The term “mysterious east” has, historically,
applied in spades to Oman. The old sultan (“lord”) kept the country
locked up during his reign. The current one has taken steps toward
joining the modern world, has distributed some of the wealth, established
schools and hospitals, sent people to study abroad, promoted tourism.
There are some handfuls of American troops stationed there, manning a skeleton
base should an expansion of activity in the “Gulf” (Persian or Arab,
depending which side you’re on) be warranted or otherwise called for.
Oman is still quite mysterious though. I was just at the beach and took a survey of my 11 adult inlaws who were there. 9 of them had heard of Oman, but only 3 could say where it was, and none could name a single fact about it, other than the natural conclusion to be drawn from its location - that it is an Arab country.
I went to the web for research. There is a nice official website, another by a business group in Oman, some encyclopedia type presentations are to be found, travel guides. Interesting stuff but in some ways as interesting for what is not presented as for what is.
For example, the government site has absolutely nothing but good things to say about anything. It essentially ignores most of the last thousand years of Omani history, describes the coup by the current ruler (evidently a decent guy and a competent, if absolute, ruler) against his father as "the abdication," calls a regional conflict of several decades duration a "communist insurgency." It is like a cake covered with frosting, one can't see if its chocolate or angelfood or carrot-pecan inside.
And the historical and archeological sites tell stories that have a lot of "maybes" in them. This is primarily due to lack of research during the closed period. The government website proudly mentions that a search for historical documents has turned up some 4000 items for the national archives, which institution did not exist until recently. That's not a lot to build a history out of. There are still a lot of blank pages in the story. And it is a very long story.
Well, then, let’s go find the country. The Arabian peninsula is a triangular territory lying between Africa and southwestern Asia. It comprises about 1.2 million square miles of land, of which about 80% is occupied by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The southern Arabian coast and immediate hinterland is Yemen. A good sized little chunk of territory on the eastern side, facing the Persian Gulf, belongs to the United Arab Emirates and its outrider nonmembers - Qatar and Bahrain. South of the UAE, jutting out into the Indian Ocean and curving around the eastern coast to meet Yemen, is the Sultanate of Oman.
Despite the fact that the other countries deprive Saudi Arabia of a direct outlet to the Indian Ocean there has never been any move by the Sauds to acquire any of those territories. The nature of the region and the people who occupy it makes any moves toward that end, whether political or military, impossible.
All of the Arabian peninsula is subject to a sociopolitical dynamic that flows from a distinct difference in the ways of life of the people of the interior versus those on the coast. Throughout history the coast dwellers have been traders in contact with people from all over the world, and this has given rise to some degree of tolerant cosmopolitanism. Inland, in the mountains and the
deserts, tribal nomads have roamed, tending toward parochial intolerance of people and cultures other than their own. Occasional military ventures by the nomads on the coastal settlements have been a constant feature of Arabian history. Coastal efforts to control the nomads have been sporadic and in the long run unsuccessful.
The Sauds of Saudi Arabia stem from the nomad side of the cultural divide. The Saids of Oman are coastal. Mountains back the Persian Gulf coast, and back of the mountains is the great Arabian desert extending southward to the Yemeni border. The Omani mountains are filled with culturally distinct former nomads who feel that they are ruled by foreigners. The inhabitants of the southern desert were in open rebellion until the 1970s and are sullenly waiting for their next chance to do something as you read this.
One finds Paleolithic artifacts throughout Arabia. Stone handaxes of the Acheulian type are not uncommon. These things were used by one of the hominid species that preceded us, homo erectus, until roughly 100,000 BC. Artifacts of the successor Neanderthal species and by early members of our own line are also found. For homo sapiens (us) all of the stone culture levels are represented: Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. I have been offered stone age material from Saudi Arabia from several different sources in the recent past. Nothing has been advertised as hailing from Oman, but this is more likely due to the smaller volume of traffic in and out of that country than to the lack of stuff. In fact, just last week I was contacted by someone who had picked up Neolithic items in a part of Saudi Arabia called the "Empty Quarter." On the other side of the Empty Quarter is - Oman.
As for archeological investigation, as opposed to curio collection, none was permitted in Oman during most of the 20th century, so there is not much written about Omani prehistory, and not much in the way of early artifacts to be seen in museums. What there is looks typically neolithic: small, finely made flint points and other artifacts, unglazed pottery with simple incised decoration or none at all, shells, fishbones, latterly bits of copper. I found mention of an absence of land animal bones at coastal sites, indicating that those people fished but did not hunt. The websites all talk about early migrations of pastoralists from the north and discuss the evidence of earlier human and hominid occupation elsewhere in Arabia not at all.
As far as history goes, which is to say the record of things that happened since the invention of writing, there is also not much in the way of direct evidence. The official website mentions a site at Al-Qurum near the city of Muscat at the mouth of the Gulf that dates back to 3400 BCE. There is probable mention of the region in the earliest records of the Sumerian civilization of
Mesopotamia. Evidently those folks got their copper from a town called Magan, which was probably located on the Omani coast, and possibly predated the Sumerians themselves. We’re talking perhaps 3000 BC here. But the actual site of Magan has not yet been found. Copper is still mined in the mountains of northern Oman, and the largest mine is called Magan, but this name was lately bestowed in honor of the putative early inhabitants rather than a survival from ancient times.
It is worth mentioning that the official line in Oman is that Magan WAS Oman. That is what Omani children learn in school. The archeologists are still arguing about it, some of them putting forth the theory that it was located across the Gulf in Kerman, Iran.
Other Arabian cities were established in due course, of which perhaps the largest came to be Dilmun, probably founded as a colony by people from Mesopotamia. Like Magan, the exact location of Dilmun is also unknown, but it probably sat on the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, and that is the official line of the State of Bahrain. Dilmun functioned as a trade center from about 3000 to 2000 BC, about five times as long as the United States has endured, and as long as the career of Rome; kingdom, republic, and empire.
By about 2500 BC we have a picture of a triangle trade between the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and the Indus Valley culture of Pakistan, with Oman somehow right in the middle of it all. There seem to be no details available at this time. Magan would have been the natural switch point between the Egyptian and Sumerian zones, and a natural destination for ships from the Indus. It would be reasonable to assume that Sumerians, in historical moments of power, might have made moves to control Magan and the copper sources in the mountains. Or perhaps there was some cultural borrowing, or imposition, or even colonization of the eastern Arabian coast from Mesopotamia. But we have no actual records of such events.
No one today knows exactly who the Sumerians were in terms of ethnicity. Their language is not related to any of the languages used today. We are sure that they shared no antecedents with the nomadic Semites who populated the Middle East from Sinai to northern Iraq. In fact, it is known that they were not indigenous to the region. They came in boats from “over the sea.”
The Sumerians regarded the Semites as primitive barbarians, a view shared by the mercantile coast dwellers of Arabia. The nomads saw the coastal peoples as effete and immoral. They resented the easy life brought by the wealth accumulated through trade, and would, in moments of power or need, descend on the coastal settlements in bouts of plunder and rapine. Over
centuries the urban trading cultures acquired ever more Semitic elements, until the Sumerian elements in Mesopotamia and the non-Arab elements in Arabia were entirely submerged in what became a dominant Semitic culture.
Around 1800 BCE the Persian Gulf cities suffered a setback when the Egyptians built a shallow canal from the Red Sea to the Nile. This enabled traders from India to bypass the Gulf entirely, eliminating a set of tolls and putting the Mediterranean region in almost direct contact with the east. Accordingly, the economic fortunes of the Persian Gulf region declined.
Technological advances during the second millennium BCE restored the position of the Gulf and Mesopotamia in the global trade picture. Chief among the innovations were the domestication of the horse and the camel. Use of the latter as a draft animal made a land route between East and West possible (the “Silk Road”) and opened up the interior of Arabia, vastly increasing the availabilty of its major products, frankincense and myrrh, to the population centers of the ancient world. The increased traffic through their territories brought wealth and civilization to the nomadic tribes that controlled the trade routes, and in time commercial cities developed inland. We want to note two in particular for later reference: Yathrib and Mecca, both now in Saudi Arabia.
Oman was probably independent during most of the second and first millennium BCE. There are references to its copper and its mighty navy in contemporary records of Babylon, Egypt, and Hatti (the Hittite empire based in Anatolia).
The history of the region becomes a lot clearer around 1000 BCE with the rise of the Assyrians. Originating in the hills of northern Iraq they swept down into Mesopotamia and established the first of the great territorial empires of the ancient Middle East. At its height the Assyrians ruled from western Iran to Egypt, from Anatolia to the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately their governing style was based on unlimited repression, typical tactics being genocide and mass deportation. The resulting resentment among the subject populations led to continuous rebellions in one province or another. Eventually the Assyrians
found themselves stretched too thin when finally a resurgent Babylon rose against them in the late 7th century BCE, and that was the end of Assyria.
Neo-Babylon, as I like to refer to it, flourished briefly before being swallowed by the Persian empire of the Achaemenids. The Persian territories dwarfed those of the Assyrians, stretching from Pakistan to Egypt and from Anatolia to Arabia. They were big on monopoly, and liked to control both sides of an operation. Accordingly, they took and held the coast northern Oman, beginning a long tradition of Iranian presence on the Arabian side of the Gulf.
The Persian Empire was disrupted and destroyed by the incursion of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. It is known that he sent a small expedition into the Persian Gulf to reconnoiter, but the Greeks established no garrisons in the region and local developments proceeded, for the most part unrecorded or at least generally unknown at this time, until the establishment of the Parthian empire in Iran in the 3rd century BC.
The Parthian approach to trade was monopolistic, and they liked their commissions to be large. The Seleukid Greeks, and later the Romans, found that they could not rely on their Parthian neighbors for fair dealing in the Silk Road trade. The Parthians wanted all of the profit. Accordingly, the Mediterranean world came to rely of the Red Sea route for their eastern trade, while the Persian Gulf remained plugged into the Parthian overland routes. The Gulf was fortified on both sides by Parthians, and, later by the successor Iranian dynasty, the Sasanians.
For at least 2600 years it has been second nature for us humans in the "civilized" sector to run our economies on a universal standard of value that we have come to call "money." We have trouble wrapping our minds around the concept of business without a set denominator, or denomination. If we can't put a dollar value on something, or yen, or euro, whatever, we have scratch our heads; how do you assign values at all? But the fact of the matter is that great empires were built and massive projects accomplished without "money." Everything kept in separate accounts; the milk, the honey, the fish, the wheat, the copper, the iron. How did they balance the "books?" Well, they did.
But they left no "coins" for us to collect. Or rings, or even much in the way of weights. The odd and curious collectors like to talk about metal rings from Egypt as a sort of protocoinage, but those things are really quite uncommon as ancient artifacts. You'd expect that if they were used as monetary tokens rather then merely as a particular commodity there'd be a lot of them around. But there aren't. And a few years back a hoard of heavily calcined shell rings from Iraq hit the market, ostensibly Sumerian, with the admonition "might be early money." Who knows? I've seen pictures of Neo-Babylonian weights from the 7th century BCE. Just one or two.
Kind of makes me think they did all their business with balance scales and haggling. You bring your standard, I bring mine, we put them on the balance and derive an equivalent, then we get to business. If we can't agree we walk away or maybe take the matter to the magistrate.
All of the kingdoms and empires up to the Achaemenid Persians operated that way. About halfway through their career the Achaemenids began using coinage to trade with their eastern and western neighbors who had adopted the practice perhaps a century earlier but in the core of their realm they kept to the old methods of commodity accounting.
There are no coins from Oman, or anyplace else in Arabia, during the BCE era. There is a mention on a Bahrain website of a batch of copper ingots, ostensibly from Magan in Oman, in one of the Dilmun period sites. They were described as "small" and "bun-shaped." That's probably as close as we're going to get regarding BCE "money" from Oman.
The earliest Arabian coins were made not in Oman but rather about 150 miles north in or near the town of Mlieha, now in the United Arab Emirates, not far from Fujairah. Not surprisingly, they are imitations of the silver tetradrachms and drachms of Alexander the Great, which were struck by the millions all over the Alexandrine realm, including such relatively local mints as Arados (Lebanon) and Babylon (Iraq). They bear the name of a king "Abyatha," otherwise unknown to history, and currently assigned to the second half of the 3rd century BCE. This coin is found in Sear's "Greek Coins and their Values," as #6128,
misattributed to Mina in Yemen.
In fact, the Alexander derivative series is an eastern Arabian phenomenon that endured through diminutions and debasements for about 600 years, or well into the Roman period. Arabian Alexander types will be occasionally found in the trays of dealers in numismatic exotica, but contrast this with the large number of south Arabian coins around.
Oman was the big wheel in the region, but the coins do not come from there, and apparently are not found there either. Why? We could hypothesize that it is because Oman in the 3rd and 2nd century BCE was under Parthian occupation from Iran, which it likely was, and that the Parthians, who liked to control their borders, kept the local riffraff and their coins out.
But if Parthian coins have been found in Omani archeological sites that data has been carefully hidden. The probability of Parthian occupation must be accompanied by the probability that the conduct of Omani commerce of the late BCE era remained in the ancient mode of balance scales and ad hoc commodity equivalents.
The Parthians of Iran were succeeded in the early 3rd century CE by the Sasanians, who continued the Iranian dominance if not outright occupation of the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf. The main Sasanian coin was the silver "drachm" or "dirham," both foreign words to substitute for the unknown term by which they were referred by their users. Millions of drachms were struck during the Sasanian era, as contrasted with mere handfuls of copper and gold coins.
Three Iranian provinces fronted the Persian Gulf, from west to east: Myshan, Pars, and Kerman, with several mint cities in each. The coins struck in these regions were transferred in reasonably large quantities over to Arabia, where small hoards are occasionally found. Gold and copper would have been of Byzantine origin. The local eastern Arabian coinage of debased Alexander types declined to small copper coins before petering out in the 3rd century AD.
The Sasanians maintained garrisons along the Arabian coast throughout their time of power (226-651 CE). It's greatest extent was attained by Khusrau II, 590-628, who took the more accessible parts of Arabia, which is to say the coast, all the way to Alexandria in Egypt, where he struck fairly common copper coins. There are no Khusrau II coins from Arabia though, making the focus of our interest here, except for the far north and the Alexander derivatives, coinless through the 6th century CE.
Khusrau did not attempt to occupy the interior of Arabia. Enormous territory, topographically problematic, bad climate, filled with fractious nomads, all in all too much trouble. Control the coastal cities to get a lock on the spice trade, that was what he thought.
Khusrau II died in 628 CE. That's six years after the Prophet Muhammad fled Mecca, in the interior of Arabia, for Yathrib (now called Medina), not too far away. There followed a sustained series of political and military miracles, as Muhammad and his followers achieved one success after another, finally becoming the dominant power in Arabia. This fact was noted with relative disinterest by the bureaucracies of Iran and Byzantium.
Shortly before his death in 632 CE Muhammad sent letters to the Byzantine and Sasanian emperors advising them to join the new religion. The messages were ignored of course. Within a few years of Muhammad's death his successors had decided to embark on a course of military adventurism that was to last for 100 years and take to Arabs and their new religion as far as Spain in the west and India in the east (though the north-south zone of their activities was constricted to a couple of hundred miles either side of the latitude of the Mediterranean Sea). A few decades before the start of the 8th century CE they
had occupied all of Arabia, including our region of interest, Oman.
By this time Oman was actually known by that name. Still no coins though. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, of Arab soldiers entering the markets of conquered towns exchanging gold for silver at a one to one rate, they were so ignorant. Sounds like a standard hick story to me, and there is no way that the city Arabs, as opposed to the nomads, could have been unfamiliar with coins, but they really didn't make them themselves. I read somewhere, I think it was in a translated Arabic text, that small silver ingots shaped like date pits were used somewhere in Arabia, but Islamic coinage expert Steve Album has never heard of them, and none seem to exist today.
The Arabs set up governors in their newly conquered provinces, and the governors pretty much continued the financial arrangements as they found them, including the issue of coin. So in the formerly Byzantine lands Byzantine looking coppers and some gold were made, and in the ex-Sasanian zone the standard silver dirhams continued in issue. After not too long the names of the governors began to appear on these Persian looking coins, and when the civil wars began the rebels put their names on the coins as well. Muawiya, the guy who won the civil war, becoming the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty in 661 CE, did so too.
All of this happened in Iran, Iraq, and Syria though, not in Arabia. At the end of the 7th century CE there were still no Arabian coins.
That changed at the dawn of the next century, when the caliph Abd Al-Malik put through a currency reform which abolished local coinages in the bulk of the realm. Gone were the Sasanian and Byzantine types, replaced by anepigraphic (and dated) Islamic coins in gold, silver, and copper. The very first of the new coins were made in Damascus in Syria in 696 CE, but the first Islamic Arabian coin, a silver dirham, was struck four years later. Where was it made? Oman. Says so right there on the coin.
Not too many of these first Omani coins were made. One has to assume that their main purpose was to demonstrate Umayyad sovereignty in the area, that being a major function of early Islamic coinage. The Central Bank of Oman released a beautiful large size book called "History of Currency in the Sultanate of Oman," writeen by Robert Darley-Doran, in 1990. At that time a total of five Umayyad coins of Oman were known dated 81 and 90 AH. I believe Steve Album remarked that a few more have turned up since then. He told me they get $50,000 or so at auction.
Around the year 106 AH (724 CE) most or all of the caliphal mints were closed except for Damascus and Wasit in Iraq and they stayed closed for about 15 years. There are some coins of the intervening dates from a few other mints (Andalus in Spain, Ifriqiah in North Africa, Jayy in Iran, Balkh in Afghanistan), with an unproven assertion dating from the 19th century that they were actually struck at Wasit. But when the bulk of the local mints started to reopen in the 740s CE Oman was not among them.
In the caliphal coinage scheme mintage of gold dinars was reserved for the capital, silver dirhams for the caliphal authorities at local mints, while the issue of copper fulus was devolved to the local governor, whose name often appeared on the coin. One of these coins, from the then Omani capital of Sohar, bears the name of the local governor Rawh bin Hatim and is dated 141 AH (758 CE). Only one piece is known, and it lies in the great Islamic collection in Tuebingen, Germany.
Another unique fals from "Oman" dated 151 AH (768 CE) was sold to a private collector by Spink in 1988. Nicholas Lowick of the British Museum opined that, given the existence of a number of early fulus from nearby Bahrain, there very well might be more mid-8th century Omani coins lying in the ground. But there are no reports of any such finds in the journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society between the publication of the Central Bank book in 1990 and today.
The numismatic situation remains cloudy for the early 9th century, the more so as the authority of the Caliphal central government was waning and local powers were beginning to assert themselves. This period of Islamic history bears a bit of explaining, as trends that started then are having reverberations today.
When Muhammad died in 632 CE he had neglected to name a successor, or indeed to give any indication of what should happen next. His close associates met and decided that they would elect one of themselves to be the "successor," and that person, Abu Bakr, a father-in-law to Muhammad, became the first caliph. Not all of the Muslims accepted this however, and the rejectionists took various actions ranging from complaining to forming political parties to packing up and going home. A few tribes actually threw up their own prophets on the theory that God's word could come from whatever mouth he was pleased to issue it from.
The caliph and his people quickly decided that it was proper for the dissident Muslims to be returned to the community, by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary. Because one of the rules of Islam was and is that Muslims should not kill each other, the dissidents were labelled apostates. Such people were given the choice of conformity or death. During the two years of Abu Bakr's rule Arabia was rolled up and beachheads established in Byzantine Syria and Sasanian Iraq.
Abu Bakr was succeeded in 643 CE by Umar Bin Al-Khattab, another father-in-law of Muhammad, and he took Egypt and Syria and destroyed the Sasanian government. Umar was assasinated after ten years by a Persian slave. In the politicking that led to the election of his successor the choice was narrowed to two sons-in-law of the Prophet: Ali and Uthman, the latter a member of the Umayya clan. Ali was known as a deeply religious pietist with a passionately loyal following, while Uthman was thought of as a capable administrator and military man. Uthman was elected, to the bitter disappointment of the party (Arabic: "shia") of Ali.
Uthman soon revealed himself as notably nepotic and corrupt to the extent that the business of government and the economy itself were affected. Pleas for fairness by the outs were ignored for 12 years until finally Uthman was assassinated in 656 CE. It was then Ali's turn, but his reputation for holiness was tarnished by a presumed association, probably not based in reality, with the assassins of Uthman.
The Umayyads, however, saw the connection as genuine, and they rebelled. Since there were Umayyad governors and commanders all over the caliphal empire, this was no little local guerilla action, but rather a full scale civil war in the world's largest empire. The war raged for five years, the Umayyads gradually gaining the advantage.
Ali's goal was the reuinification of the Muslims, and he was not averse to discussions to that end with his Umayyad adversaries. These moves toward reconciliation were resented by some of his followers, who eventually became fractious, and Ali felt that he had to restrain them by force. After a major battle the dissenters left and became a third force claiming to represent the position that we would call "fundamentalist" today. They came to be called "Kharijites," from the Arabic word that means "the leavers." Their position was that they were the true practitioners of Islam, and that whoever wasn't with them was an apostate. And of course from the time of Abu Bakr the penalty for apostasy was death. The Kharijites conducted a campaign of terror and murder, and were generally unpopular outside of their own circles. Among the people they eliminated was the caliph Ali.
With Ali gone the Umayyads wrapped up the military conflict. The war leader, Muawiya, who had been declared caliph by his family years before, became caliph in fact. But his accession was not accepted by the party (shia) of Ali, and it is from this time (661 CE) that the split between the Sunni and the Shia branches of Islam is dated.
What does this have to do with Oman? The process of factionalization in Islam did not end with the Sunni-Shia-Kharijite split. Sects continued to proliferate. Eastern Arabia, and Oman in particular, was a hotbed of sectarian activity. Large groups of Kharijites left Iraq and Syria after the triumph of the Umayyads and set up on the Arabian coastline of the Persian Gulf. Other dissidents followed them, including Shias, one group of whom, the Qarmatians, became dominant in Bahrain, north of Oman.
The Umayyads took control of the major ports on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf, but they made no serious attempts to control the hinterland. The few coins struck by them at "Oman" were undoubtedly meant as demonstrations of sovereignty rather than facilitators of commerce. Their arrangement was actually a continuation of the Sasanian tradition - control the overseas trade and ignore the locals.
Over a course of several decades the center of gravity of Kharijite ideology trended away from agression and towards a goal of high personal standards of behavior and self-sequestration of the faithful in closed communities. One of the leaders of this puritanical movement was Abdallah bin Ibad, who came to have a large following in Oman. By the mid-8th century CE they were dominant in Oman, with local theocratic governments organized around religious leaders, the Imams.
At about the same time the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids, who moved the seat of the Caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad. The new Caliph sent an expedition to Oman, his back yard as it were. The Ibadi Imam was killed in the conflict, but Abbasid control was established only along the coastline, the interior remaining in Ibadi hands.
In keeping with the norms of Umayyad times, only a few Abbasid coins were struck bearing the name of Oman. For about a century and a half, more or less 750-900 CE, only a couple of copper coins are known from Oman. A couple of anomalous small silver coins were found in a hoard of dirhams dug up in the Omani interior in 1979, which might be Ibadi products. Or then again they might not. The mid-9th century was a prosperous time for Oman, and the need for silver minors may be inferred. But the vast bulk of circulating specie at the time was foreign, so the presence of these coins in the hoard produces at this time only questions, not answers.
There exists an Omani coin of Abbasid type dated 290 AH (903 CE) with the additional name "Ahmad." This probably refers to Ahmad bin Hilal, a local guy who had been appointed governor by the Caliph.
Abbasid power waned in the 10th century, as local governors assumed more and more of the attributes of independence. Among the early local powers were the Saffarids of eastern Iran. The third of the line, Tahir bin Muhammad, was given the governorship of Fars (southern Iran) and Oman by the Caliph, and Omani coins of his is known. In the typical governing style of the time, however, actual control of Tahir's western territories was wielded by his Turkish general, Sebukari, who overthrew him in 909 CE. The new guy received his patent in due course from the Caliph and he too issued a coin or two in Oman to demonstrate his status as boss.
Within a year or so Sebukari's career was ending, at least in Oman, where Ahmad bin Hilal was back in the saddle, his control demonstrated by a dirham dated 299 AH (911 CE). This, and another dirham dated 300 AH, are at least extremely rare if not unique.
From this time coins are known for many or most years of the 10th century CE from the mint of Oman, struck by a succession of governors. Quantities remain small, but in most cases the census is "a few" rather than a single specimen in a museum. Gold dinars were struck as well as silver dirhams. The political arrangement continued to be that of outside control of the ports and local control by Ibadi Imams in the interior. Only the former issued coins in the 10th century. Typically in this period one sees Abbasid governors acquiring enough power in their realm to secure the appointment of their progeny to the
governorship on their demise, essentially creating a monarchy. The governorship of Oman passed through a local line, the Wajihids, during the first half of the 10th century. Their rule ended with an incursion by the Qarmatians, strong in nearby Bahrain, who were on the warpath against the Fatimids of Egypt, and a Qarmatian dinar dated 355 AH (966 CE) testifies to this event.
Supposedly the Qarmatians were invited in by the Omanis to expel a Wajihid official who had acknowleged the Buwayhid ruler of Iraq, Mu'izz Al-Daula. The Buwayhids were an Iranian family who had expanded their holdings to Baghdad and had taken the Caliph under their "protection." Mu'izz Al-Daula kicked the Qarmatians out of Oman a few months after they had
Buwayhid coinage in Oman began in 362 AH (973 CE), and dinars and dirhams are known for many of the succeeding 50 years. In keeping with the normal progression of the period toward regional autonomy, the Omani coins of the 1020s CE started emphasizing the name of the local governor, and this emphasis grew through the succeeding two decades, indicating a weakening of Buwayhid control. The governorship of Oman was passed through various members of the Mukramid family in those years, and in the normal way of Islamic succession there were contests that became military, leading to anarchy. In
1041 the Buwayhids sent an army to Oman and reasserted control. This restoration was short lived. In 1048 the Buwayhids were kicked out of Iran by a local uprising, and in 1062 they were destroyed in their Iranian homeland by the Seljuk Turks, who took the old Buwayhid possessions in Oman in 1066, the year that William of Normandy took England from Harold.
Seljuk rule in the Persian Gulf endured through the mid-12th century CE. During that time Indian Ocean trade through the Gulf decreased in favor of the Red Sea route to Egypt. Omani coinage, previously scarce and rare, seemingly stopped completely during the Seljuk period. Arabian coinage of this time was chiefly represented by the common gold dinars of Yemen.
A general note on these Islamic coins is in order here - to remind you why this branch of numismatics is the preserve of specialists. Classical Islamic coins have no pictures, but inscriptions only. So you have to be able to read a little Arabic to do anything with them. By and large Umayyad and early Abbasid coins are reasonably easy to read, if you know how, but the later Abbasid issues get rather sloppy, and those of the Buwayhids and Seljuks grow progressively worse, so that even those well versed in the vagaries of medieval Arabic orthography will find themselves facing legends that are questionable if not
totally illegible. There are also problems with names, which may appear in various places on the coins, which placement may or may not be significant in terms of who's top dog in the vassal chain. Big shots used different names and titles for different purposes too, so that exactly who is being referred to is sometimes obscure.
This is to explain why extremely rare Islamic coins will sometimes go through a number of different dealers and collectors without being recognized for what they are. I have been contacted by more than one collector who explained, after a little prodding, that they weren't just looking for old Islamic coins, they wanted to buy them from ignorant dealers who knew nothing about them and would sell them for next to nothing. Turns out that more than one immigrant has come over from "there" bringing some old silver or gold and it ended up with a coin dealer when times got harder. The dealer didn't know anything about the coins and bought them for bullion or less, and the people who brought them over mostly didn't know anything about them either. You don't learn how to read medieval Arabic in school in Yemen. I bought some coins from an Iraqi immigrant once and he couldn't tell the difference between an Ottoman gold coin and a Mamluk. Maybe you can't either, but a minimal familiarity with these coins will enable you to decide between those two possibilities at a glance.
Your average dealer though doesn't know thing one about medieval Islamic, but may very well have one or a dozen or a hundred anyway, because if something is cheap enough the dealer is going to probably buy it. Remember that when you are looking at a pile of dirhams or dinars. There may very well be a sleeper in there.
The good old 12th century. In England the Normans
were consolidating their power. The Europeans were doing things:
going on crusades, building catedrals, starting universities. They
were striking bracteates in Germany. Over in China the Song emperors
moved their capital south because the Tatars, etc. were making life difficult
in the north. Spain, firmly in Muslim hands, conquered by the fundamentalist
Almoravids at the close of the 11th century, was conquered anew by the
even more fundamentalist Almohades in the mid-12th. In northern Spain
the Christian petty kingdoms started striking coins, Christian
style silver with portraits and crosses, but some of their gold and copper was Islamic looking. The Byzantine emperors had lost much of their Asian territories to the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, but by the 12th the Seljuk empire was falling apart.
During the 12th century the Crusaders occupied much of the "Holy Land" and fought there with one of the great Islamic heroes, Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid line. These Ayyubids had no concept of a centralized state. Their outlook was strictly feudal. First came the boss, then his family, then his trusted retainers, then their retainers on down the line, each owing fealty to his immediate lord. There were no laws of succession. Each time a ruler died brothers, cousins, uncles, and sons jockeyed for the succession or a piece thereof, and sometimes weaker ones were forced out and went adventuring. A similar process in Scandinavia gave rise to the Vikings.
In 1173 an Ayyubid branch was established in Yemen in southern Arabia, enduring until 1237. In its last years it was subject to the encroachments of the Rasulids, who finally conquered all of Yemen. No doubt the Ayyubids sent someone down to take over the trade that was going on there, That the commerce was lucrative is attested by the copious coinage of gold that was
being made. Ships from the east would dock at Yemeni ports and pay their duties. Then their cargo was transhipped up the Red Sea to Egypt, where the Venetians bought it to resell to the rest of Europe.
As noted previously, southern Arabia was prospering at the expense of our focus of interest here, Oman. The northern trade route from the east to the west had been somewhat disturbed by the advent of the Seljuk Turks, whose conquest of Asia Minor and consequent bad relations with the Byzantines made it seem so much easier to dock in Aden and tranship to Alexandria rather than Hormuz (Iran) or Oman for a long caravan overland through Iraq and Anatolia. But as Seljuk rule decayed their vassals the Zangid atabegs in Mosul brought some regularity to Iraq and some prosperity returned, a bit of which trickled south to Oman. No Omani coins in the last half of the 12th century though.
Then came the Mongols.
Afghanistan was ruined, then Iran, then Iraq, then Syria, and so forth until the Mongols had built the largest empire the world has ever seen. Poland to China. But the Mongol empire ended at the Persian Gulf, and Oman was not part of it. Oman issued no coins either during most of the 13th century. Coming out of the ground in those parts are coins of Hormuz, Egypt, Ilkhan Iran, the sultans of Dehli, even some Chinese cash. But from Oman - nothing.
In 1278 the Rasulids of Yemen conquered the port of Zafar in the province of Dhofar, the southern province of Oman. (Despite the spelling, which is technically "correct," the names of both port and province are identical and pronounced "Zafar") They were there for about 150 years, but only a single coin is known from the time of their occupation, a silver dirham dated 721 AH (1321 CE). The Omani circulation remained, as usual, foreign. During the 14th century Ilkhan coins were replaced by those of successor dynasties the Jalairs in Iraq and the Muzaffarids in southern Iran. The local power center was Hormuz, ruled by the Qalhati family. Sometimes giving fealty to an overlord, sometimes independent, the Qalhatis continued to rule Hormuz through the 17th century.
In the mid-15th century Qalhati coins were struck in gold and silver from the mint in Jarun, the name by which the coastal town of Hormuz was known at the time. A few gold coins are known, and about 3000 silver coins were found in the late 1980s. These coins are small and light, the gold well struck with clear dates in numerals, the silver of execrable quality. All Qalhati coins are very rare.
Europe came to the Persian Gulf in 1508, when the Portuguese took Muscat and a big swath of the rest of the coast. The Portuguese remained until 1650, but they never established a mint. Coinage in the Gulf was mainly made by Hormuz, which became a vassal to Portugal, and all of it is now rare.
In the mid 16th century the odd and curious larins began to appear. Supposedly originating in the Iranian sultanate of Lur, in the mountainous hinterland of Hormuz, these silver wire "hairpin" coins became popular from the Gulf to Ceylon for about 150 years, supposedly because of the ease with which they could be tucked into turbans. Or maybe it was because of the ease of
conversion into jewelry, their being already half way there as it were. Larins were struck by the Ottoman Turks, the Safavid Shahs of Iran, the sultans of Hormuz, by Bijapur in India, and by private parties in Ceylon. Ceylon larins are available these days with a little searching, and I've had a few from Bijapur pass through my hands. I had an Ottoman piece once, hard to tell because most of the legend was, as usual, off the coin. Never had a Safavid piece, nor an Hormuzi.
The Portuguese brought guns to the Gulf, and Spanish dollars, but their presence there disrupted the normal trade relationships and business declined. The rest of Europe followed after Portugal and took away their eastern bases one by one. In the 17th century the Ibadi Imams united the country and drove out the Portuguese. In 1622 they were expelled from Hormuz by an English-Safavid coalition, ending their sojourn in the Persian Gulf. Shortly after the takeover the Safavids issued crude silver coins, called mahmudi, the only common coins of Hormuz.
The Imams of Oman continued the to campaign against the Portuguese, seizing all of their East African possessions north of Mozambique by 1698. Money began to flow into Oman again, some of which was spent on civic improvements such as waterworks, some on what became the largest navy in the Persian Gulf. In 1784 that navy sailed south and captured Zanzibar.
There are narratives of the time indicating that small local coins were circulating in the Omani interior, as opposed to the polyglot foreign coinage of the ports, but so far none of these putative 18th century Omani coins have been found.
In the 19th century the Maria Theresia thaler became the most popular coin in the region, but trade with India increased to such an extent that Indian coins came to make up the bulk of the minor circulation in late 19th century Oman. The most commonly used denominations were the silver rupee and the bronze quarter anna, with smaller usage of silver quarter rupees and bronze twelfth annas. The local name for the quarter anna was "baisa," which name we shall meet again.
The first Omani coinage in over 1000 years was not actually made for Oman, but rather for its possession Zanzibar. Struck in Brussels with the date 1299 AH (1882 CE), and based on the contemporary Egyptian currency, the set consisted of a copper paisa, silver quarter, half, and full rial, and gold 2 1/2 and 5 rials. Only the paisa is common, and it is quite common, especially if you are not too picky about condition. The silver rial is rare, all of the other denominations are extremely rare. Another issue of paisas was produced by the Heaton Mint in Birmingham, England, dated 1304 AH (1887 CE). Evidently
these coins were produced on the order of a British merchant firm in Zanzibar. It is common. A set of decimal coins was planned for 1908, but never issued, and most of the large mintage was melted. Those coins are rare today.
In 1890 the Bombay mint in India ceased production of copper coinage. An unforseen consequence was a small change shortage in the Persian Gulf. The sultan of Oman, Faisal bin Turki, responded to this issue by setting up a mint in Muscat, which initially consisted of a single press, probably acquired second hand in England. Using blanks possibly manufactured in India, the new mint struck quarter annas (baisa) and twelfths (ghazi) were struck bearing the picture of Jalali Fort in Muscat and the date 1311 AH (1893). The baisa is scarce, the ghazi is rare. There are several major die varieties of each denomination. High grades are rare. I'm not sure if uncirculated specimens exist.
Starting in 1312 (1894) the Muscat mint struck copper baisas in some quantity. Known dates range from 1312 to 1316 with dozens or maybe hundreds of varieties. The coins were mostly struck on Birmingham blanks, but overstrikes on Indian quarter annas are known as well as on native planchets both rolled or hammered and cast. The Heaton mint struck three varieties of the coin dated 1315. Those are common, and as usual with Heaton products, can be found in high grade. The native coins typically come in low grade, often with damage. Prices will be all over the place in the $0.50 to $50.00 range. A few off-metal
pieces are known, both from Birmingham and among the locals.
Faisal bin Turki died in 1913, succeeded by his son Sayyid Taimur. Taimur's entire numismatic output consists of a countermark with his initials applied to a few quarter annas. In keeping with the nature of the circulation most of the countermarks will be found on Birmingham coins dated 1315. But they are very scarce. I've never held one in my hand.
Taimur abdicated in favor of his son Sayyid Said in 1932. The son repeated the practice of his father in regard to the coinage. Two types of countermarks are known, one with the two Arabic letters "S" close together, the other has them separated. From the prices in the Standard Catalog one would think they are twice as scarce as the Taimur countermarks, but the fact is none of these countermarked coins are available. In 40 years I've never seen any of them.
You find these coins listed on page 1550 of the 2003 Standard Catalog. Said didn't like life at the capital, Muscat, and spent his days at Salalah in Dhofar. The coppers of the capital never made it down there, and the Maria Theresia thaler circulated alone. Sultan Said placed an order with the Bombay mint for 10, 20, and 50 baisa coins to help out the local economy, and these coins, each with a distinctive shape and dated 1359 (1940), were duly delivered. The sultan then placed another order with Bombay, this time for 2, 5, and 20 baisa. These coins, dated 1365 (1946), do not mention Dhofar, so can be taken to be coinage for the entire country. The coins were struck without change of date until 1955. Silver half rials, specifically for Dhofar, were struck in 1367 (1948). They are half the weight of a Maria Theresia thaler, but they are only .500 fine against the .833 of the Maria, so the sultan was getting a bit of seniorage there.
All of these coins can be found, though they are not common. There are proofs of all of them too, and those might turn up from time to time.
There is mention of "war coins" in the book published by the Central Bank of Oman. Pictures are on page 79. The coins are copper with a picture of Akhdar Mountain, no date, and legends that say "War Money," among other things, but no denominations or dates. The book states that the mint and time frame are unknown and that they were never issued.
Getting into "modern times." A silver rial was issued in 1378 (1958), ordered from the British Royal Mint. It says it's a "saidi" rial, but that distinction is nugatory. It's just a rial. The first two mintings, in 1958 and 1959 were in .833 silver, matching the Maria Theresia thaler, but the coin was restruck in 1963 and 1964 in .500 fine, a bit of profit for the sultan. You distinguish the fineness by specific gravity of course. A hundred pieces of the rial were struck in gold for presentation. That's enough of a mintage that the coin occasionally shows up for sale. In the Standard Catalog the photo of the gold version is larger than that
of the silver, but that is an error. They're the same diameter.
That same year, 1958, the sultan ordered, also from the Royal Mint, a bronze 3 baisa for Dhofar. A different 3 baisa was struck specifically for Muscat the year after. Different size too. Go figure. Also in that year, and also for Muscat, a 5 baisa with a picture of a boat on it. Then there were half rials for both years, meant for use in Dhofar, though they don't say so, and some gold versions for presentation.
All of these coins can be collected, including the gold. Of course that collection will not be as easy to build as an Italian 50 lire "Vulcan" set, but they are findable. There are proofs of all of them, but a lot of the 1950s proofs were struck in very low numbers and are difficult, or maybe, in some cases, impossible.
In 1961 a gold 15 rial coin was ordered from the Royal Mint. Equal in size and weight to the British sovereign, it was struck in small quantities for presentation until 1963. This coin can be found in uncirculated, though proofs are rather hard to find.
The country's oil resources began to be exploited in 1967 and money began to accumulate. Nothing much was done with the new cash, though. Things remained pretty much as they had been. This annoyed some people who could see things happening in the rest of the world while Oman slept.
About the last thing sultan Said did was regularize the Omani currency and introduce banknotes. A minor set of six coins was ordered from the Royal Mint in 1969 and delivered in 1970. Dated 1390, the coins run from 2 to 100 baisa based on a system of 200 baisa equalled a saidi rial. There is a scarce proof set, and also a rare 5 piece gold set (mintage 350) of 25, 50, and 100 baisa and half and full rial, the latter using the old type last used in 1958.
On July 23, 1970 a palace revolution forced out sultan Said in favor of his son, Qaboos, who has ruled until this very day. The new guy is a modernizer who has devoted his reign to updating and overhauling his country. Practically his first act was to change the name of the country to Oman, abandoning the distinction between the capital and the hinterland, and moving on from that symbolic point to the military suppression of the Dhofari separatist movement a few years later.
Qaboos' first coins were issued in 1971. These were gold presentation coins, off-metal half and full rials and two sizes of 15 rials. No explanation of these two sizes is offered by the Central Bank book. The denominations are given as rial "saidi," but shortly thereafter the qualifier was changed to "omani." As is normal with such low mintage modern gold coins, they turn up
occasionally. Omani coins are collected at home, so most likely you will not be able to buy them for bullion related prices.
In 1972 the currency was overhauled, the new baisa going 1000 to the rial instead of 200. The new coinage showed up first in gold presentation versions dated 1392 and 1394 with denominations down to the 25 baisa, let's call it a "2.5 cent" coin. The sultan likes to issue gold presentation coins. He did it again in 1395, at which time some minor coins were finally issued for circulation. These were a bronze 5 baisa - not very common, a crossed sword and dagger type 10 baisa - a bit less uncommon, and another 10 baisa with a palm tree motif struck as part of the FAO program. This last is a common junk box coin. Copper-nickel 25 and 50 baisas are not particularly easy to find.
In 1977 commemorative coins were issued for the first time. At this point we are definitely in the modern era. Including commemoratives, circulation coins, and gold presentation coins, there have been more coin types issued since that time than in the entire 3000 and more years of previous Omani history. Despite the progress Oman has made in its integration into the modern world, basically all of these coins are hard to find in the market. A look at the Central Bank of Oman website will show you what commemorative coins are currently available for purchase, but actually getting them, if you are not physically there, is not easy. Supposedly they are available to Americans through Citibank, but a brief stab at researching this lead did nothing but waste time. Citibank evidently knows nothing of this arrangement.
So you'll have to get your modern Omani coins by way of the coin dealers, whose supply of these is notably spotty.