Frederick II King of Sicily, ceding Jerusalem while retaining other rights and holy sites. There is a PBS documentary that tells the story of the influence of St. Francis' encounter with Sultan al-Kamil called "The Sultan & the Saint".

Francis expected to be martyred for preaching to the Sultan, here a report from Tommaso da Celano (c. 1185 – c. 1265), a contemporary follower of Francis:

"Prima di giungere al Sultano, i suoi sicari l’afferrarono, l’insultarono, lo sferzarono, ed egli non temette nulla: né minacce, né torture, né morte; e sebbene investito dall’odio brutale di molti, eccolo accolto dal Sultano con grande onore! Questi lo circondava di favori regalmente e, offrendogli molti doni, tentava di convertirlo alle ricchezze del mondo; ma, vedendolo disprezzare tutto risolutamente come spazzatura, ne rimase profondamente stupito, e lo guardava come un uomo diverso da tutti gli altri. Era molto commosso dalle sue parole e lo ascoltava molto volentieri. Ma in tutte queste cose il Signore non concedeva il compimento del desiderio del Santo, riservandogli il privilegio di una grazia singolare."
- Tommaso da Celano, Vita Prima di San Francesco, 1.21.57 

Translation: "Before reaching the Sultan, the Sultan's men grabbed, insulted, whipped him (St. Francis), and throughout he feared nothing: neither threats, nor torture, nor death; and although hated by many, he is welcomed by the Sultan with great honor! The Sultan surrounded him with royal favors and, offering him many gifts, tried to convert him to the riches of the world; but, seeing him despise all resolutely as rubbish, he was profoundly astonished, and looked at him as a man unlike any other. He was very moved by his words and listened to him willingly. In all these things the Lord did not grant the fulfillment of the desire of the Saint (for martyrdom), reserving him the privilege of a singular grace (stigmata)."

Here's an additional Ayyubid AR Dirham from al-Adil Abu Bakr II (AH 635-637 = AD 1238-1239), son of al-Kamil, who was deposed by his half-brother, As-Salih Ayyub, and died in prison 8 years later.

Ayyubid dirham from Damascus, citing al-Adil Abu Bakr II (AH 635-637 = AD 1238-1239) and the Abbasid caliph al-Mustansir.

Note: "It is not surprising to find the somewhat risque nude figure on Dhaki's basin made for al-'Adil II whose boisterous living and loose morals have been recorded by Muslim historians with unanimous disapproval." Rice, D. S. (1957). Inlaid Brasses from the Workshop of Aḥmad al-Dhakī al-Mawṣilī. Ars Orientalis, 2, 283–326.

The Ayyubid Dynasty came to an end after Al Salih Ayyub's widow, Queen Shajar al Dur declared her independence in 648 (from the last Ayyubid ruler, al Ashraf Musa (a child to whom she was regent). The Bahri and Burji Maluk's ruled until AH 922 when they were overcome by the Ottoman Empire. This last coin is a humble AE fals from AH 762-3 Al Mansur Salah al din Muhammed.

Zeno #59455: Mamluk AE fals, Muhammad II, Dimashq, 762-763? AH (BCE 1361-63).

This coin from the last of the Bahri (of the River) Maluks in 791-792 AH - Hajji II subsequent rulers were all Burji Mamluks (of the Fort)

Zeno #294906: Mamluk AE Fals, Hajji II, Dimashq, 791\2AH.

and for fun - try the Arabic Caligraphy Generator:

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (spelled phonetically in Arabic)


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Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Jan 07, 2023

Magnificent post, Sulla. The combination of enlightening detail, documentation and --not least-- concision is truly admirable.

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