Most of the nations of the Middle East are predominantly Islamic and use Arabic writing, and this is certainly reflected in the design of their respective coins. It is Islamic tradition to only place inscriptions on coins, never the image of a political leader (or any person for that matter), although this restriction has been relaxed at various times for specific countries in the 20th century. (For example, the first turkish gold coins following the dissolution of the ottoman empire after world war i featured a european-style bust of mustafa kemal atatürk, the country’s first president and its ostensible founder.
Gold Coins From the Middle East
Gold coins have a rich history in the Middle East and Central Asia. Archaeologists now believe that the first coins in history were minted in Lydia (now part of western Turkey) from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, in the 7th century BCE. The use of electrum was popular in part because it was harder and more durable than gold, but also because techniques for refining gold were not so widespread at the time. The idea of minting coins out of precious metals quickly spread throughout the region and the nearby kingdoms of Greece. Some of the first pure gold coins from the Middle East are believed to be the Dinar of the early Islamic Caliphate.
The Middle East is often called the “Cradle of Civilization,” which refers to the ancient Mesopotamian and Sumerian civilizations. This area, encompassing the present-day country of Iraq, is the birthplace of many major religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. (“Mesopotamia” translates to “between two rivers,” as Iraq resides mostly between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.) The Arab conquest, which started in the 7th century CE, left its mark over the entire region, and Islam remains the dominant religion. This category also includes Israeli gold coins from the late 20th century.
Distinctive Middle Eastern Gold Coins
One of the unique features of gold coins from the broader Arab world is how they express the dates the coins were issued. Rather than using the traditional BCE-CE (formerly BC and AD) marker point as year “zero,” many Islamic coins instead use the time of the prophet Mohammed (around 650 CE) as its starting point. Hence, the dates indicated on most Middle East gold coins seem as though they refer to medieval periods (1200 or 1300, for instance), but really these coins were minted in the 1900s. As mentioned above, there is a proscription against using human figures on Islamic coins, so most often the designs instead feature intricate floral patterns, geometric shapes, and Arabic inscriptions.