‘Al Darahim Marahim’
Money is like an ointment, takes the pain and the problems away.
[Arabic proverb dating back to the fourth Caliphate, Ali ibn Abi Talib (656 -661 CE) and used in the UAE]
The story of a time and place can be told through a single coin or paper note. Held in one’s hand, currency is a reflection of a culture, of a period, of a nation and its people. Currency captures who ruled when and how, what were the most important landmarks or symbols, the role of religion, language and the traditions of the time.
We carry and exchange currencies from all over the world, and we live on the currency of the country within which we reside. Besides its numeric value, money leaves and enters our wallets without much notice of what is actually printed or minted upon it.
Money from around the world: Saudi Riyals, Syrian Pounds, British Pounds, US Dollars, Polish Zloty, Libyian Dinar, and funny customized money from Iran, Russia and Afghanistan
Current money with ousted leaders like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi are now collectables for their historic storytelling value. Selling and buying of coins and paper money remains a popular investment among collectors, who turn to the net to exhibit and bid on rare items. Some examples: http://www.ebay.com/chp/coins-paper-money and http://uae.souq.com/ae-en/coins/coins-324/a-t/s
“There is a story in every piece of currency, both new and old. Discovering what something says or what a symbol means on old pieces of coins is like detective work.”
—Abdullah bin Jassim Al Mutairi, an Emirati historian and numismatist with the largest and most rare collection of coins and notes in the UAE
With over 3,000 coins in his collection, Al Mutairi has many stories to tell, and he likes to tell them to whoever happens to visit his collections at home or on display at various locations across the UAE, including the coin museum at Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.
“So much effort was put into each coin and what it should carry and how. Each one is a piece of art, even when flawed.”
Before this area was known as the UAE, money kept changing form and name until it was nationalised and unified with the formation of the Emirates in 1971. Emirati money - the dirham - was introduced in 1973, two years after unification. The first forms of currency were issued by the UAE Currency Board on 19th May 1973 and were denominated as follows: Banknotes: AED 100, AED 50, AED 10, AED 5, and AED 1. (AED 1000 was added to the issue in 1976).
In the beginning, all the currencies had the same front design—the outline of the UAE geographical map with local environmental landmarks, including a caravan of camels, pearls, a dhow, a palm tree and an oil tower. On the back, denominations showed different national icons.
On the back, AED 1000 showed both the al Jahilie Fort in Al Ain and an old fort in Dubai. AED 100 presented the al Rams port area of Ras al Khaimah; 50 dirham had the Palace of the Ruler of Ajman. 10 showed the ariel view of Umm al Quwain, 5 had the old fort of Fujairah, and 1 showed the clock tower and police fort of Sharjah. Each of the seven emirates was also written along the corners.
The UAE launched its second series of currency banknotes in 1982. The denominations are AED 500, AED 100, AED 50, AED 10, and AED 5. (AED 200 was added in 1989. AED 1000 and AED 20 were added in 1998). These are the banknotes still in circulation today and their security-related features are regularly updated.
After introduction of the new Central Bank notes series in 1982, the older notes were withdrawn from circulation. In 1984, AED-users were asked to exchange their notes and were given an exchange grace period of five years, in accordance with the Banking law.
The Currency Board coins from the 1984 series remain in circulation with their same design, except that they were minified and larger, older coins were phased out. The coins are AED 1, Fils 50, Fils 25, Fils 10, Fils 5, and Fils 1.
“Every single note has a story. The landmarks chosen to be reflected change over time as a mirror of the changing times. One day perhaps we will have Burj Khalifa as one of the landmarks reflected on an Emirati Dirham as it has become a recognized Emirati icon both on the local and international level.”
The history of a country can be traced through the different currencies that went into and out of circulation. Who was in power at the time, the empires of the period, and the different trade routes all played a part in the kind of currencies that once passed through here and shaped the country and region as a whole.
“The story of money is more than just history, it is a political story with the trade routes and alliances at the heart of it.”
The interactions created by trading goods brought different kinds of currencies into the area that is now known as the UAE. The history of paper money in the UAE is relatively new; coins of different makes and sizes dominated the financial scene in the area until the early 19th century. One of Mr. al Mutairi’s most cherished coins, and one of the important forms of coinage used here, is the Hormuz Larin (900-1200H) or Tawelat Al Ihsaa.
“They were very popular as a maritime trade currency and used widely between the ports in the area and the region.”
Named after the city of Lar in Iran, it was a type of coinage minted by Islamic rulers in Turkey, Arabia, Iran and India from the 16th century onwards. These are not coins in the traditional sense; they are twisted lengths of stamped metal. According to the British Museum, which has several larins, they were tied in bundles and traded by weight. “According to the mid-19th century writer François Pyrard de Laval, 'the best silver comes from Persia by way of Hormuz in the form of long coins called larins which the smiths of India prize highly and use to their great advantage being a very pure clean soft silver good for working.’”
The currency was in use between the Arab Gulf ports and the Indian Peninsula from about 874-1193 (1470 to 1780 AD). Larin were minted in gold, silver and copper, and were of three types: Hormuz, Ottomani and Pakistani larins. Another name is the “Al Malwiyat,” and the Malwiyat or Larin of Sri Lanka and Maldives took the shape of the hook, whereas those of the Gulf and West India were straight.
While they were in use long before Ahmed Obeid was even born, the 62-year-old fisherman from Khor Fakkan sees their appeal as a maritime currency over paper money and other coins. “They wouldn’t get wet and torn. They are easy to carry and are quite distinctive so that they can be exchanged properly at night or when their isn’t much light. It makes sense why they were so popular with men of the sea,” said Mr. Obeid. “The hand would recognize the Larin before the eyes would.”
With the increase of maritime trade to the Gulf region, the silver “Austrian Riyal” appeared. Also known as the Queen Theresa Riyal and as the “French Riyal,” it weighed 28g and bore an image of Queen Maria Theresa (Queen of Hungary and Archduchess of Austria), who died in 1780. Its proper name is a thaler, which is thought to be part of the origin of the word “dollar.”
Traders carried it down the Gulf, and it remained in wide use from the late 1700s until the rise of the Indian Rupee in the 1800s. The coins were highly valued for their sliver content and were used to make jewelry.
Later copper coins were minted in Lanja in 1247 H (1831 AD) and were known as Marduf Al Qawassim. They were used in the regions of this area ruled by the Qawassim family—Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Kalba, Khorfakkan and Dibba. The Omani Paisa, or Bargash Paisa, was also used around this time; the paisa was made from cooper and used in the region from 1299 to 1316 H (1881 to 1898 AD). Earlier, Sultan Faisal bin Turki coins were minted in Zanzibar in 1313 H (1895 AD) and used in the Gulf and along the Persian coast; at the time, the area was ruled by Oman. Even earlier, Sultan Burgos coins were minted in Zanzibar in 1299 H and distributed within the East African countries before brought to Oman and the rest of the Gulf by the Portuguese
“What happened in the rest of the world with currency happened here. We were connected via the ancient trade routes and so when a particular currency became a popular trade unit, it became popular here. How important a coin was depended on the metals from which it was made and how trustworthy was the value of the coin. Even back then there was counterfeit and tampered with currency. For instance, those teethed ridges along the rim of the coins were added so that one knew if there is something inconsistent with the ridges then a coin has been tampered with.”
Al Mutairi explained the stories of coins produced even earlier than the Sultan Burgos coins. The area began, he says, “like the rest of the world, using Greek coins.” The drachma, in both silver and copper, was in widespread use in the region in the first century AD and is thought to have been the origin of the word “dirham.” Excavations across the UAE have traced the use of coins to as far back as the 4th century BC, when the first to be found in the area - imitations of Athenian examples - were struck.
Some of these coins were found at Mleiha, 50km east of Sharjah city, and el-Dur, in Umm al Qaiwain. At Mleiha, a large settlement that predated the Christian era by three centuries, the ruler Abi'el introduced some of the first mould-made coins in the ancient Middle East.
The coins minted locally have a name added to them in Aramaic. It is “Abi’el,” the daughter of so and so, giving rise to speculation that perhaps ed-Dur was a kingdom once run by a woman. The name Abi’el was added to imitations of imitations of common coins, a practice attributed to the first century AD. These feature the head of Heracles, or Hercules, wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion on the obverse (with a dot like a wart on his cheek) and on the reverse an enthroned, partially nude male figure or god (Zeus or a sun-god), with a horse or horse-protome, rather than the more common eagle, printed on its outstretched arm.
There is also a three-fluked anchor or trident and palm tree depicted on some coins, linking them to the sun god, as palm wood or branches were burnt around the ed-Dur temple. The horse also has associations with the sun god, giving further evidence to the site’s Shams/Shamash-cult past.
The el-Dur site also yielded examples of foreign coinage from India, Iran and Mesopotamia - all evidence of historic trading contacts. Examples of ancient coins can be found in museums across the UAE. They also appeared as stamps to highlight their historic importance.
Check out the virtual museum of ancient coins found in UAE: http://www.uaeinteract.com/history/e_muse/coins/co_main.asp
Imitation Greek coins minted locally found at ed-Dur, Um Al Quwain. Image courtesy of Dr Ernie Haerinck, UAQ museum.
Abi’el coins appearing as local Emirati stamps in 1995. Image courtesy of Abdulla Al Mutairi, from his stamp collection.
During the late pre-Islamic era, when the region of Oman and the UAE came under the control of the Sassanians in Iran, Sassanian coinage began to circulate in the region. Then with the spread of Islam, Islamic era coins made their way through, with coins from Iran, Iraq, and India widely accepted throughout the region. The first subtle changes to existing coins included the addition of “tayyib” (good) in the recently evolved Kufic script on Byzantine style copper coinage, or short and simple religious statements such as “Bismillah” (with the Name of Allah) on the margins of Sassanian coinage.
In the late first century after the Hijra, specifically in the year 77 AH (696 AD), the Muslims minted their first, own coins during the reign of the Umayyad Khalifah, Abdul Malik Ibn Marwan. The striking of Islamic coins continued in subsequent centuries in various countries and under various Islamic reigns. The dinar was traditionally made of gold, and the dirham of silver; for thousands of years, they have been used in trade and exchange across the region.
Generally, Islamic coins indicate the place and date of their mint, the name of the ruler, his father's name, and that of his heir-apparent or envoy. Quranic verses and reference to Prophet Mohammed were also included, with different Muslim leaders choosing different verses and Islamic references to distinguish their reign from other rulers. Islamic-era coins are particularly expensive and rare, selling for millions of dirhams. Each coin is different, depending on who minted it and when.
More on Islamic coins:
Al Mutairi is proud of his very rare First Abbasid coin (reign 132-656 AH/ 749-1258 AD). The creators struck the words “Mohammad is the prophet of Allah” to replace the Quranic chapter Surat Al-Ikhlas.
“Importance of spreading Islam and its ideology is evident through the various Islamic coins where besides Islamic verses and Islamic references, the Muslim leaders would reassert their Muslim identity and remind the masses of the importance of worshipping one God, so coins like this one were minted with the Shahada (the Islamic profession of faith) of 'there is no Allah except One Allah, and there is no partner unto Him.' How one wanted to be remembered was reflected on the currency of their rule.”
At the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, visitors can see the wealth of Islamic coins. “From the very earliest examples minted under the Umayyad caliphs in the 1st century AH/7th century AD to those circulating today, Islamic coins contain a wealth of fascinating information that can lead us from monetary and ideological topics to themes as diverse as the development of Islamic calligraphy or the achievements of Islamic science and technology.”
More on Islamic coins:
“I am in love with my coins, I can’t stop looking at them.
I keep rediscovering new things each time I look at one of them.”
After the First World War, with diminishing Ottoman influence in the area, Islamic coins disappeared from the Gulf region. The Indian Rupee appeared on the financial scene due to the expansion of trade between the Emirates and India. The rupee, or rubiya as it was locally pronounced, was paid out instead of gold. Indian traders refused to pay gold against pearls because the value of pearls fluctuated. The pearl industry was one of the area's biggest industries at the time. The first rupee note appeared in circulation during the reign of King George V in Britain, from 1910 to 1936.
The “external rupee,” or Gulf Rupee as it became known, replaced the Indian Rupee in 1959 as the official currency in the Emirates and the Gulf countries. This form of currency was widespread after the trucial agreements with Britain in the early 19th century, and remained in popular use until as recently as 1966.
The Indian Rupees remained in popular use because of the close trading ties between the two areas for over 130 years. The Rupees bore the heads of various British monarchs, including William IV and Victoria, but were later replaced by elephants and the three-headed lion of Ashoka.
When the Gulf Rupee was devalued in 1966, the Trucial Sates - the precursor to the UAE - adopted the Saudi Riyal. From June to September 1966, the Riyal was used as a transitional measure. Then, based on political alliances, new currencies went into circulation.
Abu Dhabi had its own currency, and Dubai and the northern emirates had their own. It was a different time with different politics, and this was reflected in the use of currency. Abu Dhabi was close with Bahrain, and Dubai was close with Qatar.
"Between 1966 and 1973, Abu Dhabi made use of the Bahraini Dinar, while Dubai and the rest of the emirates used the Qatar and Dubai Riyal. It is a reflection of the political alliances of that time.”
The Trucial States became known as the United Arab Emirates in 1971; Ras al Khaimah joined in 1972. The UAE Dirham was put into circulation for the first time on May 19, 1973. Today's Central Bank of the UAE was established in 1973 under the name of the UAE Currency Board to issue the national currency and replace other currencies that were in circulation. The Bahraini Dinar and the Qatari Dubai Riyal were replaced within weeks, at the rate of one dirham for one riyal and 10 dirhams for one dinar. According to the Central Bank of the UAE, "a total of 12.9 million dinars and 131 million riyals were replaced by 260 million dirhams in circulation.”
Photographs and text — Rym Tina Ghazal, unless credited otherwise