Persia has had a chequered history but has maintained much of its own character, and this is clearly evident in the wide variety of coins it produced throughout the centuries.
In Persian history, monarchs and rulers used the striking of coins whether in gold or silver to represent their authority over their own people and their neighbouring states. At certain periods throughout Persian history the coins can rightly be considered as miniature works of art.
Persia (Fars or Pars) rose to importance as the homeland of the 'Persians' who settled there under Elam in the 8th century B.C., and later founded the Achaemenian Empire.
The institution of the first distinctively Persian coinage is credited to Darius I (522-486 B.C.). He issued gold coins, which became famous as "darics". Their design depicted the king in a running position holding a spear or bow.
The Achaemenian kings retained this basic design for both the gold daric (named after Darius himself) and the silver siglos for nearly two centuries. His successors varied this design only by substituting their own image and weapons of choice.
In 330 B.C., Darius III was captured by Alexander the Great, and the great days of the Persian empire ended. Alexander's campaigns drew Persia into the Hellenistic world of silver-based coinage and a system was founded on the silver drachm and tetradrachm.
The vast majority of Parthian drachms were struck on oval flans with the portrait perpendicular to the long axis. When the Parthian kings began to strike coins towards the end of the 3rd century B.C. they followed the Attic weight standard of about 4.25 g. for their silver drachms.
All Parthian tetradchms were produced at the Seleucia mint. In place of the archer used on the reverse of the silver drachms, these larger coins usually showed other scenes such as the goddess Tyche giving a diadem to the king.
The Kings of Persia struck local coinage from the period of Seleucid decline (circa 180 B.C.), and through most of the Parthian period until one of their number, Ardeshir I, defeated the Parthian king Artabanos V. Two years later he was crowned as the first Sassanian king in 226 A.D..
The dominating feature of these coins is the royal portrait bust in profile. At their finest, as on the coins of Shapur I, the portraits are superb, with life like characterisation in the features.
Another innovative feature is the prominent position of the Kings name; and Pahlavi is the language of this inscription.
The reform of the coinage c. 696-98 A.D. introduced by Caliph Abd al Malik, shows Islam at its most iconoclastic and austere. Its copper denomination, the fals, exhibited a wide variety of types, but the silver coin, the dirham, used a single calligraphic type at all of the mints of the Caliphate. This coin, with its religious inscriptions and its consistent use of a date and a mint name, set a pattern that was followed for the next few centuries throughout the Islamic world.
Under the Ilkhans the main inscriptions surrounded by marginal inscriptions are transformed by a wide variety of decorative patterns. Square kufic and naskh script is used, as well as plain kufic. The Mongol language and script are introduced, sometimes alongside Arabic.
The establishment of the Safavid dynasty sees a revival of many of the best features of earlier coinage, such as a concern for the maintenance of a high and reliable quality of metal; inscriptions that were easily legible and aesthetically pleasing, and within established limits the maximum variety of design.
However, throughout the Safavid dynasty and succeeding periods there was a steady tendency for the weight and quality of the coinage to decline, in spite of periodic attempts to halt the process.
During the reign of Qajar Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834) pictorial designs started to reappear on the gold and silver coins. We see the mounted shah with lance and sabre at full gallop, from the Zanjan mint.
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Copyright © 2001 K. Kianush, Art Arena