Pictured is a fine example of the iconic "bullseye" type Islamic medieval gold dinars struck by the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty during the 10th and 11th centuries AD. Fatimid Egypt was quite wealthy due to its strategic position on the busy trade routes between India and Europe.
Our daily lives can be monotonous affairs. We drag ourselves out of bed every morning, suffer a punishing commute, grind it out at work all day and then trudge home. Then we are expected to repeat this routine daily for the next 40 years straight. One possible way to avert this disagreeable lifestyle is to become a connoisseur of the fine arts. Pursing such a rewarding avocation allows the aspiring art aficionado to experience splendidly fascinating items in his daily life.
And there are few kinds of art more alluring, exotic and accessible than the medieval gold dinar coins of the early Islamic caliphates. They are glittering pieces of the distant past - tangible reminders of a bygone era of shimmering oases, ancient cities and dazzling palaces in faraway lands.
Unlike Europe, which fell into the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Islam experienced a centuries long cultural flowering. The Islamic golden age spanned from circa 650 AD to 1258 AD, when Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols. This enlightened period featured religious toleration as well as significant advances in the fields of philosophy, science, mathematics and medicine.
A major intellectual center for the Islamic world called the House of Wisdom was founded in Baghdad during this time. Muslims also established the world's first degree granting universities in the 9th and 10th centuries. Countless ancient Greek and Roman texts were translated into Arabic during Islam's golden age, preserving the priceless knowledge of those classical civilizations. Muslim mathematicians developed advanced maths such as algebra and algorithms. Innovative Muslim chemists of the 8th century even invented the distillation process that made hard liquors possible!
The Islamic dinar, a nearly pure gold coin of about 4 grams, was a high denomination piece widely used in medieval international trade. Europe, in contrast to the Muslim world, was an impoverished backwater in this era, with little trade outside the Byzantine Empire. As a consequence, almost none of the European nations struck gold coins during this time, with the exception of the Byzantines.
Affordable Medieval Gold Dinars For Sale
The early Islamic caliphates, on the other hand, were obscenely wealthy due to their extensive trade relations with sub-Saharan Africa, India and even China. Because of this robust commerce, gold dinar coins of the early Islamic Caliphates had relatively high mintages and thus survived in reasonable quantities to the present. In addition to the dinar, fractional gold coins were also sometimes struck in quarter and half units.
Islam has a general prohibition on displaying images in art - human or otherwise. Most Islamic art is therefore non-representational in nature, instead consisting of intricate, geometric patterns or elaborate, ornamental calligraphy. Consequently, the coinage of Muslim kingdoms was struck with highly stylized Arabic (or Persian) calligraphy on both sides.
This style of Islamic coinage was a distinctive break from the ancient Greek and Roman tradition of placing rulers, gods or animals on coins. This resulted in a breathtakingly beautiful, as well as tantalizingly exotic Islamic-style coinage that was minted for hundreds of years across dozens of Muslim dynasties.
Medieval Gold Dinars of Other Dynasties For Sale
Muslims use their own unique dating system known as the Hijri calendar which is based on a lunar calendar of approximately 354 days. This Islamic calendar commenced in the year 622 AD (on the Western calendar) when Muhammad and his followers fled from Mecca to Medina in the event known as the Hijra. This event also gives the Hijri calendar its name. The abbreviation for the Hijri calendar is "AH" and will oftentimes be found in date descriptions of Islamic coins put up for sale online or in dealer catalogues.
Islamic coins were some of the first coins to be struck with dates, something that didn't regularly happen on European coinage for almost another 800 years. Mint names are also often encountered on medieval Islamic coinage, allowing a collector to identify the city where a coin was struck.
The Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 AD) was the second great Islamic state after the death of the prophet Muhammad and controlled a massive territory, stretching from Spain in the west to Afghanistan in the east. The ancient metropolis of Damascus was the Umayyad Caliphate's capital city. The first uniquely Islamic coinage, stylistically speaking, was minted starting in 696 AD during the reign of the 5th Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan.
Umayyad Medieval Gold Dinars For Sale
During the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), Islamic civilization reached the pinnacle of its golden age. Extending from Tunisia in the west to Pakistan in the east, the Abbasid Caliphate's capital was Baghdad. The greatest ruler of the dynasty, Harun al-Rashid (reigned 786-809 AD), not only founded The House of Wisdom but also featured prominently in the classic Arabic literary work "One Thousand and One Nights". Gold dinar coins of the famous Harun al-Rashid were struck in substantial numbers and can frequently be found today at reasonable prices.
Abbasid Medieval Gold Dinars For Sale
The Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171 AD) was a splinter dynasty from the Abbasid Caliphate that ruled from Morocco in the west to Syria in the east. The Fatimid's center of power was in Egypt. This led them to found the city of Cairo specifically to be their capital.
Most gold dinar coins of the Fatimid Caliphate, although adhering to the canonical Muslim tradition of Arabic script on both sides, have a style of calligraphy that is readily identifiable as uniquely Egyptian. The calligraphy of Fatimid coinage is often strongly reminiscent of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, even though it is in Kufic (medieval Arabic) script. The iconic Fatimid "bullseye" type gold dinar coins are especially coveted by discerning collectors for their attractive appearance.
Fatimid Medieval Gold Dinars For Sale
A desirable specimen of an early Islamic gold dinar should have modest wear; aim for a grade of Very Fine (VF) or better. In addition, a crisp strike, good centering and fine style are all highly desirable. Examples that have been bent, holed or excessively clipped should be avoided.
Clipping was an ancient form of fraud in which shears were use to shave off very thin strips of metal around the edge of the coin. If done properly, the coin was almost imperceptibly smaller in diameter and could be easily passed back into circulation at full face value. The coin clipper kept the metal shavings from the coin and eventually, after clipping many coins, would have pilfered a substantial amount of gold.
Coin collecting has been called "The Hobby of Kings" because it was once the exclusive domain of royalty and other wealthy nobles. If coin collecting truly is the hobby of kings, then gold coins are surely its zenith. Islamic medieval gold dinars are among the most advantageous ways to invest in the burgeoning Islamic art market. Prices range from about $250 for common, but still desirable, pieces to well over $1,000 for pristine or rare examples.
Keep in mind that there are countless other Islamic dynasties beyond the three major caliphates that have been highlighted in this article. Many of these smaller kingdoms also struck gold coins that are very collectible. While gold coins from these minor dynasties are especially undervalued in today's marketplace, all medieval gold dinars represent a beguiling, exotic gateway to the refined and profitable world of the hobby of kings.
Here is a brilliantly colored leaf from a 13th century illuminated manuscript depicting scenes from the Aeneid, a classical work by the Latin poet Virgil. The lavish use of bright colors like blue, red and gold is typical of high quality medieval illuminated works.
Long ago, in a more genteel age, the famous Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in his moving poem "Sand and Foam" that "We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting." This is a Truth that we all too often forget as the harsh demands of our hectic day-to-day lives relentlessly engulf us. It is also an adage that underscores what makes art so special. Art is concentrated beauty given tangible form. Regardless of the medium used to create it, each stroke of the artist’s paintbrush, stylus or pen is made with the intention of distilling the divine essence of beauty into a physical form. And nowhere is this striving for unearthly beauty more obvious then when looking at the sumptuous designs and rich colors of medieval European illuminated manuscripts.
An illuminated manuscript is a handwritten book (or single page of such a book) that has been decorated with colored pigments. European illuminated manuscripts were manufactured during the medieval period from approximately 600 CE to circa 1550 CE and were usually in Latin, the lingua franca of medieval Europe. Illuminated manuscript production was driven by two different institutions. European monasteries, the last bastions of literacy during the dark ages, became centers of book production after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Later in the Middle Ages, as European commerce and wealth grew, private scribes' guilds began to form. These corporate-like guilds typically produced gorgeously illuminated manuscripts for wealthy clients who could afford the high cost of production.
Medieval Illuminated Book of Hours Leaves For Sale
Illuminated manuscripts cover a wide range of topics, but most of them are religious in nature. The most common types of texts encountered are Bibles, Psalters, Books of Hours, Breviaries, Bestiaries and musical/antiphonal manuscripts. Psalters were religious documents intended for private use that contained excerpts from the Old Testament book of Psalms. Bestiaries were encyclopedic tomes that contained entries of different types of animals, some real and some fantasy. Breviaries were prayer books used by monks to guide their periodic daily prayers. Books of Hours were personal prayer books used by private individuals. Some of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts to survive from the later middle ages are Books of Hours that were commissioned by extravagantly wealthy patrons. A good example of this opulence is the priceless Tres Riches Heures of the early 15th century French nobleman, Jean le Duc de Berry.
Medieval Illuminated Bible Leaves For Sale
The creation of an illuminated manuscript was an involved and time consuming process that involved many different stages. These precious documents were committed to dried animal skin - usually sheep or cow - which was known as parchment, or vellum, if made from calfskin. Parchment is extremely durable and will easily last for centuries, if not millennia, as long as it is stored in a climate controlled environment. Parchment preparation could take months by itself, and a full book might require the skin of 100 cows. After the parchment was ready, it was ruled so that the written text would be straight. Then the text itself was added via quill or reed pen. Next, initials, borders and figures were outlined followed by the application of gold or silver leaf and other pigments. Finally, all the pages were assembled and bound, usually in a leather or wooden cover. A typical illuminated tome might have easily taken many different highly skilled medieval craftsmen hundreds of man hours to create. By the later Middle Ages these steps were usually executed in a proto assembly line process by different individuals, each of whom was a master in his own area of expertise.
Medieval Illuminated Psalter and Breviary Leaves For Sale
Illuminated manuscripts were produced in a time before synthetic dyes. This meant that saturated, vibrant colors were rare, highly prized and exceedingly expensive. Gold and silver colors were produced by delicately applying paper-thin gold or silver leaf to a document. Vermillion, a high quality red, was made from a powdered ore of mercury called cinnabar. An intense green came from crushed malachite, a semi-precious copper carbonate mineral, while the renowned deep blue of ultramarine originated from another exotic, semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli. Malachite and lapis lazuli were rare in Europe and had to be imported thousands of miles from the remotest, most inaccessible mountains and deserts of Asia. Other, more common materials, like lead, iron, or organic matter, were also used in the production of various pigments, but these often resulted in less intense colors.
Medieval Illuminated Antiphonal and Music Leaves For Sale
The invention of Gutenberg’s famous movable type printing press in 1453 signaled a sea-change in the way books were produced. Until that time the effort and materials that went into an illuminated manuscript meant that books were expensive luxury items. And the more richly illuminated a book was the more expensive it became to produce. In an age of drab earth tones, only the very wealthiest members of society could afford these brilliantly hued repositories of treasured wisdom. Over the course of the century following its introduction, the printing press changed that situation completely. Book production ballooned after the advent of Gutenberg’s press, increasing dramatically between 1450 CE and 1550 CE due to the new technology. Traditional, labor-intensive illumination techniques were wholly unable to compete with the cheaper, faster printing press. Consequently, illuminated manuscript production rapidly declined until output was essentially nil by the middle of the 16th century.
People crave beauty. Once our more basic biological needs have been met - food, water and shelter - it is only natural for humans to seek out exquisite objects of refinement and elegance. And there are few things of greater artistry than medieval illuminated manuscripts. Laboriously, painstakingly crafted by hand at every stage of their creation, medieval European illuminated manuscripts represent the pinnacle of late medieval art. And yet these wonders of human ingenuity can be wonderfully affordable investments.
A single illuminated page with modest yet enchanting adornments can be acquired for only around $300. More complex and colorful individual leaves that radiate distinctive medieval European style are readily available to the connoisseur for around $1,000. Prices escalate quickly as the amount of decoration increases however, and vibrant, fully illustrated pages can easily sell for several thousands of dollars each. Fully intact books are usually prohibitively expensive, routinely selling for tens of thousands of dollars - even if imperfect or pedestrian in execution. Exceptionally fine, complete manuscripts command even higher prices and rapidly enter the lofty domain of major museums and the ultra-wealthy. If we all live to discover beauty, then surely medieval European illuminated manuscripts are beauty made manifest, descended to earth as a revelation to us.