|Winter 1999/2000AD / 1420AH Vol. 1.2|
Collecting Medieval Islamic Coins - Part I, Starting a collection
By: Fawzan Barrage
Like many other hobbies, collecting medieval Islamic coins can be both fulfilling and educational. What makes it magical is that it leads you on a cultural and historical journey to such exotic places as Baghdad during the reign of Harun al-Rashid, Damascus at the time of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, and many more far off places with poetic names such as Asfahan, Shiraz, al-Andalus, Samarqand and Kustantiniyya. This fals or Dirham or Dinar in your collection circulated in the lifetime of Omar al-Khayyam; al-Tabari may have used it to buy some paper and ink
Whatever drew you to this hobby, it is the history, in my humble opinion, that will keep it satisfying. Ultimately, it is the quest for a physical manifestation of the events and people that shaped one of the most wide-flung empires in history, that drives one to build a collection. . (For more on the historical significance of Islamic coins, check William Kazan's introduction here).
It is an old adage in Numismatics to "buy the book before the coin", and with good reason. Medieval Islamic coins are a tangle of dynasties, revolts, innovations and revolutions. Without a clear guide to what is out there and what you should expect, it is as if you found yourself somewhere on the silk road with no map, guide or even a compass: You may enjoy the novelty for a while, but that will soon wear off.
Most books that deal with Islamic coins are pricey, and novice collectors may shy away from spending the first $100-$400 of their hobby money on a single book. Some of these are specialized, and before you make a decision on the theme of your collection, you may be hesitant to indulge in an expensive tome. Fortunately though, one of the most useful books for a collector, be it a beginner or a seasoned expert, is priced just right: At $20.00, you really can't go wrong acquiring Steve Album's "A Checklist of Islamic Coins" as a first step to understanding the road map of your new hobby.
If Arabic is not a language you are familiar with, you may also want to check Richard Plant's book "Arabic Coins And How To Read Them". After all, you do want to know what these coins are saying and start understanding the different inscriptions on them.
You will, of course, want to acquire more books as you go along. If you are like me, you think of creative ways to stretch your dollar as you do so. Check your local library, or better yet, your local university library for such books. While you are there, make sure to look through their collection of numismatic periodicals such as the ANS Museum Notes and the Numismatic Chronicle. If you live in the USA, you can and should join the ANS and benefit from their exquisite lending library. You will find a wealth of information there to guide you on your quest. Once you make a decision about the scope of your collection and its theme, you will want to indulge in specialized books that focus on these particular coins.
When you're ready to acquire that first coin, make sure you are dealing with a reputable dealer, and one who knows a bit more than you do about Islamic coins. There is nothing worse than feeling you got gypped on your first baby steps through the hobby. There are many venues today for building your collection. Of course, the Internet is the most accessible and fastest growing venue, but don't limit yourself to that. Get on as many mailing lists as possible and build up your collection of catalogues as well. These not only come in handy for identification, but they also give you a reasonable estimate of what specific coins are worth as well. If you live in an area of the world that was a part of the vast Islamic empire, you may be able to find coins locally.( I have personally dealt with one farmer who have found small hoard while uprooting a diseased tree!) But be careful: It may be difficult to earn the trust of farmers or landowners just by asking, since antiquities laws in many of these countries deter the sale and collection of coins.
If you are moving to Islamic coins from a modern coin collection, there is some adjusting that you will have to assimilate. For instance, you will very rarely see a UNC coin, and what is an XF at the Umayyad mint of al-Andalus is not at all the same for an XF IlKhan coin from Tabriz - and neither of these or any others will resemble an XF Buffalo Nickle. These, after all, are coins that circulated hundreds of years ago, and if you see an MS in a coin description it is likely to be an abbreviation of Madinat al-Salam (Baghdad), and not "Mint State".
Whatever your initial attraction to the hobby, you will soon need to develop a theme for your collection. Next time, we will address this topic in more detail, along with other important ideas to help you on your way. For now, though, you have an excellent forum for asking questions and getting information on your hobby through this group. I urge ALL beginners not to be shy about posting messages to the group. You will be surprised how excited most seasoned collectors are at helping you along.
Below is a limited bibliography that you may want to consult. This list is by no means exhaustive and only lists books that can readily be found.
Some General Books About Medieval Islamic Coins:
Album, Stephen, "A Checklist Of Islamic Coins", 2nd Edition, Santa Rosa, 1998
Plant, Richard, "Arabic Coins And How To Read Them", London, 1973
Mitchiner, Michael, "Oriental Coins And Their Values: The World Of Islam", Sanerstead, 1976
Broome, Michael, "A Handbook Of Islamic Coins", London, 1985
Kazan, William, "The Coins Of Islam: Collection Of William Kazan", Beirut, 1983
Some Books About General Medieval Islamic History:
Bosworth, C.E., "The New Islamic Dynasties", New York, 1996
Grousset, Rene, "The Empire Of The Steppes, A History Of Central Asia",
Translated by Naomi Walford, Rutgers University Press, 1970
Hitti, Philip, "History Of The Arabs", London: MacMillan & Co., 1940 and later editions
Saunders, J. J.,"A History of Medieval Islam", Routledge, 1972
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.
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