The history of Islamic coins showcased in major Abu Dhabi exhibition
Wednesday, 12 February 2020
HH Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahya and Dr. Alain Baron during the inauguration of the exhibition “Coins of Islam: History Revealed” on 28 January 2020, Abu Dhabi.
Have you ever looked at a coin and wondered about the story it could tell? While it is still early days for cryptocurrencies and the virtual coins which may revolutionise our monetary system in the near future, good old physical coins offer us a unique glimpse into history’s greatest empires.
It’s an untampered recollection of the past which can teach us about rulers, historical dates, events and places eternalised in gold silver or bronze.
At the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, we met with Dr. Alain Baron, who guided us through the exhibition “Coins of Islam: History Revealed”, which he curated.
The exhibition, which opened on 28 January and runs until 28 April 2020, showcases one of the world’s most significant collections of Arab and Islamic coinage ever assembled, many of which have never been seen in public before. It aims to provide visitors with a unique insight and perspective into the past, and the historical developments that have and continue to shape our world today.
The exhibition, which is made up of 300 rare pieces, is divided into six sections and takes the visitor along a discovery of the history, development and variety of Islamic coinage.
Dr. Baron is an expert in the domain of numismatics; the study or collection of currency, and he is the perfect guide to introduce us to the matter.
Amidst times where the world faces great challenges on diversity, migration and co-existence, the Mosque aims to tell a story about tolerance, which is one of the themes in the exhibition. After a long lasting ten years of research, the collection managed to gather no fewer than 300 pieces. The influences of diverse cultures depicted on these coins supports that narrative.
A walk through the exhibition
The exhibition aims to spark the interest of visitors in six sections. The first three parts tell us about coins before, during and across Islamic dynasties.
In the 7th and 8th century CE, during the Arab conquests, Roman (Byzanthian) gold and copper pieces and Persian (Sassanian) Silver pieces remained standard currency. In addition to being a means of payment, coins were also a symbol of sovereignty which gave credibility and confidence in the ruler that had issued the coins and the metal in which they were minted. Occupied territories did not necessarily accept their new rulers quickly or were particularly keen to adopt a new currency.
In order to introduce a different coinage, the rulers gradually altered the Roman pieces by removing Christian symbols and adding Arabic text, which slowly allowed the new population to get familiarised with the change of rule. It took until 696 CE before the first purely Arabic coin was minted by Abd al-Malik, the Dinar.
History’s first purely Islamic coin, first minted between 696-697 CE by the Umayyad caliph Abd El Malik Al Marwan. The new dinars replaced all pictorial designs with Arabic inscriptions taken from the Quran.
The Dinar, by then the representation of the strong Arabic empire, established a footprint in the financial world from Spain to China. Attracted by the success of the Dinar, other countries followed suit and copied the coin. The acceptance of the Dinar was a recognition of the established Arab powers. From an economical point of view, the Arab world was well integrated in the international trade of that time.
Depictions on coins
After a fascinating history, we go further into the fourth part were we see that not only do coins immortalise their rulers, they also record local habits and show how cultural heritage travels the world. In the 18th century, for example, a Count named Karl Willem Friedrich was so obsessed about the antique art of falconry that he depicted it on a coin. The original sport discipline originally came from Mesopotamia and later had an impact on the German Count.
Coin depicting Falconry in Islam a thousand years ago, a hobby which was practised by various cultures and civilisations across centuries. Very little if any artworks have survived from this period, and coins have become an important document that record key aspects of Arab culture at the time.
Coin minted by Count Karl Wilhelm Friedrich (1729-1757), which showcases a hooded hunting falcon perched in a landscape, and stork flying above it.
All of the spices and incense which were consumed in Rome came from the Arabic world via Syria. As means of transportation for commerce, the most significant in the Middle-East was the camel. It gradually replaced the wheeled forms of transportation as camel-herders got an increasingly important roll in the economy of the region. When we take a closer look at the coin that came from the short reign of Uranius Antonius in Syria, we see on its back side a representation of our four-legged and double humped friend.
Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, a fierce supporter on women’s rights in the United Arabic Emirates, has also left her marks on this exhibition. In that regard, a section of the exhibition dedicated to strong and influential women, could not be left unnoticed. In honor of Zubaydah bint Jafar (766-831 CE), coins commemorate her investments into an aqueduct and roads in order to overcome a devastating drought, as well as her efforts to improve the conditions of pilgrims going to Mecca.
Coin commerorating Zubaydah bint Jafar.
We end the exhibition with newly minted coins from the UAE. Not all coins have to be in circulation as a means of payment. Sometimes they are there instead to honour places or people who have accomplished great achievements, like medallions. The Mosque, a landmark of the UAE which took ten years to construct, aspires for a tolerant, open view on the world and is now commemorated on its own coin.
Coins commemorating the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the founders of the Emirate.
The different coins do not only represent (economical) power, but also draw a very humanistic picture of the evolving states and the interests of people and populations. It shows how nations are fleeting but people’s traditions and legends are passed onto the next generations, across borders. An increased knowledge about our joint history could inspire us in times where isolationism is still an ongoing trend.