A tetradrachm of Artavasdes II, Kingdom of Armenia, 54BCE - 34BCE
100-year anniversaries usually highlight great deeds or groundbreaking accomplishments. This week, however, another 100-year anniversary reminds us of our limitless capacity to maim and kill. In April/May 1915, with the guns of World War I roaring, the Ottoman Empire unleashed a frightening campaign against its minority Armenian population. Over the next few years, Armenians would be subjected to concentration camps, death marches, and outright massacres, leading later scholars to coin the term genocide in their futile effort to label these episodes that claimed over 1 million lives.
While the reasons for the genocide—as well as the ongoing diplomatic hullabaloo over use of the very word—are both much larger than this post, we can do our part in remembering this tragedy by shedding some light on the complicated numismatic history of the Armenian people.
As it turns out, complicated is an understatement. With few exceptions, Armenian coinage, like Armenian history, is bound up with the history of great empires. The monarchical Kingdom of Armenia (321 BCE – 428 CE) issued few coins for circulation, while the neighboring Roman and Parthian Empires, both of which meddled ceaselessly in Armenian affairs, circulated their coins widely. Around the year 1000 CE, the expanding Arab dynasties and Byzantine Empire enveloped the territories of the Armenian people, making for an entangled economic zone, interspersed with coins from both Muslim and Christian kingdoms (including the Bagratid and Cilician Armenian dynasties). Coins from this period are the first known examples that contain inscriptions in the Armenian language.
This constant tension between relatively weak Armenian kingdoms and much larger neighboring empires continued well into the second millennium, when coinage from the Byzantine, Seljuk, Safavid, and Ottoman Empires featured prominently in the commercial transactions of Armenians. The 19th century witnessed crises and transformations in the region. The Armenians’ status as a Christian minority in the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire may have been a factor in their increasingly frequent persecutions, including during the famed Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, when an estimated 300,000 Armenians were resettled or outright murdered. It is important to note that most historians of the period consider this and the later genocide against the Armenians not an act of religious hate, but rather the result of ethnic nationalism, shifting global power structures, economic volatility, and the radicalization of wartime polities.
Yet another great power would shape Armenian numismatic history in the 19th century. Czarist Russia, regularly skirmishing with the Ottomans, made efforts to win the Armenians as allies. This policy put Armenians on less stable ground in the eyes of the ruling Ottoman Turks. In effect, the Armenian population was recruited by and distrusted by both the Ottoman Turks and Russians. Nevertheless, 19th-century Russian coinage began to circulate widely among the Armenian people. The twentieth century would see continued Russian hegemony in the area, as Armenia was declared part of the powerful Soviet Union in 1922. Kopeks and Roubles became the engines that drove everyday life.
Defining Armenian coinage today proves as challenging as defining it historically. The modern Republic of Armenia, including its historic core in the South Caucuses, uses the Luma and Dram denominations as its official coinage. But the Armenian people—undoubtedly a consequence of its tragic history—has become one of diaspora. Los Angeles, New York, Moscow, and Paris are each home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians. The Euro and the American State Quarter, just as the Byzantine Follis and Ottoman Para before, may be the real coinage of the Armenian people.