|Spring 2000AD / 1420AH Vol. 2.1|
Collecting Medieval Islamic Coins - Part II, Focusing a collection
By: Fawzan Barrage
In the last issue, we explored some basic aspects of starting a collection and the essential literature that one may need to begin with. This article will address the thematic focus of collections and why that is important to a collector or a viewer.
A collection must tell a story. The more complete the story, the more interesting the collection - and the more fulfilling the endeavor. Narrowing its focus is an important first step in developing a well-formed collection, even though this may be one of the hardest tasks accomplish.
Some collectors set out on a task of having every Islamic dynasty represented in their collection - an undertaking that becomes very difficult once one has finished accumulating the more common dynasties and moves towards the rarer coinage. While this wide scope is advocated by many, I believe that such a collection would be void of the depth that one encounters with a well thought-out collection. One could argue that a single Umayyad dirham is enough to represent the post reform silver coinage of the Umayyads (after all they stayed fairly consistent with minor subtle changes that only a focused collection would highlight), but can one really argue that a single dirham can represent the coinage of the Zangids, Ayyubids, Ottoman or any other post-Abbasid dynasty? At best such a collection records the existence of these dynasties, but says nothing about their times or their coinage.
What is a focused collection, then? It can be explained by the process of narrowing a theme. To illustrate, let us say that one is interested in Islamic coins from the Afghanistan/Azerbeijan region, a vast area with a rich history and plenty of dynasties and coinage to choose from. One could begin by choosing a metal - silver, for example, and then viewing coins of several dynasties in this region to decide which will make up the collection. A good book to have for this task is: Sylloge Numorum Arabicorum Tübingen, Vol 15b (Northern & Eastern Central Asia). Once the interest has been narrowed to one or two dynasties, one can then go further and narrow the collection down to a limited number of mints even. The collection may end up consisting of silver dirhams of the Samanids and Ghaznavids from the mints of Ghazna and Samarqand. Or simply the Samanid dirhams from Samarqand.
A collection of this sort would benefit from depth and would represent the available coins that were struck by the Samanids in Samarqand. When viewing such a collection, one could perceive the die changes, the rulers and Caliphs, and hints of political and economic stability and turmoil. It would tell the story of the city under the Samanid rule and would give the numismatist as well as the historian an interesting and engulfing view of the era.
My own first collecting attempt was an ambitious one: I wanted to collect the coins of the crusader era. My initial focus was on Ayyubid and Crusader coins, but as I delved into the history, my scope expanded to include the Zangids, Urtuqids, Seljuks of Rum, Mamluks and even some European and Byzantine coins. The project quickly got out of hand and became discouraging. While I presently hold a number of Zangid, Urtuquid and Seljuk of Rum coins in my collection, as well as a few Crusader coins, I found that - as my collection matured - the focus shifted toward a narrower scope, to concentrate on Ayyubid and Mamluk coins of Bilad al-Sham.
Mamluk and, to a lesser extent, Ayyubid coins are ugly items, especially when it comes to fractional dirhams and clumsily struck copper coinage. But the beauty of this collection is in its ability to show the subtle changes in dies and to tell the story of the times. It became a record of numismatic imitations, innovations and setbacks; political discord and revolts and a testament to flourishing economic booms and abysmal economic depressions. It stands as a record of the history of Bilad al-Sham under the Ayyubid and Mamluk rule.
As you can see, this collection has since moved away from its early scope. Now it even includes Ottoman coinage which represents the next major force to change the lives of the people and history of Bilad al-Sham.
I have since also began another collection focused on the Umayyad dynasty. The goal of this collection is two-fold:
a) To create a representative collection of post reform dirhams from every year of Umayyad rule and
b) To build an expanding collection of Umayyad post-reform fulus from Bilad al-Sham.
Since beginning this collection, I have studied the subtle changes in Umayyad dirham styles and have come to see the early Abbasid coinage as an evolutionary extension of these changes. As such, I will eventually expand this collection to include the early Abbasid dirhams as well as some of their fulus which are indistinguishable from their predecessors.
In my endeavor to build these collections, I have had to forego many magnificent coins that have passed through my hands but that did not belong in my collections. I have had to train myself to become disciplined and purposeful in my acquisitions. I had to shed the mentality of the scavenger/hunter and replace it with a more focused approach. I can't begin to describe how wonderfully fulfilling this change has made the hobby for me. What started as a weekend hunting trip through on-line auction sites, has become an intellectual undertaking not only to understand and track the coinage of the times, but also to delve into the specific histories, art and literature of the dynasties that my collections represent.
My hope is that you will also focus your collecting effort, to harness your urge for mere acquisition and turn it into a purposeful collecting endeavor. I am sure that when you do that, you will begin to discover dimensions to this hobby that you may not have considered before.
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