Morton & Eden Ltd
Auction 85  27 April 2017
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Lot 3

Estimate: 70 000 GBP
Price realized: 80 000 GBP
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ARAB-SASANIAN, TEMP. 'ABD AL-MALIK B. MARWAN (65-86h), Drachm, without mint or date, possibly Damascus, c. 75h. OBVERSE: In field: Armoured bust to right, holding sheathed sword in right hand, with name of the Sasanian ruler Khusraw in Pahlawi to right and gdh apzwt ('may his glory increase') to left. In border: bismillah la i- laha illa Allah wa – hdahu Muhammad ra – sul Allah, divided by stars-in-crescents except above the bust, where the star-in-crescent is replaced by a pellet-within-annulet. REVERSE: In field: Arch supported on columns, within which is a vertical barbed spear which has two pennants floating to the left just below the head; to right and left of the columns: khalifat Allah - amir al-mu'minin; to either side of the spear-shaft: nasr – Allah. In border: Four stars-in-crescents, with Pahlawi ap ('praise') at one o'clock. WEIGHT: 3.54g. REFERENCES: Treadwell 2005, 2 same dies; Walker p.24, ANS.5, same reverse die = Gaube CONDITION: Very fine to good very fine, excessively rare and a type of considerable historical significance. One of the greatest and most sought-after rarities of the Arab-Sasanian series, the 'Mihrab and 'Anaza' drachm has been rightly described as 'extraordinary' (Grabar, O., The Formation of Islamic Art, revised and enlarged edition, Yale, 1987), and 'a very valuable little archaeological document' (Miles, 'Mihrab and 'Anazah'). Many of the difficulties of interpreting this piece stem from the fact that it lacks both date and mint-name. Most scholars have assumed that it was struck at Damascus. Firstly, the mean weight of extant specimens is about 3.6-3.7g, which is somewhat lighter than the standard maintained at mints in the East but consistent with other Arab-Sasanian issues struck at Damascus in the early-mid 70s. Secondly, Damascus was the Umayyad capital where other experimental drachms were struck, including the Standing Caliph type with which the Mihrab and 'Anaza drachms have often been compared. This may very well be correct, although it will be suggested below that other possibilities should also be considered. The latest study of this issue is that of Treadwell (2005), who plausibly interprets the imagery on this coin as a reaction to perceived problems with the design of the Standing Caliph drachms, which he argues must have been struck immediately before the Mihrab and 'Anaza type. On this analysis, the Standing Caliph type was produced to accompany the Standing Caliph dinars and fulus introduced in Syria in the previous year. Treadwell notes that the gold and copper issues conformed to 'the traditional numismatic formula that located the ruler on the obverse and a religious symbol on the reverse,' while the 'Standing Caliph' drachm 'contained two conflicting images of is the Shahanshah's imposing bust that dominates the imagery of the coin, not the cramped figure of the caliph on the reverse' (Treadwell, p.11). The Mihrab and 'Anaza type rectifies this by changing the design of the Sasanian bust so that it is recognisably the Caliph who appears on the obverse, and by replacing the standing figure on the reverse with an image of the Prophet's spear mounted within an arch. Unfortunately, while this argument neatly explains the imagery, it clashes awkwardly with the legends. The bust which Treadwell identifies as the caliph himself is in fact labelled in Pahlawi as that of Khusraw, while the spear on the reverse carries the legends khalifat Allah – amir al-mu'minin. It is possible to argue, as Treadwell does, that 'the Standing Caliph drachm was an unsuccessful hybrid that had been cobbled together at speed [and so] it would not be surprising if its hastily executed substitute were also deficient in some respects.' But the addition of nasr Allah beside the spear on the reverse shows that the legends were not merely slavishly copied from a preceding type, and it seems hard to imagine that such sophisticated thought should have been given to the imagery only for the legends to have been applied so inappropriately. Furthermore, closer examination reveals that the images on both sides of this type are less straightforward then they may first appear. The figure on the obverse, whom Treadwell identified as being the caliph, wears a peculiar type of headgear, has cross-hatching across his breast to represent a different type of dress from the norm, and rather awkwardly carries a sheathed sword. Treadwell notes that the figure on the reverse of the Standing Caliph drachm, like that on the obverse of the gold and copper Standing Caliph types, similarly carries a sheathed sword, and he therefore suggests that this feature identifies the Mihrab and 'Anaza bust as that of the caliph also. He has no explanation for the design of the crown or helmet, beyond noting that it is does not look like any other crown seen on the coinage of any Sasanian ruler. As for the cross-hatch pattern on the figure's breast, Treadwell's explanation is that this is chiefly an artistic rather than a naturalistic feature, designed to allow the sheathed sword to feature more prominently. Unfortunately, neither the cross-hatching nor the headgear looks even remotely like the dress of the Standing Caliph figure and so, much as with the problematic legends, these features do nothing to support to the suggestion that the Mihrab and 'Anaza drachm was designed to improve and rectify the Standing Caliph type. The object on the reverse, to which Miles devoted most of his attention, has traditionally been identified as a spear or lance within a mihrab. It was Miles who refined this, specifiying that the spear was the 'anaza of the Prophet himself, and suggesting rather more cautiously that the mihrab could be identified more precisely as the niche type (mihrab mujawwaf). If so, this coin would be the earliest depiction of this important Islamic architectural feature. Miles' interpretation of the arch as a mihrab has met with a mixed reception among later scholars. Some have endorsed his view that the feature is indeed a Muslim mihrab rather than any other kind of arch, while others (including Treadwell) have pointed out that arches of this type are found on coins struck by all three Abrahamic religions. Connections with the Christian sacrum in Jerusalem (the arch which stood over the True Cross) have been suggested. In this way, this remarkable coin would have played its part in the so-called 'war of images' between the Christians and Muslims during this period. It is perhaps worth remembering, however, that the Mihrab and 'Anaza type is not so securely tied to Damascus during the mid-70s Hijri as some might imply. Treadwell reports that Miles himself 'did not consider that the coin, as he had described it, fitted smoothly into the series of Damascus silver coinage of the mid-690s.' The type is not dated, and while the metrology does argue against these drachms having been struck as part of the main series produced in the East, Damascus was not the only place where lighter Arab-Sasanian drachms were being issued at this time. Drachms struck in Armenia and the North (see lot 1) during the 70s seem to have been struck to a weight standard in the region of 3.3g, and like the Mihrab and 'Anaza type carry on the obverse a bust which is clearly Sasanian but is obviously different from the familiar Khusraw II type which had become the standard in the East for decades. Another curious feature of the Mihrab and 'Anaza drachms is the large number of dies used: the seven specimens listed by Treadwell were struck from seven obverse and six reverse dies. Is this consistent with a short-lived, experimental type concocted hastily in Damascus and quickly abandoned, or might this be better explained in the context of a short-lived, specific event such as a military campaign? Hints in support of a military context come from another remarkable Arab-Sasanian issue which neither Miles nor Treadwell appears to have considered, possibly because it was struck after the transitional period in Damascus and in a different part of the Islamic world. This is the celebrated Arab-Ephthalite issue struck by Yazid b. Muhallab in 84h, whose reverse depicts a standing warrior wearing chain-mail and armed with sword and spear. The obverse of this type, has clear similarities with the bust of the Mihrab and 'Anaza issue, especially the domed helmet with the crest behind, represented as the 'weather-vane' on the coin of Yazid and by Miles's 'tassels' on the present specimen. There are also parallels with the 'globe' symbol above the helmet, which can now be interpreted as the top of the fitment for the helmet's crest (and which is clearly intended to be different from the stars-in-crescents elsewhere in the border). Having identified the headgear as a military helmet, there is no reason to reject the idea that the cross-hatching represents armour. Comparison with Yazid b. Muhallab's drachm offers further intriguing possibilities. The obverse bust on Yazid's issue is still recognisably that of the Sasanian king with his features unaltered, while the name-legend before the bust is that of Yazid himself, positioned where governors' names were usually placed on Arab-Sasanian drachms. The armoured figure on the reverse is not explicitly identified, but has been plausibly interpreted either as a depiction of the caliph or of Yazid himself. Whichever may have been intended, the overall effect is that the designer was more concerned with transforming the imagery of a standard Arab-Sasanian drachm to give a general impression of military force and authority, rather than feeling the need to identify individual figures of authority. Looking again at the Mihrab and 'Anaza drachm, we see something similar here: the bust is armoured, helmeted and wearing a sword, while the reverse depicts a barbed spear accompanied by the phrase 'Victory from God.' Wherever and whenever this fascinating coin was struck, its overtly military imagery suggests that it may have been intended to play a practical role as a military coinage just as much as playing its part in a religious 'war of images.' (70000 - 100000 GBP)
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