World of Coins

Medieval coins => Islamic world => Topic started by: Vincent on April 04, 2021, 11:49:28 PM

Title: Exploring the roots of Mongol coinage through a coin of Genghis Khan
Post by: Vincent on April 04, 2021, 11:49:28 PM
Someone – a non-numismatist – once asked me if there was such a thing as a coin of the Mongol Empire, to which I gave a somewhat ambiguous answer. The Mongols are, of course, in relation to monetary history, known for having introduced credit-based (as opposed to coin-based) monetary systems. I received the coin below last month, and I think it's worth a discussion. I already know what the coin is, but I’ll pretend that I don’t know, so as to discover the coin one element at a time and see which context it fits into typologically. A collector can learn a lot about coins by “discovering” the historical and numismatic context of a coin by personally going through it, rather than relying on a pre-existing attribution. You might even become aware of an incorrect attribution through this process.

The coin is 28 mm diameter and weighs 4.68 g. There's an image in higher resolution in the Zeno database, uploaded by a previous owner, at Zeno# 195091 (

   Let’s first look at the design and inscriptions of the coin. On one side, inside an octagon with eight dots around, we have the inscription “لا اله الا / الله محمد ر / سول الله”. This is the Islamic profession of faith: “There is no God except Allah. Mohammed is His messenger.”. On the other side we have a circle inside a square with knotted corners. Inside the circle there are three main lines and then an extra word on top: “الناصر / لدين الله / امير المومنين” and on top “خاني” (with ya tucked under nun and its tail pointing right). The three main lines are: “al-Nasir li-Din Allah, Commander of the Faithful” (al-Nasir being a Caliph). The word on top, khani, is referring to the word ‘Khan’, a title implying ‘ruler’ and originally used by the Turko-Mongol nomadic peoples of Central Asia. The inscription outside the square is read top-left-bottom-right. The bottom section (with the mint name) is weakly struck and not legible – it doesn’t matter so much, though, because the mintname on this exact type, when legible, is always Balkh. So, the outer inscription reads (top) “ضرب هذا”, (left) “الدرهم”, (bottom) “ببلخ في شهو”, (right) “ر سنه ثمان”. The date is significantly abbreviated, it gives only the units, not the tens or hundreds. Together, it means “This dirham was struck in Balkh in the months (‘shuhur’) of the year of eight [and tens and hundreds]”.
   So, what kind of a coin are we dealing with? Well, the Caliph al-Nasir li-Din Allah is cited on the coin, and he was Caliph from 1180 to 1225. (We have to be careful with this particular Caliph, though, because the Mongols liked to put his name on their coins long after his death). This places the coin after 1180. The city of Balkh, which in modern geographical terms is located in northern Afghanistan, was part of the Great Seljuq Empire until the mid-12th century, but has a rather tumultuous history in subsequent decades, involving Qarakhanids, Khwarezmshahs, Ghorids and Mongols.
   The design with the circle inside – and interlaced with – a square outer frame is characteristic of the broad copper dirhams of this region during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It has been a common design on late period Qarakhanid dirhams since the time of Mas‘ud bin Hasan (1161-71). The design survived dynastic change, so multiple successive dynasties have used this design for their broad copper dirhams. The complex history of Central Asia at this time plays out in the context of the waning power of the Great Seljuq Empire in the broader Persian region and the arrival of the Qara-Khitay people from the East, with the other dynasties sandwiched in between. The Western Qarakhanids having taken control of Balkh, the minting of broad copper dirhams spread to this city. The broad copper dirhams occur with or without (residual remains of) a silver wash. Because these coins often appear as pure copper coins, they are sometimes mistakenly labelled fals.
   The Qarakhanids (also known as the Ilak Khans) and the Khwarezmshahs were prolific coin issuers in this region in the decades prior to the Mongol invasion. Before the arrival of the Mongols, the Khwarezmshahs had been in the ascendant, they had conquered territory from the Ghorids (their eastern neighbours) and the Qarakhanids. The Khwarezmshahs continued the minting of broad copper dirhams in the cities of Central Asia (including Balkh). The tide turned for them when the Mongols arrived and destroyed their empire, and the surviving member of the ruling family, Jalal al-Din Mangubarni, spent a decade trying to cobble together the leftover pieces of his realm – ultimately in vain.
   It’s interesting to note that the above coin carries the epithet “khani”, i.e. of the Khan. ‘Khan’ may feature in many different contexts today (e.g. as a name), but that was not the case before the 13th century. It was the Mongol expansion that popularised the term ‘Khan’ across Asia. The Qarakhanids and the Mongols used the terms ‘Khan’ (ruler) and ‘Khaqan’ (supreme ruler), but the Khwarezmshahs did not. The Khwarezmshahs used titles that were normal in the sedentary regions. There are plenty of epithets on the Khwarezmshahs’ coins, but ‘khani’ is not one of them – unsurprisingly, because ‘khani’ would have implied a foreign ruler. (The relevant Khwarezmshah, ‘Ala al-Din Mohammed ibn Tekesh (1200-20), used sanjari, mansuri, qadiri, qarari, sultani, muzaffari and other words as epithets on his broad copper dirhams). Whoever issued the coin, it can’t be the Khwarezmshahs.
   The coins of the Qarakhanids generally have a religious side and a secular side (as indeed is normal for medieval Islamic coinage). The secular side carries the Qarakhanid ruler’s name, usually preceded by his Turko-Mongol title ‘Khaqan’. The proto-Mongolic Qara-Khitay people arrived on the scene in the mid 12th century, after they had been ejected from China; they made the Qarakhanids their vassals. The Qara-Khitay are relatively invisible, numismatically speaking, because the coins minted in their hey-day continued to be minted in the names of the Qarakhanid vassal rulers.
   So, considering that the coin must have been issued by a ‘Khan’ (since it is explicitly a khani dirhem), and therefore by one of the nomadic Turko-Mongol cultures in the region, and that it was not issued by the Qarakhanids or the Qara-Khitay (because it – being anonymous – doesn’t conceptually fit into their dirham series), who could have issued the coin? There’s really only one possibility left. The Mongols took Balkh in AH617 (1220 CE). In AH618 (1221 CE) they destroyed the city and massacred the population, apparently after an uprising against the Mongols. After this, Balkh was depopulated for an extended period of time.
   For the same reason, Mongol minting activity at Balkh became a flash in the pan. Some broad copper dirhams (including mine) were minted there during AH618-619 (1221/2-1222/3). Some undated (presumably contemporary with the dirhams) fulus were minted there, but within just a few years the Balkh mint appears to have ceased operations, only to be resumed in Timurid times. (It can be difficult to say with certainty because many early Mongol coins are both anonymous and undated and could therefore in principle have been minted at almost any point in time). The type in question sometimes carries only one digit of the date (in this case ‘theman’ (eight)), but some specimens carry two digits: ‘theman ‘ashr’ (eighteen). It is therefore possible to say that the full date would have been AH618 (1221/2) – a year after the Mongol capture of Balkh. It is quite chilling to think about the fact that the coin was minted in the year the massacre took place (AH618). The ‘Khan’ that the word ‘khani’ alludes to is therefore Genghis Khan (1206-27). The fact that the coin is anonymous (apart from the name of the Caliph) fits in perfectly in the Mongol context, because early Mongol coins are mostly anonymous.
   It is interesting to note that the name of an otherwise unknown ruler, Abu’l-Mujahid Muhammad, appears on coins of Balkh from AH617 (Album# 1753). Was he the leader of the presumed rebellion against the Mongols?
   The coins of Genghis Khan are uncommon. Part of the reason is that his empire had not expanded so far into regions with monetised economies by the time of his death (1227) as it later would. The destruction of cities (and thereby centres of commerce and minting activity) didn’t help either.
   The Mongols didn’t have a tradition for issuing coins before their expansion at the time of Genghis Khan. When the Mongols established themselves in newly conquered regions, the already extant coinage traditions there continued under Mongol control, with relevant changes to the coins’ inscriptions to accommodate the new authority. At the inception of Mongol coin production, the complex mesh of coinage traditions of Central Asia, encompassing overlapping Qarakhanid, Khwarezmshah and Ghorid traditions, was the foundation upon which Mongol coin production was established. Nevertheless, the practice of minting coins, which the Mongols had come into contact with out in their newly acquired provinces, eventually spread to the Mongol capital at Karakorum.
   Further east, in northern China, the Mongols did mint coins before the creation of the (Mongol) Yuan dynasty, but they are not generally thought to be as early as the time of Genghis Khan. That said, there are a number of coins with Song dynasty inscriptions in a barbarous style, and there is at least the possibility that the Mongols are responsible for minting those. The coinage tradition of the Xi Xia Empire (in what is now north-western China) ceased entirely after the Mongol conquest.
   Because many early Mongol coins are anonymous it can be difficult to assign them to a particular ruler. Assigning a coin to Genghis Khan specifically – considering the name recognition in this case – might therefore be a selling point for a dealer more than anything else. It might be worth asking yourself how we know that a given coin was minted by the Mongol ruler it is being assigned to (or by the Mongols at all, for that matter). For instance, the famous siege jital of Kurzuwan (in northern Afghanistan) is believed to have been issued by the defenders of the city, not by the Mongols, but dealers will seldom fail to mention the name of Genghis Khan in connection with the coin.
   I personally have my doubts that the Mongol jitals of Nimruz are from the time of Genghis Khan. Nimruz is a region, not a city; the capital city of Nimruz was Zaranj (now in western Afghanistan). Before the Mongols arrived, Nimruz was controlled by the late Saffarids, who were vassals under the Khwarezmshahs. The coins of Nimruz from that period are known to us as ‘late Saffarid’ coins. After the arrival of the Mongols, coins were issued in the region with the mint name “Nimruz” explicitly indicated on the coins, many of which are jitals (or at least categorised as such). Early post-Saffarid coins are clearly Mongol, later coins were issued by the local Mehrabanid dynasty. The problem is, I don’t see any evidence that the Mongols were present in Zaranj before 1235.
   The Mongol Empire was administratively divided into four main regions, one of which (East Asia) was ruled by the Khaqan (supreme ruler of all Mongols), the others ruled by khans (rulers), who owed allegiance to the Khaqan. These three khanates were the Chaghatay Khanate (Central Asia), the Khanate of the Golden Horde (in Eastern Europe) and the Ilkhanate (Persia). Of these, the Golden Horde had an internal division (the White Horde and the Blue Horde). Three khaqans succeeded Genghis Khan as supreme rulers of a unified Mongol Empire: Ögedei (1229-41), Güyük (1246-48) and Möngke (1251-59). The queens were often involved in succession disputes after the death of a ruler. The death of Möngke in 1259 unleashed a war of succession, which saw different Mongol factions fighting each other. This caused the empire to (de facto) fall apart into its constituent parts. The idea of the Mongol Empire as a unified political structure was since the 1260s an illusion.
   Returning to the original question (‘Is there such a thing as a coin of the Mongol Empire?’), the answer is that there are coins of that empire, but they constitute a patchwork of local traditions, rather than a unitary, centrally organised monetary system.
   One interesting aspect of the copper dirham illustrated above is that it raises a question as to how the category ‘Islamic coins’ is even defined. The dynasty that issued the coin was non-Muslim; at the same time, the dynasty helped ideas (including religious ideas) spread from one region to another within the empire. Normally, though, this coin would be defined as an Islamic coin, because the broader cultural context that the coin is part of, and that it itself expresses, is Islamic.

A museum in Legnickie Pole in south-western Poland dedicated to the Mongol invasion of 1241 during the reign of Ögedei Khan (1229-41). While the museum does an excellent job of presenting the historical circumstances of the invasion, there are no actual original Mongol artefacts on display. The problem is that the battle of Legnica/Liegnitz is not archaeologically attested, so there are no artefacts to put on display. The museum is housed in a decommissioned medieval church. (Private photo, May 2018).
Title: Re: Exploring the roots of Mongol coinage through a coin of Genghis Khan
Post by: Figleaf on April 05, 2021, 11:03:15 PM
Thank you, Vincent and congratulations with a coin that is a little treasure of history. You got lots of things right. Nevertheless, without claiming expert knowledge, there is one aspect that I think I need to comment on: a coin issued by a city the Mongols had subjected was not necessarily by or even for the Mongols.

Before Genghis the area was a centre of trading routes, notably from China to Mediterranean ports and from there up to Venice. Cities and the merchants in the cities protected themselves by impressive city walls made of dried mud. The inhabitants had been Muslims for centuries. The centre of their religious life was Baghdad, seat of the Caliphate and centre of knowledge and research.

Genghis and his family were none of the above. As you note, they were nomads. They worshipped nature, but were quite tolerant of other religions. They measured their wealth by the size of their herds. They slept in elaborate tents. The things Genghis disdained most were money and silver, city walls and refined living. He saw other people mainly as competitors for grazing land, therefore of less importance than his ponies. When he had conquered a walled city, he would dismantle the walls and plunder it at best, raze it and kill its population at worst. He did not leave an occupation force in the city.

You can imagine that after the Mongols had left for their next city, what was left of the population of the newly conquered city tried to re-start life. Someone of economic or military importance took the lead, organised the reconstruction and tried to re-start trade. That person would also have money struck. The coins would look like the ones in circulation before and the good city governors went out of their way not to offend the Mongols - unless Mangubarni ( came along for a visit. This situation easily explains why these coins look Islamic. They were thought up, designed and issued by the original population, aiming at instilling confidence by looking like known coins. The Mongols were largely either unaware of the issues or didn't care about them.

In time, the Mongols adapted. They started making coins, some became muslims and they built walled cities themselves, quartering an occupation force in them. That development was not complete enough to save Baghdad or the House of Wisdom (

Title: Re: Exploring the roots of Mongol coinage through a coin of Genghis Khan
Post by: Vincent on April 07, 2021, 10:23:26 AM
[...] a coin issued by a city the Mongols had subjected was not necessarily by or even for the Mongols.

I have read my own text again with your comments in mind and I do agree that some elements would have been better off had they been worded differently. When I wrote that "the coin must have been issued by a ‘Khan’", I meant it in the broadest possible sense. That is, the coin was issued under circumstances where the region in which it was minted was under the political and military supremacy of the Khan. I realise that expressions such as "Mongol minting activity at Balkh" and "the already extant coinage traditions there continued under Mongol control" do make it sound as if the Mongols had set up a governmental structure, and that there would be a Mongol governor who would hire and fire mint directors and have them mint coins to the Khan's liking. That wasn't the point I was trying to make.

They were thought up, designed and issued by the original population, aiming at instilling confidence by looking like known coins. The Mongols were largely either unaware of the issues or didn't care about them.

I suppose this raises some questions about what a Mongol coin even is. If the Mongols capture a city and - while preparing to move on to the next city - say to the people in the city "Behave nicely, now, while we're away, OK?" and the response is "Yes sir, we will" and the mint there then procedes to mint coins with the word 'khani' on them, is that then a Mongol coin? In my opinion it is. But you could have a higher bar, and say that there must be a Mongol administration that is in charge of the mint in order to call it a Mongol coin. And in that case, I suppose there are no coins of Genghis Khan whatsoever.
   I suspect if we were to apply the higher bar across all numismatic fields, then there would be many coins in need of reclassification. There have been many cases where the central government is weak and outlying provinces are nominally, but not de facto, under the control of the central government. Then again, in the case of Central Asian mints operating during the reign of Genghis Khan we're not just talking about decentralised minting activity, but an outright disconnect between the mints and the central authority (Genghis), which makes this case more extreme.
   Maybe we could think of the Mongols as the vikings of the East. The viking rulers, especially in the early viking age, were kings of their fleets of viking ships first and foremost and only as a secondary matter kings of the lands that they controlled. Some people would make the argument that "viking king" is a contradiction in terms, although that might be taking the argument a bit too far. Neither the vikings, nor the Mongols, were in the habit of getting themselves involved in management of civilian affairs, which makes both stand out as particularly primitive in their respective conexts (Europe and Asia).
Title: Re: Exploring the roots of Mongol coinage through a coin of Genghis Khan
Post by: Figleaf on April 07, 2021, 04:05:58 PM
Your comparison with the Vikings is apt, except the Vikings did garrison what they had conquered. Also, they took to copying Saxon and Irish coins. I don't think you will need any re-classifications, but a degree of paying attention to how you formulate things properly may be called for. For instance, "civic issues from the times if Genghis Khan" would be an improvement on "coins of Genghis Khan".

As a further comfort, the period of administrative neglect did not last long. Genghis' son, Ögedei Khan, had a wall built around his capital Karakorum, but he also used silver and gold to erect the huge silver tree, rather than for coins. Imperial cities got a governor with a garrison force to support him, though the job of city governors was often left to non-Mongols. The Mongols made sure governors were born far away from the cities they controlled.

With the Toluids and especially Kublai Khan, there came a real political struggle between hard-line conservatives, led by the Chagataids and the more flexible Toluids. It is no coincidence that the coins of Kublai Khan are perhaps the most recognisable issues of all Mongol qaghans.

Title: Re: Exploring the roots of Mongol coinage through a coin of Genghis Khan
Post by: Pellinore on April 22, 2021, 12:30:19 AM
Thanks Vincent - and Figleaf, for your excellent exposé about the case of Mongolian coinage - and did it actually exist. You demonstrated it existed because of the language of the coins. While blending into the contemporary coinage of the vanquished empires and kingdoms, the use of the word 'Khani' points to the actual ruler of the realm. The dynasty that had introduced that term for its rulers, the Qarakhanids, had already perished one or two decades earlier against Muhammad b. Tekesh of Khwarezm who had built a gigantic empire, only to see it go under in a short devastating campaign by Genghis. 

Clarifying for me was the Qara-Khitai being termed as proto-Mongols, the forerunners of the Mongolian invasion. They made themselves masters of the Qarakhanid empire in the classical way: brother 1 waged war on brother 2, and one of them could not but call the soldierlike Qara-Khitai in for help, only to be subjected himself to his helpers as a way of payment. The Qara-Khitai adapted to Qarakhanid ways and left little trace in history, but the later Mongols did not adapt. They bulldozered their way into the world, destroying it because they were just not interested.

Now you are stating the coinage that we call 'of Genghis Khan' was issued by his subjects unconnected to him, except for the word 'of the khan' stamped on it. But under later Mongol Great Khans coins were issued that show a new visual style, and now I'm curious when traces of that visual style first appear.

I'm thinking of the coarse Islamic coinage, maybe I should say blunt instead of coarse. Here are some examples. All of these were issued in the middle of the 7th/ 13th century in Almaligh, a medieval town nowadays straddling the border between Kazakhstan and China. Can you point to typical 'Mongolian style' coins before these? And what does that mean for the involvement of the Mongol rulers with coinage?

-- Paul
Title: Re: Exploring the roots of Mongol coinage through a coin of Genghis Khan
Post by: Vincent on April 27, 2021, 06:54:24 PM
I like the term exposé. That reflects what I'm doing, although I hadn't thought of the word.

With regard to the three coins illustrated above, compare with Zeno# 137557 ( (copper dirham) and 221378 ( (silver dirhams). They may not be exact matches, but at least they're close.

I suppose the coaseness of the coins is indicative of the coins belonging to the edge of a civilisation (in this case the Islamic civilisation), rather than the core of it. So I don't see it as a specifically Mongolian aesthetic, although coarseness can give rise (if unintentionally) to a new style. An example of this would be coins of the Indian princely states, that would reproduce Persian inscriptions from Moghul times, but often in such a way that it would be detectable that the die cutter did not know Persian himself.

It seems to me that tracing the roots of early Mongol coinage is a bit like peeling an onion. The more coins I look at the more parallels I see with other coins of other dynasties. You can see a coinage tradition evolve, but you can't necessarily find a specific point, stick a flag in it and say "this is where it begins!". As for the two silver dirhams above with the mint name (Almaligh) in the center on one side, this design is based on an earlier type, A# 1979, which has ‘al ghayat ("عال / غاية") in the center instead of the mint name. This, in turn, is copied from Fatimid dinars (or Crusader copies thereof). So, you can go back and forth through the layers of the onion.

With regard to the involvement of Mongol rulers with their coinage, there is no doubt that the Mongols caught on to the fact that governing an empire required skills and systems that they did not originally possess, and some development did take place in the organisation of the empire. I'm sorry if I can't be more precise with what that means with regard to the coins specifically.

While we're at it, I've noticed a type from Kashghar, A# 1975, which is generally described as being issued by ‘Mas‘ud al-Khwarizmi, governor in Karakorum’. However, unless there's something I don't know, Mas‘ud al-Khwarizmi was actually governor in Central Asia on behalf of Karakorum, not governor in Karakorum.