Sunday, June 10, 2012

Analysis: one of the joys of ancient coin collecting


Mardin, Najm al-Din Alpi
AD 1152-1176 (AH 547-572)
Gemini / Virgo and Mercury

Did you ever look at the image on an ancient coin and wonder, why did they choose this particular image? If the coin happens to bear the portrait of a king or emperor, the answer may seem obvious. But what about the iconography of the reverse? Does the coin promote some political program, or record some historical event? Perhaps it pays hommage to a deity, or alludes to a social value. The possibilities are virtually endless, and they range from the patently obvious to the incredibly obscure.

The figural bronze coins struck in Mesopotamia during the 12th and 13th centuries are exceptional for many reasons, but foremost because they are unlike anything evenly remotely contemporary. Islamic coins struck prior to the advent of Turkish hegemony in the Jazira (Arabic for "land between the rivers") were devoid of images—primarily due to a perceived Koranic prohibition. Why should we suddenly find not only images, but bold sculptural renderings of classical designs and themes on Islamic Turkish coins? This question haunted numismatists for over two hundred years before its secrets were exposed through a comprehensive analysis of the figures on those coins.

The first step in analyzing an image is of course to identify its components. For purposes of illustration, let's examine a coin motif that I first wrote about some ten years ago in Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography. The coin is a bronze dirham (34mm) of the prince Najm al-Din Alpi, who ruled Mardin from AD 1152 to 1176. Alpi was not a great historical figure, and he would be little remembered today were it not for the fascinating series of coins that bore his and his cousins' names.

The undated issue catalogued as S/S 28 bears on its obverse a depiction of two diademed male busts in profile, facing each other. On the reverse, a nimbate female figure stands, facing, crowning a male figure. The prototypes for this imagery are easily recognizable to modern collectors of ancient coins as numismatic. In other words, the die engravers of Alpi's time were inspired to use the images they saw on ancient coins which they obviously had in their possession. Specifically, the obverse type recalls Seleucid prototypes and the reverse is a nearly exact replication of the reverse of some earlier Romaion (Byzantine) imperial coins.

Having identified what the images represented in antiquity, we are still left to ponder what meaning they had in the 12th and 13th century Jazira. We know what designs the artist chose, and where they originated, but what did they mean? Celators seldom produce singular works. That is, they tend to develop themes and to think in iconographic programs. If we are to understand what the images on Alpi's coin mean, we will be helped by expanding the window of observation. In the case of Turkoman coins, this is easily done because the dynasties were fairly shortlived. The entire episode of figural bronze coins lasted little more than 200 years. Looking at a catalogue of the coins, one is struck immediately by the apperance of several unmistakable images from the astrological world. In fact, the elements of an iconographic program become more and more obvious as one examines the entire series from an astrological view.

Are there astrological parallels in the images on this type? Again, ancient coin collectors will recall that the Dioscuri (Gemini) were often represented by the Greeks and Romans precisely in the manner shown here. If Alpi's die engravers did actually intend to represent the Gemini, what then did they intend on the reverse? The scene, which clearly is copied from Romaion coins, illustrates the Virgin crowning an emperor. This was a common theme, through which the emperor bolstered his perceived legitimacy. It should be remembered that the virgin was also an important element of the zodiac. Not, of course, the same virgin as that of the Romaioi—but certainly not beyond metaphorical comparison. And, who is the male figure being crowned? A little investigation into the precepts of astrology reveals that Mercury is "exalted", or at his height of power, while in the constellation Virgo. In the astrological system of planetary domiciles, Virgo is the night house of Mercury. And who is Mercury's day house? You guessed it—Gemini. Well, now we know what the images are, where they came from and what they meant. But why would the mintmaster of a Turkish Emir choose such remarkable western images? Perhaps the mintmaster was not a Turk at all. In fact, the historical record tells us that locally educated Nestorian Christians were used by Turkish rulers to administer their financial affairs. This opens an entire new world of enquiry, and from the image on a single coin we can find ourselves exploring the whole social fabric of a people. Who said Art History is boring?

First published in The Celator, April 2001