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Reading Arabic Coins

"Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation of Charlemagne in Baghdad", oil on canvas by Julius Köckert (1827–1918), 1864, held by the Maximilianeum Foundation in Munich. Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I have Richard Plant's "An Introduction to Arabic Coins and How to Read Them" in my Kindle library. I've gone through it a few times (without doing the exercises) and I am sill frustratingly bad a reading even the basics of most coins..

If I make a small attempt each day, eventually, my expectation is that I should start to be able to read the inscriptions on Islamic coins more easily.  I have to admit that it still feels more like identifying shapes that reading...some words and names are starting to be easy to see.

I will share two coins in today's post with my attempts to read. Here is the first coin of interest: an Abbasid Dirham. This animated GIF is the result of my effort to read a single coin and recognize the words fully (including dates which are generally written out in words) e.g. "two, ninety, one hundred" for 192 AH.

The Coin

The coin issued at the time of Harun al-Rashid, the caliph famously featured in the fictional tales of One Thousand and One Nights.

Abbasids, time of al-Rashid, AR Dirham (2.8g, 21mm), Madinat al-Salam mint (Baghdad), AH 192 = AD 808.

Obv: Kalima in three lines across field; date formula around

Rev: Continuation of kalima in three lines across field; Qur'an IX, 33 in outer margin.

Ref: Album 219.2

Here's the animated of the translation of the Obverse:

Here's the animated translation of the Reverse:

The word "I-mush'rikuna" translated here as "polytheists" needs a bit of explanation. The polytheists are those who recognize other gods, and could also be translated as "idolators" or "pagans" or "disbelievers".

Fast forward 6-7 centuries and we have my second coin of interest. This coin was more difficult to identify (and ultimately it was only with expert help that I was able to get the riddle of this coin solved). I could only read the obverse - which has the Kalima. This doesn't give any clue to timing or rulers beyond style of calligraphy and fabric of the coin..

This coin was interesting for it's five "vanes" on the obverse and "quatrefoil" on the reverse. Knowing that these are called "vanes" in Steve Album's Checklist of Islamic Coins narrows down the options. The word "vane" only appears 8 times in the whole catalog (as "vaned" and "vanes"). That said, I tried searching for "blades", "lobes" and a few other words before getting pointed in the right direction.

There are silver Tankas of the Derbendids (Sharwan Shahs), Album# 2470, from the time of Khalil Allah I, AH 821-867 / AD 1418-1463 with a similar patters, but weighing more that my coin and with a fabric and obverse legends that are very different. (not my coin - from Leu Web Auction 26)

Looking at my coin the first thing I see is :

Although there are some stray lines in red that I can't explain other than an engraver who wasn't very good or some flourishes. Here's a cleaner version from another coin:

The next element that stands out for me:

I enjoy this style of script with its elongated letters and flourishes, although it takes seeing a few before the mapping to محمد becomes understandable.

The next element (at this point expected line of the Kalima) which seems fairly easy to see even with the sloppy calligraphy of this coin:

and the last elements are the names in the four lobes of the quatrefoil which I am expecting as the names of the first four caliphs, i.e. the "rightly guided" caliphs because they learned directly from Muhammad. Abū Bakr/'Umar/'Uthman/'Ali

only two are visible which I see as:

These elements, I am seeing with more expectation than ability to read letters and I am pondering questions like:

- are the four caliphs always ordered on coins in chronological order?

- does this engraver just have really bad handwriting?


Here is an example with much neater calligraphy from a coin of Abu Sa'id.

Unfortunately the reverse of my coin goes beyond my ability to decipher the words and it is only with help that I was able to get the right attribution (Jalayrids, Sulta Husayn I, 1374-1382) a few years earlier than the coins of the Derbendids (Sharwan Shahs).

Jalayrids: Sultan Husayn I, 1374-1382, AR dinar (2.78g), AH 780-783, AR 2 dinars (variant of A-2308.3 and Zeno 53369)...the mint is potentially Hamadan (حمدان) based on Zeno 78353, rather coarsely engraved, undated, Zeno #83055 (this coin).

Mint not present would be on the reverse between lines of kalima:

type TC : five-vaned pattern / quatrefoil, kalima within

Album notes: "The date is engraved in minuscule words between the five vanes, often so wretchedly as to be utterly illegible"

"Jalãl al-Dïn Husain b. Uwais 776-84 AH / AD 1374-82

At the death of Uwais, his eldest son was put to death by the nobles,
and Husain, the younger son, placed on the throne at Tabriz. Driven
out of his capital for four months by the Muzaffari Shãh Shujãc, he
was opposed by his brother fAli (of whom we have no coins), and
killed by another brother, Ahmad, in Safar 784 / April-May 1382"
-Rabino (NC 1950) 

Plate IX showing a similar coin from BMC Oriental Vol VI. 616 in BMS is a coin from Hamadan. 615-617 are all described as "similar to 614" and differ in their mint.

In theory the inscriptions in the 5 vanes should be (from top, counterclockwise, the missing vane in parenthesis):

في دولة



جلال الدين

حسين خان

and at center:

خلد ملكه

(fi dawla / al-sultan / al-a'zam / Jalal al-Din / Husayn khan // khallad mulkahu)

The fun surprise - my coin is the coin shown on zeno and was uploaded originally on 17-March-2010 where it has had nearly 200 views. Zeno where this coin is registered and 83055 did not provide any clues on the legends, and without expert help I would never have found these references. Even with the text - mapping the expected text to what I see on my coin takes a lot of squinting and imagination.

Although the rarity of this coin drew me in, I think for the purposes of trying to read what is on the coin, I will stick with the more legible Abbasid Dirhams...


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