Coins on a Bakhtiari veil ornament, Iran

The use of coins or ‘umla is widespread throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Issued by an official mint long before the introduction of silver hallmarks, coins were an indication of an established and guaranteed silver content.


Two coins that both possess a high silver content and are of consistently good quality, proved to be of major importance in the nomadic societies of the Middle East, and indeed in the economical landscape of the entire world. They are the Spanish columnario or pillar dollar, and the Austrian Maria Theresia Thaler. The pillar dollars found their way to the Middle East, where they were prized for their solid silver content; their use was widespread in the Ottoman Empire. The coin was variously referred to as kara gurus, kebir gurus, tamam gurus, real kurus and riyal. This last term is a derivate of its Spanish name, real and became the word of choice in Arabic to indicate official coins. In Egypt, where the pillars were misinterpreted as cannons, the dollar was nicknamed Abu Madfa (father of guns). The MTT was the most popular coin in circulation in North Africa and the Middle East and went by many names: Abu Tayr (Father of Birds) referring to the imperial eagle; Abu Nuqta (Father of Dots) a reference to the number of pearls on the brooch of the empress; and Abu Rish (Father of Feathers) a name suggested by the eagle’s many tail feathers. All these distinctive features were used to check the authenticity of the coin. In purely monetary terms, the coin was referred to as Riyal Faransawi (French Riyal) or Riyal Nimsawi (Austrian Riyal).


One of the aspects of my research into jewelry is the wider economical landscape that can be reconstructed using coins that are used in jewelry. In addition to the most coveted coins such as the Maria Theresia Thaler and the pillar dollar, that appear virtually everywhere, many other coins are used on jewelry and costume. Upon a closer look, these coins reveal a lot about the trade contacts between groups. By comparing the reach of the exchange of currency and thus establishing the existence and intensity of contact more firmly, also other cultural exhanges can be traced and sometimes explained.