World Coins

Coins display showcased varied influences in Africa

A silver small coin of Askum depicts a cross inlaid with gold, encircled by a legend that translates to, “May this please the country.” An earlier gold coin issued by ‘Ezana in Askum around A.D. 350 is also shown.

All images courtesy of author and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Byzantine culture was a fascinating blend of religion and ethnicity across a broad geographic area. Several recent exhibits, including Africa & Byzantium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibit that closed this past March and traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art, show how the Byzantine Empire reached into eastern and northern Africa. The show brought together 170 works of art including mosaics, sculptures, pottery, panel paintings, manuscripts, and some coins. Combined, they showed how Africa — Nubia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and other powerful African kingdoms who interacted with Byzantium — had an impact on the medieval Mediterranean world.

Coins were an important part of this transcontinental network of trade and cultural exchange. The blend of cultures and influences make a complex history that was presented chronologically in the exhibit, looking at late antiquity, which saw the spread of Christianity, and then of Islam as the dominant faith in African kingdoms after the seventh century. The Byzantine Empire would no longer hold imperial control over African regions after the Islamic conquest, but the Greco-Roman influences remained in its art and coins.

Thriving empires

Some African nations issued their own coins in late antiquity. The Aksumite Empire of East Africa thrived from around 50 to 600 B.C., ruling both sides of the southern Red Sea and facilitating commerce between Rome and Byzantium.

It would start issuing its official coinage in the late third century, with coins issued for 18 rulers in gold, silver and copper. The iconography used resembles Roman coins, with a helmeted or draped ruler on the obverse, and symbols of wheat (for abundance) and disks (symbolizing the moon and sun). Gold issues often followed Roman weight standards.

The production of coins helped facilitate trade and provided a sense of autonomy. After Aksum’s conversion to Christianity during Ezana’s reign, from around 340 to 380 A.D., some silver coins included a cross. The curators suggest this may be the first expression of an explicitly Christian symbol in any coinage of the ancient world.

Three later coins on display from Ifriqiya, which is present-day Tunisia, show Latin text, documenting that North Africa was not yet fully Arabic after the Islamic conquest. The coins from 700 to 750 A.D. maintain the Byzantine weight standard and the inscriptions include, in Latin, a Muslim profession of faith. Technical studies have shown that they likely were struck locally but may have been on planchets recycled from Byzantine coins.

The coinage of Africa provides evidence of the many different cultures that shaped North Africa in late antiquity. As curator Andrea Meyers Achi wrote in her prologue, “Faith, politics, and commerce across land and sea linked all these traditions to Byzantium, resulting in a lively interchange of art and beliefs.”

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