Samanid coins. Multiple dirhams.

The fabled Silk Road cities of Balkh, Samarkand, and Bukhara were large and prosperous cites that were centers of trade, culture, and scholarship until the Mongols destroyed them and killed most of their inhabitants in 1220. The whole region never recovered. It hard for westerners to think that cities in this region were once among the most beautiful, advanced, and glorious in the world. "If it is said that a paradise is to be seen in this world, then the paradise of this world is Samarkand."-- quoted by 'Ata-Malik Juvaini (Boyle translation.) 

This region, called "Transoxiana," and additional territory including Tajikistan and parts of Iran, was ruled by the Sunni Samanid dynasty c. 864 to 1005. They had many very productive silver mines and the large volume of silver produced required mints to convert it into a useful form--coins. (Balkh, the most common mint, is at the red marker on the google map, in northern Afghanistan. Samarkand and Bukhara are in Uzbekistan north of Balkh.) Silk road trade sent very many dirhams (of c. 3 grams of silver each) to Vikings lands. Remarkably, about a hundred thousand Samanid dirhams have been discovered in large hoards in Scandanavia and Russia![1]  Also, very large "multiple dirhams" were minted. Their weights are irregular, centering around 11-12 grams (the weight of 4 dirhams), but with some were significantly lighter and some significantly heavier. There are many Samanid coins broader and heavier than dirhams that don't seem to be any particular multiple of the dirham. Therefore scholars have argued these large coins were effectively a way to move bullion and must have been weighed for each transaction. They apparently only traveled within the Samanid empire and are rarely found elsewhere. They were rare until the 1970s when a large hoard was discovered. Now they are common, especially when compared to the number of collectors who want them. 

How big are the multiple dirhams?  A US quarter is 24 mm and seems a good-sized coin, but the large multiple dirhams are much larger at 45 mm. Take a look; it is huge!

 Here is an image of both sides:

45 mm. 11.49 grams. 
Note: Many coins with much smaller diameter weigh more than this. 27 mm tetradrachms of Alexander the Great weigh c. 17 grams. This coin is thinner than Greek and Roman coins (but not paper thin).
3:00 die axis (like Sasanian coins)
Struck in the name of Nuh II, 943-954 (AH 331-342). (The ruler named "Nuh" with these dates used to be called Nuh I.)
Album 1455. "Believed to have been struck posthumously, after c. 367" [Album 4th edition, page 210.]

Steve Album says this variety is unpublished with obverse as SNAT-246 but with Allah. 
Sylloge Numorum Araboricum Tübinghen, Balkh und die Landschaften am oberen Oxus, XIVc, by Florian Schwarz).


This example is particularly well-centered and the edges of the dies are clear. The force of the strike was spread out over a broad 45 mm disk making relatively few pounds per square centimeter resulting in, almost always, weak strikes. This strike, even with its weakness, is better than most. This piece might have been minted at Balkh.

Here is another piece, not so large, to the same scale:

33 mm. (A US half-dollar is less than 31 mm.) 4.96 grams. (Which is not a clear multiple of the dirhams which were about 2.97 grams.)
Attributed to ibn Mansur, 976-997 (AH 366-387)
and struck at Balkh.
Mitchiner, World of Islam, 710, page 139.

Again, the typical weak strike is evident. 


The most accessible source for identification of Samanid coins is The World of Islam by Michael Mitchner (1977), pages 132-149, with 59 examples of this large diameter illustrated and identified (The coins are difficult to decipher and attributions, especially to mints, are often uncertain. Not all scholars agree with Mitchiner's readings). The coinage was so vast that far from all of the types are illustrated. The coin above is similar to Mitchiner 728, but not the same. Mitchner also wrote the hard-to-find book, The Multiple Dirhems of Medieval Afghanistan (1973) which has 169 pages and discusses over 800 pieces classified into more than 120 types. (The book was reviewed by Steve Album in NC 1976.) More up to date is a book by Florian Schwarz, Sylloge Numorum Arabicorum Tübingen: Balkh und die Landschaften am oberen Oxus, Tubingen, Volume 14c. 2002, which is described as "180 pages, 77 plates, softcover. 1500+ coins listed. The volume describes and illustrates on 181 pages and 79 b/w plates 1,526 Islamic coins minted in what corresponds to modern northern Afghanistan and Tadjikistan; about half of the coins were minted in Balkh, the other mints are Andaraba, Badakhshan, Tashqurghan, Tirmidh, Hisar, Khuttal, Rasht, Saghaniyan, Tayiqan, Kishm, Wakhsh, Walwalij / Qunduz, and al-Yun/Khust ("lands on the Upper Oxus", as the German title translates). It contains sections on multiple dirhams (ca. 170)."

Digital images can be enlarged to any size, making it hard to grasp just how large a 45 mm coin really is (Silver dollars are only 38.1 mm.) Perhaps the comparison with a US quarter helps, but holding one in the hand is far more impressive. 


1)  Islamic Coin Hoards and the Trade Routes: How Dirhams Reached the North by Dr. Aram Vardanyan. He notes, by country, hoards totaling over 100,000 coins. Also, "The Vikings brought their goods southwards by Volga and exchanged or sold them to oriental merchants. From the narrative sources one can conclude that the Vikings brought to the South slaves, furs, honey, leather, ivory, fish and other goods. On their way back the Vikings took with them to the North both goods and Islamic coins, mainly in silver, and then buried the coins in their lands for further purposes. The coins were accumulated in such big numbers, that the Vikings buried them as hoards. Today, the number of hoards of Islamic silver coins revealed in Scandinavia and Baltic Sea area, as well as in Eastern Europe exceeds several hundreds."  "The proportion of Samanid coins in the hoards can demonstrate how intensively was the trade between the Vikings and Middle Asia between 900 and 960 AD."
   "in the Viking period there were at least three main routes that provided an inflow of Islamic dirham to the North. One was taking from the Middle Asia, the important cities of Mawarannahr, such as Samarkand, Bukhara, al-Shash.  ...  Another important trade route was going from Iraq, through Mesopotamia and Armenia to Darband and then through the northern Caucasus up to Volga. ... the third important way how Islamic coins could become a part of hoards buried in the North was connecting the merchants of Mesopotamia, Syria and Levant with the Rus and Vikings lay through the Byzantine Empire."

Roman K. Kovalev considered 1620 dirham hoards (hoards with 5 or more dirhams) from western Eurasia [European Russia and Baltic lands] of which 281 had dirhams stuck in tenth century Bukhara, in "Mint output in Tenth Century Bukhara: A Case Study of Dirham Production and Monetary Circulation in Northern Europe,"  Russian History/Histoire Russe 28 (2001) pp. 245-271. Bukhara was the capital of the Samanid empire. He states, "The overwhelming majority of dirhams stuck in Bukhara were exported to northern Europe." [p. 265]

Thomas Noonan and Roman Kovalev consider 302 hoards with coins from Balkh in "The dirham output and monetary circulation of a secondary Samanid mint: A case study of Balkh."


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