September 2017 e-Newsletter

Looking at vintage coins to understand Islamic history

Jere L. Bacharach is one of those historians who looks at vintage coins to understand Islamic history. During his research of numismatic data, he discovered that the regular gold dinars and silver dirhams issued by the Ikhshidid rulers of Egypt and Palestine (935–69) followed a series of understood but unwritten rules.

The revised and expanded digital edition of his book, Islamic History through Coins: An Analysis and Catalogue of Tenth-Century Ikhshidid Coinage (AUC Press, 2015) offers an astonishing investigation into the world of Islamic history through the study of coins.

In this recent interview Bacharach, emeritus professor of Middle Eastern history at Washington University, talks about what he describes as his love for “the challenge of interpreting ‘signs’” to decipher the past and understand the present. 

How fascinating is research of numismatic data, the study and collection of currency?

For me what makes coinage and paper money fascinating is that when a new “type” is produced, at that moment in time, there were reasons that the ruler (or his representatives) included new images or words on the coinage. It is also true that the reasons these new images or words were included are rarely recorded anywhere and, even if they were, they are quickly forgotten. The “new” coinage continues being minted with only the date changing at which point it is not as interesting to me.

The challenge as an historian is to figure out why these changes took place and what they may mean. For example, modern Egyptian piaster coins can be divided into three different sets of 10 piaster coins with images of the pyramids (a symbol associated only with Egypt), a mosque (if you knew the architecture of Cairo very well you would know it is the Muhammad Ali mosque), and then for the same valued coin, a mosque lamp which is a symbol associated with Islam but not limited to Egypt. Why? What does this tell us about the priorities of the Egyptian government the first year each new coin type was struck?

 Today in Egypt there are one pound and 50 piaster coins but whose image is on them? The pound note has the death mask of a Pharaoh but is it King Tut or just a generic ancient ruler?  For the 50-piaster piece who is the unknown woman, Queen Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, etc.? The images are unique to Egypt but the government felt no need to label them. Why?



The author in Tashkent examining Central Asian Ikhshidid coins (2005)

In what ways is the understanding of history and in particular Islamic history, different, when looking at it specifically through the examination of coinage?

Coinage, unlike most other forms of material culture such as ceramics, metal work, etc., can often be tied to a time and place—an era, a dynasty, a ruler, a mint or city where it was struck, and a date. This is particularly true for Islamic coinage which often included inscriptions with the name of a ruler with which a dynasty can be associated, the name of the city in which it was produced and an Islamic date. 

Coinage, unlike many other forms of historical remains, should never be examined in isolation. Without additional data from narrative accounts, archives or other sources, relying only on the coins themselves can lead to totally erroneous conclusions. There is a famous Roman coin which shows two knives on either side of a skull cap with the date “Ides of March,” the date on which Brutus participated in the assassination of Julius Caesar. If you had no other information you could conclude the coin was struck as an attack on Brutus, which would be entirely wrong. The coin was struck by Brutus’s order and it is his defense of liberty (the Roman Republic symbolized by the cap).


Why did you narrow your focus only on tenth-century Ikhshidid coinage?

In 1971 I met the late Egyptian medical doctor, Dr. Henri Amin Awad. He had received some Islamic coins taken from the historical area of Fustat and given to him in exchange for his treating these very poor patients and he asked me to co-publish an article about them. They were minted by the Ikhshidid dynasty which ruled Egypt 935–969. In terms of the big picture the dynasty is unimportant but the more I worked on the coinage, particularly as I started collecting references from catalogues, sale lists, and even visiting museums, I discovered that the Ikhshidid coinage allowed me to learn things about the dynasty which I had never found in an historical text or modern study of them.


Who were the Ikhshidid rulers and what were the specificities of their gold, silver, and copper coins?

The Ikhshidids were a family dynasty of Central Asian origin whose founder was born in Iraq while his grandfather came from the Ferghana Valley, probably in modern Uzbekistan.  The founder, Muhammad ibn Tughj ibn Juff bought the fancy Central Asian title, al-Ikhshid, by paying the caliph in Baghdad.  Since he was al-Ikhshid, the dynasty became known as the Ikhshidids. (Khedive Ismail bought his fancy Persian title from the Ottoman sultan the same way!)

.  Regular gold dinars and silver dirhams which were struck by many medieval Muslim dynasties for over 1,000 years tended to follow forms established by the Umayyads and then Abbasids and were probably influenced by the ulama’s interpretation of what proper gold and silver coins should look like, e.g. no human images, etc. Copper was not held to the same standards.

There were also coins struck for special occasions such as weddings, gifts to the caliph, etc. which modern scholars call commemorative or presentation pieces for which there is no known word from the medieval Islamic period. The intellectual challenge is to figure out why all these pieces were originally struck because they soon became part of the circulating mass of struck coinage and lost any historical meaning.

  Because of the supply of raw metals for a geographic area, certain areas in certain historic times struck more coins in gold, silver or copper than other areas.  There are virtually no copper coins from Egypt and Syria under the Ikhshidids while the Umayyads struck many copper coins in Egypt.


What are some of the first things you noticed when you examined the currency from the Ikhshidid dynasty? 

From the beginning of the study of Islamic coins, catalogues grouped coins by the name of the dynasty associated with the ruler whose name appeared on the coinage.  The first Fatimid coins had the name of the first Fatimid caliph, while the first Ayyubid ones included Saladin’s name, but the period between the 4th century and 10th century created problems because several rulers such as the Tulunids and Ikhshidids in Egypt, Samanids in Iran and Central Asia, and others, controlled lands technically part of the Abbasid Empire but didn’t put their name or titles on their coinage when they started ruling.

For example, Muhammad ibn Tughj al-Ikhshid started ruling Egypt in 323/935 but didn’t add his title al-Ikhshid until the beginnings of the 330s/940s although he had acquired it a few years earlier.  All catalogues list all the earlier coinage as Abbasid and only Ikhshidid when his title was inscribed.  When there were presentation pieces which were struck by him before he put al-Ikhshid on the issues, they are listed as Ikhshidid. 

My attitude was that when a governor established a semi-independent government, all the coinage was “his.”  Therefore, my study of Ikhshidid coinage, unlike every other academic publication, begins with 324 Hijra.

 One of the first things I discovered was that each member of the Ikhshidid family who ruled used a different part of their name on the coinage.  Muhammad ibn Tughj held the “laqab” or prestigious honorific title of al-Ikhshid and he put that on his coinage.  When his older son succeeded him, he listed his name by his “kunya = father of…” which is the next most distinguished way a person could be addressed if they didn’t have their own “laqab.”  The son could do this because he had met the Abbasid caliph who called him by his “kunya.”  This son was followed by his younger brother, Ali, who lacked both a “laqab” and had not met the caliph, so he could only use his birth name (“ism”) Ali on his coinage.  Ali was followed by Kafur, the most famous African eunuch in medieval Islamic history who was not a biological member of the Ikhshidid family.  He only put a “k” on his coinage.  What I learned from the coinage which was never recorded in any historical account was that there was a hierarchy of titles on coins.  Discovering this was fun.


When was the concept of monetary zones, where particular coinage for particular geographic areas, introduced in Islamic history?

A monetary zone means that similar looking coinage can be used in a wide range of lands/countries without reading any of the inscriptions.  Everyone who travels in Western and Central Europe uses Euros irrespective of which country the individual coin was struck in.  At the same time, we know that Egyptian pound coins which look vaguely like a Euro are not part of the same monetary zone.  What I did was to look at the visual layout of medieval coins to see if there were design differences which I could easily note without reading a word of Arabic.  The coins of the Arabian Peninsula didn’t look like Abbasid ones which meant I had found two monetary zones.

In the book you say “arguing in the absence of evidence is always a dangerous approach.” How do you get around such an obstacle in numismatic research and how careful are you then to draw conclusions about this or that coin not existing?

In my introduction, I tell how many years ago I argued in an article that the Ikhshidid rulers did not recognize on their coinage the overthrow of a specific caliph and his replacement by another family member. I argued that after looking at over 1,300 coins I had never seen one for that year with the name of the second person. A few years later I was in Aleppo at the home of a coin collector. He showed me this one coin and I shouted “it doesn’t exist; I wrote in an article it doesn’t!” I then explained to him that the inscription with the mint and date proved I was wrong. His concern was “how much is the coin worth?” I replied “not very much but for a scholar it proves you can’t make a case because the evidence is lacking.”  For those who remember Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the US invasion of Iraq based on the lack of evidence, my point holds special meaning.


This is a revised edition. Did you find errors in the previous manuscript or are you suggesting better interpretations of the data with this new volume?

Books, particularly catalogues, will always have errors. Some are typos and some are a result of new scholarship. In my case one of my errors was a result of mixing up two images. In another book I wrote a major error was caught before it went to press when I, along with many other scholars, attributed a coin to the wrong dynasty.  When books are printed, it is too expensive to correct and/or update them. The second edition has some new data which required interpreting but I won’t claim it was significant.


Is this book intended essentially for scholars or also dealers, collectors, and curators?

I tried to write this book for many audiences and may have partially succeeded. Islamic numismatic books are notoriously dull and there isn’t one I could recommend to introduce colleagues and students to the subject. I was thrilled when last month a professor in Malaysia requested permission to use my first chapter as an introduction to Islamic coinage for her classes. This was one of my goals in writing the book.

 The second objective was to demonstrate how much one could learn about Ikhshidid rule through a careful study of their coinage. While I am satisfied with my results, the reality is that so little time is spent on teaching about the Ikhshidids, most instructors don’t care.

 The third priority was to create a reference catalog with every known specimen I could locate listed and here I was successful. Curators, collectors, and auction houses use my book as their basic reference for attributing Ikhshidid coinage. There is even one sales catalog which lists the earlier Ikhshidid coinage as pseudo-Abbasid, another success.


What do you love about coins?

I really don’t “love” coins and I am not a collector.  What I love is the challenge of interpreting “signs” when I see them and coins and paper money is one form but I also look at buildings and billboards to see what visual messages they are trying to send and how would I interpret them.


Bacharach is also the editor of The Restoration and Conservation of Islamic Monuments in Egypt (AUC Press, 1995) and Fustat Finds: Beads, Coins, Medical Instruments, Textiles, and Other Artifacts from the Awad Collection (AUC Press, 2001).

May 2017


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