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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Rare Coins from Nishapur

What makes an early Islamic coin rare? You might think that just by virtue of dating from the eighth or ninth century and being found in northeastern Iran, a coin would be exceptional. Yet, of the more than 1,200 early coins excavated at Nishapur during the 1930s and ’40s by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with the Iranian government, only thirty-seven of them would be considered rare. Some were minted in places from which few early Islamic coins are known, and others bear the names of governors or other rulers better known from historical texts than coins. Although the city of Nishapur in Khurasan is rightly celebrated for its ceramics, glass, and metalwork of the Samanid period (ca. 819–1005), the significance of the city as a center of trade from the eighth to the fourteenth century is most directly reflected in the coins. According to their agreement, Iran and The Met divided the finds, resulting in more than 5,000 objects entering the collection. The study of Islamic coins from Nishapur follows publications of the city’s early and medieval Islamic ceramics, glass, metalwork, and architecture.

The Arab conquest of the lands from Spain to Iran in the seventh and eighth centuries opened trade routes between the former Byzantine and Sasanian regions united under the Umayyad and then Abbasid caliphates. Along with the exchange of goods, coinage circulated widely. Some of the rarest coins traveled a great distance before ultimately ending up in the ground at Nishapur. While we can only imagine how a particular coin found its way there, the names of individuals on the coins shed light on the political situation of their time. The coins come in three types: gold, silver, and copper, called dinar, dirham, and fals in Arabic. Whereas the names of Abbasid caliphs (temporal and spiritual leaders of the Muslim community) and overlords appear on silver and gold coins, copper coins bear the names of leaders of lesser rank as a form of acknowledgment of their rule. Additionally, mint marks indicate where the coins were struck.

The coins discussed here were found at the main sites of excavation—Tepe Madrasa, Sabz Pushan, Vineyard Tepe, and Tepe Alp Arslan. Tepe Madrasa included sizable buildings, a mosque, and dwellings decorated with carved stucco. Eighty coins from the late eighth and ninth centuries were found there (such as,, and Excavations at Sabz Pushan, an area with smaller houses, yielded a number of eighth- and ninth-century coins. One of the rare coins ( comes from Tepe Alp Arslan, which may have formed part of the Nishapur citadel. The rest of the rare coins mentioned here (,,, and were purchased from a local figure named Hajji Lutfallah, who presumably found a hoard of coins and sold the silver and gold ones to the excavators.

In A.H. 77–79/A.D. 697–99, the Umayyad caliph reformed Islamic coinage, abandoning the figural compositions inherited from Byzantium and Sasanian Iran in favor of coins decorated only with Arabic writing. Typically, the profession of the faith would appear in the field on the obverse, with the name of the mint in the margin. On the reverse of copper coins, the field would contain the name of the Prophet Muhammad, while the caliph’s name or that of a local ruler and the date would appear in the margin, along with Qur’anic verses in some examples. Different styles prevailed in different periods, reflected in variations in the compositions and type of script. The coins excavated at Nishapur range in date from the first half of the eighth century to the fifteenth century, the Timurid period, long after the city’s heyday.

Within a century of the first Arab invasion of Armenia is 639, coins minted there were being circulated widely. A coin found in Nishapur ( was struck in Armenia in the name of Ishaq ibn Muslim al-‘Aqili, a local ruler mentioned in historical sources in connection with Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik (r. A.H. 105–125/A.D. 724–43). The precise date of the coin is illegible, but the name indicates the control of Armenia by the Umayyads. Despite the Armenians’ reduced status as Christians under Muslim rule, the presence of Armenian coins in Nishapur underscores their continuing freedom of travel and trade across northern Iran in the eighth century.

With the revolution against the Umayyads led by Abu Muslim in Khurasan, coins began to be struck in his name. One of these, dated A.H. 131/A.D. 749, refers to Abu Muslim as “amir [commander] of the family of Muhammad” ( Until A.H. 129/A.D. 747, Abu Muslim’s leadership of a rebellious group in Iran, the Hashimiyya, had been covert, but from his base in Merv, in today’s Turkmenistan, he consolidated his power and neutralized the already weak Umayyad overlords of the region, as his coinage reflects. Organized and ruthless, Abu Muslim took control of Khurasan and the rest of Iran before moving westward to Kufa in Iraq, where he defeated his former Hashimiyya allies and overpowered the Umayyads. The coin dated A.H. 131/A.D. 749 was minted one year before he installed the first Abbasid caliph, a weakling named Abu’l ‘Abbas al-Saffah. Abu Muslim enjoyed five years of power over this caliph, but in A.H. 137/A.D. 755 Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, assassinated him.

The coins excavated at Nishapur that were made during the reign of Caliph Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur are inscribed with dates but not his name. The design of a copper coin (, with three lines of writing in the field and none in the border, explains the paucity of information. However, on the obverse the legend reads “It was struck in Jurjan [Gurgan]/[in] the year one hundred forty seven.” This date corresponds to A.D. 765, midway through Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur’s reign (A.H. 136–158/A.D. 754–75). A center of agriculture and silk production, Gurgan had had a mint since the fifth century under the Sasanians. It is located less than 20 miles east of the Caspian Sea on a road that leads to Mashhad, which would have contributed to its enduring economic viability.

In some cases, coins tell a story that is at odds with written records. A copper coin minted in Rayy (, an important early and medieval Iranian city on the southern edge of Tehran, bears the name of a local governor, ‘Abd al-Hamid bin Yahya. This coin is dated A.H. 139/A.D. 756, fifteen years after the year in which historical sources claim he died (A.H. 123/A.D. 741). Also inscribed on the coin is the name of ‘Abdallah [ibn] amir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful), the son and designated heir of the reigning caliph al-Mansur. Naming the caliphal heir-apparent was common on Abbasid coinage.

While many of the coins found at Nishapur were minted in cities to the west, others demonstrate contact with cities to the east. The mint place of a silver coin dated A.H. 189/A.D. 805 ( is Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, capital of one of the four quarters of early Islamic Khurasan. Once the site of a major Zoroastrian fire temple, Balkh continued to be an important center of trade until the Mongol period in the thirteenth century. This exceptional coin bears the names of three governors. The first of these is al-Amin, the son of caliph Harun al-Rashid, identified on the coin as “heir apparent” (wali ahd). The second is al-Ma’mun, styled “heir apparent of the heir apparent,” and the third is one ‘Ali, whose name appears as the top line of the field on the obverse side of the coin.

Given the great distance of Khurasan from the Abbasid capital of Baghdad, local dynasties gained significant power after a century and a half of direct caliphal rule. The leaders of the Samanid dynasty were descended from a Persian landowner from the region of Balkh. Having converted to Islam, they faithfully served the Abbasid caliph in Khurasan, guarding the frontier of the Islamic world from the infidels of Central Asia. Under the Samanids, Nishapur rose to prominence and became famous for its poets and scholars as well as its strategic position as a trading center on the Silk Road. A ruler named Nasr ibn Ahmad (r. A.H. 301–331/A.D. 914–43) held sway in Khurasan and Central Asia at the time of the Samanids’ greatest power and prosperity. One of the many coins from Nishapur inscribed in his name is dated A.H. 303/A.D. 915 and was minted at Bukhara ( Along with the name of an unidentified person named Muhammad in the field of the obverse, a trefoil and scroll design appears above the inscription of the field, marking a subtle deviation from the strictly epigraphic coins of the eighth and ninth centuries found at Nishapur. This embellishment may be derived from Sogdian coins that were being struck in Bukhara at roughly the same time, or simply may reflect the occasional wish to decorate coins with more than words.

Toward the end of the Samanid period, Fa’iq al-Khassa stands out as a capable governor who served three successive Samanid rulers (A.H. 350–389/A.D. 961–99). The silver coin, or dirham (, consists of a central field surrounded by two lines of script, which accommodates more information than simpler coins. It is inscribed with the name of the Abbasid caliph al-Ta’i lillah, the dynastic governor Nuh ibn Mansur, and the local governor Fa’iq al-Khassa. Dated A.H. 373/A.D. 983–84, the coin was minted in Shash, a historic name for Tashkent, in modern Uzbekistan. Fa’iq was also governor of Bukhara, Balkh, Samarqand, Herat, and Nishapur. Through most of his life, Fa’iq remained loyal to the Samanids and helped protect their territory from rival dynasties in the region.

Another dirham of slightly earlier date bears the names of the Abbasid caliph al-Ta’i (r. A.H. 363–381/A.D. 974–91) and the Buyid governor Fakhr al-Daula (r. A.H. 373–387/A.D. 973–97), who controlled the Jibal area of western Iran with Rayy as its capital. The coin, dated A.H. 376/A.D. 986–87 (, was struck in Bastam by a local ruler named Nasr bin al-Hasan. He governed the area encompassing Damghan, Bastam, and nearby towns southeast of the Caspian Sea. Both sides of the coin contain script in the field surrounded by one or two lines of Qur’anic verses. On the reverse, a star appears above the writing in the field. Possibly this is a reference to the Buyid ruler whose name contains the words “celestial sphere of the nation” on the obverse.

Before the establishment of Samanid rule, coins minted as far away as Armenia were used in Nishapur. Under the Samanids, coinage struck by their local rulers in Khurasan and Central Asia circulated throughout those regions. Yet, by the end of the Samanid dynasty in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Buyid coins from other areas of Iran begin to appear in Nishapur. Thus, the coins found at Nishapur reflect the rise and fall of dynasties in the early Islamic period. As the pottery, metalwork, and glass excavated at Nishapur show, the city was a vibrant commercial center until the Mongol invasion in the early thirteenth century. The coins found at the site enhance understanding of the means of trade. While the actual prices of goods at Nishapur may not be known, we can be certain that people paid for them with coins. The weight of gold dinars and silver dirhams from the late eighth century on was more or less standardized across the Muslim world, and these coins would have been spent on expensive items. However, the more numerous copper coins, or fals, varied in appearance and weight because they were issued as tokens by local rulers and as such were of variable value. The coins discussed in this essay present a variety of scripts and include ornament not found on the silver examples. Together they provide insights into the calligraphy and commerce of early Islamic Nishapur.