In August 2010, I received a call from a friend who is the director of the Karabakh Foundation, located in Washington, D.C. She asked me to help develop a coin collection for the foundation’s museum focused on the country of Azerbaijan, a small, primarily Shiite Moslem country in the South Caucasus with a secular government. I could not resist the challenge.
Azerbaijan, like most of the Middle East, has a long history of being overrun and conquered by neighbors. Conquerors include Persians, Mongols, Turks and Russians. Geographically and politically, Azerbaijan is divided into north Azerbaijan (the modern Republic of Azerbaijan) and south Azerbaijan (provinces in Iran including West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan and others).
North Azerbaijani numismatic history reflects various dominating empires over centuries.
The ancient period began when the native Caucasian Albanians, considered among the Caucasus region’s earliest inhabitants, and ancestors of modern-day Azerbaijanis, established their state. This state suffered incursions by Romans, Khazar Turks, Parthians and Sassanids up until its defeat by Muslim Arabs by A.D. 705.
When Azerbaijan broke from the Arab caliphate, it was ruled by various mostly Turkic dynasties, culminating in the Great Seljuqs. Turkic rule continued when the Turcophone Shi’a Safavids assumed power in 1501, inaugurating the medieval period.
To date, the numismatic collection includes coins from the Safavid period, such as Isma’il (1501 to 1524) silver half shaih, 4.68 grams, and a silver shaih, 9.36 grams; Tahmasp I (1524 to 1576) silver half shaih and a silver shaih; Muhammad Khudabandah (1578 to 1588) silver 2 shahi, 4.49 grams. Also included are coins from the Ganja khanate (an Azerbaijani kingdom) during the rule of Shah Verdi Khan (1747 to 1760) and Sultan Husayn (1694 to 1722). Still to be collected are other medieval-era coins, including the self-minted coins from the independent, sovereign Karabakh khanate. Many medieval coins featured prominently in international trade.
During the modern period, both Turkic Qajar Iran and Russia played dominant roles in the country. An independent country, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic emerged post-Russian revolution, lasted until the 1920 Bolshevik takeover and reemerged after the Soviet Union’s 1991 fall.
After World War I, when the Soviet Union took over much of the area, currency was printed in Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet. Soviet-era 5-, 25-, 50-, 250-, 500-, 1,000- and 2,500-ruble notes are part of the collection.
Immediately after independence from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan transitioned to the Latin alphabet. Today’s currency is the manat. The numismatic collection contains seven bills ranging in face value from 1 manat to 20,000 manats, which recently have been redenominated with bills ranging from 1 manat to 100 manats.
The Azerbaijani government has made it clear that it considers itself allied, in many ways, with the West, and that this choice reflects the will of the Azerbaijani nation. The Karabakh Foundation is developing a website (www.KarabakhFoundation.org) that will spotlight coins as a critical element of Azerbaijani heritage. Developers are testing the best software for showcasing the coins and their history. The collection exhibit is scheduled to open in spring 2012.
For further information concerning Azerbaijan, contact the Karabakh Foundation by email at email@example.com. Stay tuned for future articles about this fascinating country.
Joel Forman is a longtime coin collector and a senior appraiser with certification in numismatics accredited by the American Society of Appraisers.