O’Brien Coin Guide: An Introduction to Medieval Islamic coins found in Ireland


Introduction

Arabic, or Islamic, coins are frequently mentioned in the archaeological literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but there are few accounts that discuss these beautiful coins as a group – which probably reflects our preoccupation for coins with Latin inscriptions. They are found at many dig sites and their ‘deposition dates’ show a spread over most of the early medieval period in Ireland, i.e. the Viking Age. As such, they represent an important part of our numismatic history.

The ancient coins of the western cultures copy that of the Hellenistic (Greek) tradition insofar as they feature beautiful symbols and portraits but the ancient Chinese and Arabic cultures preferred the art of calligraphy for their coins.  Greek and Roman coins are often considered as objects of art comparable to sculpture or painting but the ancient Islamic authorities initially created coins as text documents.

  • Early Islamic coins are anonymous, containing parts of the Qur’an, the Divine Revelation, and the necessary administrative information.
    • Later on, they added names of caliphs, sultans, kings, governors
    • Some even name the die- engravers (moneyers)

islamic coins

  1. DINAR – Umayyads, Damascus / Syria; dated 93 H (AD 711-12)
  2. DIRHAM – Umayyads, Kufa / lraq; dated 79 H (AD 698-99)
  3. DIRHAM – Umayyads, Darband / Caucasus; dated 119 H (AD 737)
  4. DINAR – Abbasids, near Baghdad / Iraq; dated 167 H (AD 783-84)

The style of the calligraphy on these coins (Types 1 and 2) is closer to the common curvilinear script of the Persian Pahlavi writing or the earlier private and official letters than to the elegant angular Kufic of monumental inscriptions such as are found at the same time on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Type 3 – In the course of later decades of Umayyad rule, the style of writing on coins shifted to elegant, angular Kufic such as that also used for Qur’an manuscripts and monumental inscriptions.

Type 4 – Even after the Abbasid coup, calligraphy on gold coins retained certain features of Umayyad gold: less emphasis on the vertical and rectangular letters, and the word’s base line moulded into the round of the coins.

Early Islamic coins can be described above all as bearers of texts of up to 150 words – as such, they were (and still are) potent symbols of the religious culture of Islam and ‘instructional’ as reminders on how they rejected the idea of kings as idols. The early Christian church, on the other hand, actively developed and promoted the idea of a ‘king ruling by Divine right’, as a way to ensure his subjects remained loyal to their king/queen and the Christian faith.

Even today, American coins display the legend “In God we trust” but, as a multi-cultural society many now ask “Which God?” and “Whose God?” In the UK, Prince Charles has indicated he will be crowned as “Defenderof Faiths” rather than “Defender of the Faith” – the traditional English sovereign’s oath as Head of the Church of England.

Who were the first people to bring Arabic coinage to Ireland?

For about 100 years prior to minting their own coins, the Hiberno-Norse (Irish Vikings) made use of coins from foreign lands, i.e. Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian and even Islamic coins from central Asia circulated in 10th C Ireland.

During the Viking Age in Ireland, Arabic silver dirham coins (stolen or traded) seem to have been weighed rather than used as currency. This probably explains why so many are broken into halves or quarters. They were often recycled, reappearing as brooches and elaborate cloak pins, as well as beautifully worked rings for neck, arm and finger.

How did they get here?

  • Did the native Irish traders accept them as payment for their goods?
  • Did the native Irish mercenaries accept them as payment for their services?
  • Or, did the Vikings bring them here?

According to current archaeological opinions, these are not evidence for a direct Irish-Arabic trade, so the first two possibilities have been refuted by academia.

  • they are thought to be indicators of the extent of the pan-European Viking trade networks
  • they seem to have gotten to Ireland indirectly via the Baltic/Byzantine route
  • they then seem to have been traded out of the Hiberno-Norse towns into their rural Irish hinterlands

However, a perplexing challenge exists for students of Islamic coins in Ireland insofar as studies (Kruse & Tate) have shown that dirhams were widely melted down and reused, which limits their visibility and makes circulation estimates incredibly difficult. Another source suggests that most of the Arab dirhams in England were re-minted en masse as Anglo-Saxon coin and shipped back to Scandinavia as Danegeld.

The lack of large hoards makes for limited hypotheses – the 19 dirham ‘fragments’ from the Dysart (no. 4) hoard in Co Westmeath are the only substantial group to have been studied and published: Ryan et al. 1984, 345-50

  • Perhaps the comparative metal analysis of dirhams and Danegeld is a subject for a future doctoral thesis ???

Islamic silver coins, known as dirhams and bearing Kufic script or lettering, have turned up in a number of Viking-age coin hoards in Ireland. They were brought to Ireland from Scandinavia, where they have been found in their thousands. Up to c. 900 A.D. the coins of the Abbasid Caliphate predominate in Viking hoards.

From their capital in Baghdad the Abbasids ruled a vast empire stretching from Africa to Afghanistan. From the middle of the ninth century their effective control over the outlying regions decreased steadily and several rival dynasties came to the fore in North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East. Among these were the Samanids whose heartland lay in Central Asia on the northern-most boundary of the Islamic world.

Most numismatic sources now cite the “Volga – Scandinavia – Ireland” route as being the most likely path for these coins coming to Ireland but there is an alternative hypothesis – which is ignored (possibly for very sound reasons) by Irish academia at large.

One reference is the account of a delegation sent by the Moors of Spain to the court of a Viking ruler whose men had occupied Seville in 844. This account, which exists only as a manuscript in the British Library (Ms Or. 77) was examined in detail by the late W. E. D. Allen (1960) who tried to show that the destination of the Moorish ambassador was the court of the semi-legendary Turgesius who was drowned in Lough Owel in 844. Allen’s interpretation of the events mentioned is by no means accepted by other scholars, though there is no doubt that an ambassador was sent somewhere.

Between 840 and 971 several attacks were made by Viking raiders on the coast of Spain, the most dangerous of which was that of 844 when Seville was captured and occupied for a short time.

Could these Vikings have been Irish Vikings?

There is also a reference in MacFirbisigh’s “Three Fragments of the Annals to blue men”, Moorish captives brought to Ireland after a Viking raid on Spain and Morocco in 866, implying that Irish Vikings were involved in the attacks in Spain (O’Donovan 1860, 161).

List of Islamic Coin Finds in Ireland

  • Carrowreilly, Co Sligo (1988)
    • Arabic dirham fragment, Volga Bulgar imitation of a Samanid coin of al-Sash, AH 281 (AD 894/5)
      • Deposited c AD 900-10
      • NMI; Kenny 1991, based on identification by G. Rispling
      • Volga Bulgars, Anonymous, Dirham, imitating Samanid types, obv. with mintname al-Shash and date 284h, rev. with the name of the Samanid ruler Nasr II

        An exampleof a Volga Bulgar Dirham, imitating Samanid types, obv. with mintname al-Shash and date 284h, rev. with the name of the Samanid ruler Nasr II

        Opinion varies on precisely what this coin fragment is – the absence of three quarters of the coin makes a definite judgement difficult.

      • Michael Kenny is of the opinion that it is “part of a coin ostensibly produced at the Samanid mint of al-Shash (Tashkent)” in AH 281 (AD 894)
      • A Swedish expert on this series, Gert Rispling who has examined the fragment, is of the opinion that it was actually struck by a people known as the Volga Bulghars a few years later, c.288-98 A.H./900-10 A.D.
      • According to Rispling the double encircling ring on the reverse does not occur on genuine Samanid coins of 281 A.H. He further makes the point that “any piece puporting to be of the date 281 A.H. which does not die-link with other specimens is liable to suspicion of not being authentic”.
      • The legend has been described by another authority, Helen Brown of the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, as being “quite competent and literate” which indicates a high level of workmanship and raises the possibility that it may in fact be what it purports to be, i.e. part of a coin produced at the Samanid mint of al-Shash (Tashkent).
        • Obverse: In the centre is a portion of the legend which appears on such coins “THERE IS NO GOD [BUT GOD ALONE. HE HAS NO ASSOCIATE]” The legend around the rim shows part of the date, which is in written rather than in numeric form.
        • Reverse: Portion of the usual legend “MUHAMMAD IS THE MESSENGER OF GOD. GOD BLESS HIM AND GIVE HIM PEACE.” Around the rim is a portion of the names of CALIPH AL-MUTADID (279-89 A.H./892-902 A.D. and the Samanid prince ISMA’IL IBN AHMAD (279-94 A.H./892-907 A.D.).
  • Drogheda, Co. Louth
    • Hoard of Kufic coins (1846)
      • Deposited c. AD 905
  • Drogheda, Co. Louth
    • Hoard of Kufic coins (lost)
      • Hall 1973-74, 73
  • Dysart Island (No 4), Co. Westmeath
    • Nineteen dirham fragments
      • Ryan et al. 1984, 345-50
  • Dysert, Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath
    • Six Kufic coins – Abbasid dynasty
      • Kenny 1987, 521
  • Dysert, Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath (1980)
    • Eight Kufic coins – Samanid dynasty
      • Deposited c AD 910
      • Kenny 1987, 521
  • Dysert, Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath
    • Five Kufic coins – unidentified
      • Kenny 1987, 521
  • Glasnevin, Co. Dublin (1838)
    • Two Kufic dirhams.
      • Deposited c. AD 927
      • Hall 1973-74, 73.
  • Leggagh, Nobber, Co. Meath (1843)
    • Ten coins in total – Kufic (Samarkand) – ‘Nasr ben Ahmed II’
      • Deposited c. AD 920
      • Hall 1973-74, 73
      • A coin minted in 921 or 922 for Nasr II ben Ahmad, an Arabic ruler (913-43), found in a hacksilver hoard buried at Storr Rock in Skye, Scotland

        A coin minted in 921 or 922 for Nasr II ben Ahmad, an Arabic ruler (913-43), found in a hacksilver hoard buried at Storr Rock in Skye, Scotland

  • Magheralagan, Co. Down (1835)
    • Several Kufic coins (Baghdad) – ‘al-Mahdi’
      • Deposited c. AD 910
      • Briggs & Graham-Campbell 1976, 21-22
      • Silver dirham, Mitchiner WOI 159, Album 215.1, BMC 125, Morrisson BnF 728, EF, Madinat al-Salam (Baghdad) mint, weight 2.943g, maximum diameter 24.5mm, die axis 90o, 161 AH, 777 - 778 A.D.; obverse Kufic legend: There is no deity except God alone He has no equal (in center); In the name of God. This dirham was struck in mint name and date (in margin); reverse Kufic legends: Muhammad the Messenger of God (in center); Muhammad is the messenger of God. He sent him with guidance and the true religion to reveal it to all religions even if the polytheists abhor it (in margins)

        An example of a silver dirham, Madinat al-Salam (Baghdad) mint, weight 2.943g, AD 777-78 (AH 161) obverse Kufic legend: There is no deity except God alone He has no equal (in center); In the name of God. Reverse Kufic legends: Muhammad the Messenger of God (in center); Muhammad is the messenger of God. He sent him with guidance and the true religion to reveal it to all religions even if the polytheists abhor it (in margins)

  • Millockstown, Co. Louth
    • Several Kufic coins
      • Deposited in the 19th C
  • Dunmore Cave, Mohil, Co. Kilkenny (1973)
    • Ten coins in total – Kufic (Armenia) – ‘Caliph Al-Mu’tamid’
      • Hall 1973-74, 73
  • Woodstown, Co Waterford
    • One Islamic/Kufic Silver Dirham fragment – Umayyad dynasty (c. AD 741-43)
      • Russell & Hurley 2014, p. 260
      • The Umayyad dirham from Woodstown, Co.Waterford, which measures 9 mm by 7 mm by 1 mm

        The Umayyad dirham from Woodstown, Co.Waterford, which measures 9 mm by 7 mm by 1 mm

        Reverse of Umayyad dirham

        Reverse of Umayyad dirham

  • Unlocated, Co. Kildare (1840)
    • One Kufic dirham – Abbasid coin of al-Mu’tamid (870-92)
      • Deposited c. AD 935
      • Hall 1973-74, 74.
      • Abbasid, al-Mu'tamid (870-92), AV Dinar, 4.20g, Misr, AH259, naming heir Ja'far

        An example of an Abbasid, al-Mu’tamid (870-92 / AH259) silver coin, naming his heir Ja’far

  • Unlocated, Co. Londonderry
    • Hoard of Kufic coins
      • Hall 1973-74, 82.
  • Unlocated, Co. Meath (1845)
    • One Kufic coin –  Harun ar-Rashid
      • Deposited c. AD 970
      • Hall 1973-74, 77.
      • A silver dirham issued during the reign of Abbasid Caliph Harun al Rashid (786-809)

        An example of a silver dirham issued during the reign of Abbasid Caliph Harun al Rashid (786-809)

Kufic inscriptions in Dublin

If you are interested in the study of medieval Arabic inscriptions, the best place in Dublin to see works of Islamic art, literature and religious texts is the Chester Beatty Library, which is located in the grounds of Dublin Castle.

  • Chester Beatty’s library has been described as the finest collection of manuscripts and books made by a private collector in the 20th century. It includes representative samples of the world’s heritage (artistic, religious and secular) from about 2700 BC to the present century.
    • The Islamic Collections are amongst the finest in existence and are internationally renowned for the overall high quality and scope of the material.
    • The Library published a book Islam: Faith, Art, Culture on the Islamic manuscripts held in the Library.  For further information, please click HERE.
    • A selection of images from the Islamic Collections are featured on the ‘Museums With No Frontier’ website.  To view them, please click HERE.
    • The Chester Beatty Library has also launched its Islamic Seals Database, a new online, interactive database of seal impressions found in the manuscripts of its Islamic Collections.

Bibliography

Ager, B. and Williams, G. ‘The Vale of York Hoard’, (London, The British Museum Press, 2010)

Briggs, C. S. and Graham-Campbell, J. A. ‘A Lost Hoard of Viking-Age Silver from Magheralagan, County Down’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Third Series, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 20-24

Dolley, Michael, ‘Medieval British and Irish Coins as Dating Evidence for the Archaeologist’ Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 1, No. 2, Techniques of Chronology and Excavation (Oct., 1969), pp. 200-207. [Accessed, 6-June-2015] http://www.jstor.org.remote.library.dcu.ie/stable/123961

Dolley, Michael, ‘Medieval Coin-Hoards from the Ulster Mearing’ Clogher Record, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1970), pp. 204-220

James, David, ‘Two Medieval Arabic Accounts of Ireland’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 108 (1978), pp. 5-9

Kenny, Michael, Miscellanea 2: A Kufic coin fragment from Carrowreilly, Co. Sligo. Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 32, 170–3

Kenny, Michael, 1987. ‘The Geographical Distribution of Irish Viking-Age Coin Hoards’

Kenny, Michael, 1994. ‘An early tenth century Samanid half dirham from Millockstown, Co. Louth’, NCirc 102, 156

Kruse, Susan E. ‘KruseIngots and Weight Units in Viking Age Silver Hoards’ World Archaeology, Vol. 20, No. 2, Hoards and Hoarding (Oct., 1988), pp. 285-301

Naismith, Rory, ‘Islamic coins from early medieval England’, Numismatic Chronicle 165 (2005), 193-222

Scarfe Beckett, K. ‘Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World’, (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Sheehan, John, ‘Silver and Gold Hoards: Status, Wealth and Trade in the Viking Age’ Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 9, No. 3, The Viking Issue (Autumn, 1995), pp. 19-22

Valante, Mary, ‘Woodstown in the Irish Annals’ History Ireland, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 2006), pp. 16-19

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