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2023  N9-10(222-224)
November 1, 2023, marks the 30th anniversary of the first national monetary unit – the Turkmen manat. The anniversary celebrations were held in Ashgabat in honor of the historical event that marked the final establishment of state sovereignty and its own economic system.
Yet, this was preceded by at least three thousand years of use of a variety of means of payment on the territory of modern Turkmenistan. With the introduction of coins, there began circulation of money from the empires of antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Central Asian khanates, the Persian monarchy, and, from the end of the 19th century, from Russia. One part of this metal was melted down a long time ago, the other was preserved in museums and private collections, and the third lies in the ground and will make happy professional archaeologists and amateur treasure hunters more than once.
Those who study coins and those who make a living by selling them have different motives. For some, this is a deep interest in the unsolved secrets of history, and for others, this is a lucrative impulse. Money that fell out of use eventually turn from a means of payment into a commodity. The older they are, the more expensive they become. This is the law of the market. But the most important value of ancient coins, incommensurable with their market value, is that they carry information about the political history of states of the distant past. We often know the genealogies of many ruling dynasties, not only the names and years of reign but also the portraits of the kings of the Hellenistic world, Roman emperors, and other rulers of antiquity thanks to the coins that have come down to us. Often this is all that remains of kingdoms that have long sunk into oblivion.
One must be quite knowledgeable to read ancient coins, like the appropriate devices for reading information from the electronic media. Such people are called numismatists who have experience and skills to read dead languages. The name of a separate field of historical science – numismatics – comes from the Greek word numisma (coin). It originated in the 18th century in Europe thanks to the extensive collections of ancient coins collected by that time. Christian Martin Frehn, a professor at Kazan University who lived in the first half of the 19th century and was invited from Germany, is rightfully considered the founder of oriental numismatics. Thanks to his work, Arab coins found in the vastness of Russia began to “speak” for the first time.
In the 20th century, outstanding archaeologists and numismatists worked in Turkmenistan. The first was academician Mikhail Masson, who raised many outstanding students, including, first of all, Yelena Davidovich, Boris Kochnev, Sergei Loginov, Vadim Masson, Edward Rtveladze, Mikhail Fedorov, the now living Viktor Pilipko and Terkesh Khodzhaniyazov, as well as representatives of the Moscow and Leningrad schools – Bella Weinberg, Yevgeniy Zeimal, Gennady Koshelenko, Vladimir Livshits, Alexander Naimark, Alexander Nikitin, Olga Smirnova and others. Without their works, the history of Turkmenistan and neighboring countries would be incomplete. It was written largely thanks to the coins of our distant ancestors that have come down to us. When the manuscripts got burned and decayed centuries later, and oral memory turned into legends and myths, only these metal products remain reliable carriers of accurate and credible information about the distant past.
According to famous archaeologist and numismatist German Fedorov-Davydov, who conducted excavations in Turkmenistan, “mankind tried hundreds of types of money before inventing the most convenient ones – metal. At first, these were simple ingots of metal, most often silver, accepted by weight. But some people tried to add copper and tin to an ingot of pure silver or gold and also make it lighter. One had to take a sample of the metal and check the weight of the ingot. To prevent counterfeiting of money, government authorities began to brand them. This meant that the ingots contained metal of a certain quality. The pieces of metal were dressed in a kind of national uniform. This is how the first coins appeared.”
The earliest exemplars found in Turkmenistan are associated with the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian empire that existed from 550 to 330 BC. This is a hoard of silver shekels with an image of an archer in a tiara (high headdress) on the front side with various kinds of countermarks. Numismatists recognized these rare coins as the original form of circulation of metal money in Central Asia. After a significant part of the Near and Middle East came under the rule of Alexander the Great, portraits of the king himself in profile appeared for the first time on the coins of his great power. These were mainly copper khalks, silver drachms and tetradrachms. They were minted both in his homeland and in conquered countries. Previously, only gods were depicted on ancient Greek coins, but after Alexander the tradition of depicting portraits of living monarchs became firmly established and continues to this day.
Under the Seleucids, the successors of the Macedonian king, coins appeared with images of the new ruler Seleucus I, and then his son Antiochus II, but their state quickly lost its power, and already in the middle of the 3rd century the eastern provinces of Parthia and Greco-Bactria broke away from it. Having become independent states, they occupied part of the territory of modern Southern Turkmenistan from the Caspian Sea to the Amu Darya and left rich numismatic material.
For several centuries, Greco-Bactrian and Parthian coins determined the process of formation and development of monetary circulation and coinage in Central Asia. They became the basis on which imitative emissions were first made, followed by their own coins. Silver and bronze drachmas, as well as copper khalks of the Parthians were found mainly during the excavations of Nisa, Merv and Serakhs. Royal profiles were depicted on their obverse, and the reverse featured the heraldic emblem of the Arsacid dynasty: an archer sitting on a throne. It is assumed that this is a scene of investiture (investment with power) of the king by the deity. The portraits of kings on Parthian coins are so individual and expressive that numismatists can easily distinguish between the founder of the dynasty, Arshak, in a helmet-shaped hood, and his numerous descendants.
One episode from the history of archaeological discoveries in Turkmenistan clearly shows how coins help scientists. In 1996, during excavations of the so-called “round hall” of Old Nisa, a Turkmen-Italian expedition led by Professor Antonio Invernizzi discovered fragments of the head of a painted clay statue that stood in this temple in the 2nd century BC. It took three years of painstaking work for restorers to glue the fragments together. It turned out to be part of an impressive portrait of a man with a full beard, mustache and locks of hair dyed black. Unfortunately, only the right side of the neck with the cheek and nose was preserved. Despite the feeling of greatness of the face, it can hardly be an image of a god, since the preserved physiognomic features leave no doubt about the portrait nature of the image. Professor Antonio Invernizzi believed that when viewed in profile this face immediately brings to mind the numerous coin portraits of the Parthian king Mithridates I. His Russian colleague Viktor Pilipko has a different opinion. According to him, if we look at the coin portrait of Mithridates II, we will see that the similarities with the Nisean sculpture are even greater. Antonio Invernizzi considered such a match unlikely, apparently due to the chronological discrepancy, since Mithridates II died long after the construction of the “round hall”. “But these two events (the death of the king and the construction of the temple) did not necessarily occur simultaneously,” Viktor Pilipko says.
There are even more coins from the Kushan kingdom, which emerged east of Parthia after the fall of Greco-Bactria and existed in the 1st-4th centuries, as well as from the Sassanids, who ruled Asia from 224 to 651 after the fall of the Arsacids. For more than four centuries, they minted their canonical type of coins with an abstract profile of the king of kings – the Shahinshah on the obverse and a scene of investiture on the reverse. Yet, in contrast to Parthia, where the religious situation was quite varied and pagan cults flourished, strict Zoroastrianism was established in the Sassanid state. This is clearly reflected in the coins. The same scene was repeated on the reverses – an altar with a sacred fire in the center and two human figures next to it. On the right side, there was the Zoroastrian deity Ahuramazda, and the king on the left side.
And then came the 7th century. The victorious march of the Arabs began, who crushed the Sasanian state and spread Islam. A huge state, the Arab Caliphate, was established from the Mediterranean to the Pamirs. Over the course of several decades, the new religion won the hearts of people in Iran and Central Asia. Sassanian coins remained in use for some time, which were partially recoined. This continued until the financial and tax reforms by Caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan in 696, replacing the old money with Arab coins. The gold dinar was introduced – a new monetary unit with a standard weight of 4.25 grams, which was minted in Damascus, the capital of the caliphate. Mints began to appear in other cities of the empire, and pre-Muslim money was gradually confiscated and melted down. The Arab silver coin was called the dirham, and the copper coin was called the fels.
At first, Arab coins still featured the image of the caliph with the accompanying text, but very soon only the symbol of faith remained in the form of sayings from the Koran, the name of the supreme ruler – the caliph. Below it followed the name of the emir – the ruler of the region where the coin was minted, as well as the name of the region, year and place of minting. All inscriptions were written in angular Kufi script, which is why coins of this type are now called Kufic.
At the beginning of the 11th century, the mines in the Arab Caliphate were depleted, and the entire monetary system of Muslim countries was gripped by the so-called silver crisis that lasted for about two hundred years. It led to the devaluation of the silver dirham, which was the international currency of that era, and led to the collapse of the caliphate’s economy. Against this background, the state of the Great Seljuks arose and gained power, whose first capital – the city of Merv – turned into a true metropolis of Asia.
Little was known about the money economy of the Seljuk era until Turkmen archaeologist Terkesh Khodzhaniyazov published his works in the seventies of the last century. He found out that the Seljuks began minting their own coins in 1041, when they defeated the Ghaznavids near Dandanakan. Since this was the period of the “silver crisis,” the Seljuks began to mint gold dinars, and then electrum dinars, an alloy of gold and silver. According to the scientist, the transition to the low-quality dinars was due to the authorities’ desire to use the existing small reserves of silver with maximum benefit, that is, to increase the rate of silver in monetary circulation. In the thirties of the 12th century, when the “silver crisis” intensified, Sultan Sanjar began minting even lower-quality dinars instead of the previous electrum ones. They had more admixture of copper, and on top they were covered with a thin gold shell that quickly wore off.
When archaeological expeditions work on the ruins of Merv, Danadanakan, Kunyaurgench, Amul, Shekhrislam and other medieval cities, they regularly supply new finds, including medieval coins, to the collections of Turkmen museums. Each city had its own bazaars and caravanserais – witnesses of centuries-old trading activity on the Silk Road. There were coins everywhere – lost or hidden. Large and small coin hoards are found from time to time in various places. The most famous, carefully studied by numismatists, were made near Talkhatan Baba in the Merv oasis, in Takhtabazar region near the border with Afghanistan, in the land of Khorezm. They all contribute to enhancing our knowledge of the distant past.
Finally, there is another, purely ethnographic side to the use of ancient coins. They are an integral part of Turkmen jewelry, harmoniously complementing the composition of these magnificent works of silversmiths. Coins of various ages are skillfully and tastefully inserted into products made mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And this is also a story preserved in metal.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005