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---------- Interesting Things about Ancient Coins ----------
The Zoroastrian Fire Altar on Ancient Coins
To fully understand these coins, you would need to know the history of the Achaemenid, Persian and Sasanian empires, the early history of Islam, and the history of the Zoroastrian religion. This page doesn't aim to teach those subjects, but will say just enough to put the coins into context.
Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, or Zarthosht, was the prophet who began the religion of Zoroastrianism, of which the fire altar is an important symbol. It represents the enduring energy of the creator, Ahura Mazda, and is the focus (but not the object) of prayer.
Achaemenes, or Haxamanis, founded the first Persian empire in around 700 BCE. Zoroaster probably lived about 100 years later, and Zoroastrianism eventually became the State religion. The Achaemenid empire was conquered by Alexander the Great, and his successor Seleucus I Nicator founded the Seleucid dynasty there around 300 BCE. However, this was soon conquered by the ascendant Parthians, who claimed cultural descent from the Achaemenids, and used the same Pahlavi script. Perhaps in part because of this, they allowed a small part of what is now southern Iran to survive as the semi-independent kingdom of Persis. This kingdom had been a distinct principality since the 8th century BCE and was even able to retain control during parts of the Seleucid period. It was the centre of Persian culture and of Zoroastrianism, and it was where fire altars began to appear on coins.
Many of the names on this page come in two versions. One is a westernised Persian name, the other is a westernised Greek name. Often the two are equally valid, because the Persian ruling class was Greek in origin during the Alexander and Seleucid period.
The kings of Persis are not well known, and nor is the order of succession. Their names appear quite differently depending whether you read Greek or Persian sources. This coin is of Darev or Darius the second. The portrait on the obverse shows heavy Parthian influence. The reverse shows the king holding a sceptre over a fire altar. The script is Aramaic rather than Greek or Pahlavi, perhaps to emphasise their apartness from the Greek Seleucids.
This is Ardashir II (Persian) or Artaxerxes II (Greek). This crown is less Parthian, and is more like the Sasanian ones, which came later. This coin is clearer than the previous one, but neither of them match the splendid earlier Persis coins from the Seleucid period which show a much more elaborate fire altar. Unfortunately, those coins are also very expensive to buy. Both of the coins shown here are from the later Parthian period.
The last king of Persis, Ardeshir or Artaxerxes V, revolted successfully against the Parthians and established the Sasanian empire, becoming Ardashir I of Eranshahr (as it was then called). The name "Sasanid" or "Sassanid" was invented by later historians, based on the name of Ardashir's paternal grandfather Sasan. Sasanian coins were distinctive, showing the royal headdress in detail on one side, and a fire altar with attendants on the other.
This rough coin with a corroded surface is a billon tetradrachm of the successful Ardashir. These coins can't have been as useful as the silver drachms shown below, because they were only produced for about 50 years. Their make-up was mostly copper – hence the corrosion. Unlike the drachms, there are only a few glints of silver to be seen on this coin as you turn it in the light. The coin shows Ardashir in a Parthian-style crown, and on the reverse is a fire altar on a short column, with elaborate side supports, and without any attendants.
Here is Shapur, Ardashir's son, with his elaborate crown and hairdo, and on the reverse, an imposing fire altar with two richly dressed attendants. Look at those posturing, arrogant functionaries! This is stylish design and good art. The legends are in Pahlavi script. Göbl translates the obverse as "The Mazdah worshipper, the divine Shapur, King of the Kings of Iran, heaven descended of the Gods" and the reverse as "The fire of Shapur". Shapur established many Zoroastrian fire temples dedicated to his father and various family members and important officials.
50 years later, a similar coin, this time showing the bust of Ahura Mazda in the flames. This shows that the flames represent the energy and fire of the creator. The attendants are still richly dressed in royal style, but this time they are focused more on the altar than on showing off!
200 years after the last coin, the altar and attendants are becoming more stylised, and the king's portrait is also somewhat less realistic. The coins are thinner, and have a wide rim which is less regular in outline. The thin flan the coins were struch from sometimes led to a lack of detail in the centre of the coin, where there was just not enough metal to fill the hollows in the die.
There is no standard spelling of Sasanian names in European scripts. They are all attempts to indicate the pronunciation. For example, in the name I have spelled "Khushrou," the "Kh" is pronounced something like "ch" in the Scottish word "loch."
The standard reference on these coins is Robert Göbl's "Sasanian Numismatics." In that book, he uses diacritical marks – macrons and háčeks – to indicate pronunciation, like this: Ardašēr, Šāpūr, Xusrō. Because these marks are not so easy to do in most word processors, you often see these spellings reproduced without the diacritical marks, e.g. Sapur, Xusro.
My own recommendation is to find an Iranian and listen to them.
The Sasanid empire was large and powerful, and exercised some of its control through vassal states in Bactria and Gandhara, often referred to as Kushanshahs (kings or kingdoms of Kushan). They were allowed their own coinage under Sasanid patronage.
This coin was minted in Gandhara (eastern Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan) by the Kushanshah Hormazd I, and it is thought that Kavad is the name of one of his governors. This was shortly after the time of the first Sasanian coin above. It is quite crude, and the style of the fire altar is very different to the silver coins, but similar to the billon tetradrachm. This coin shows Zoroastrian influence spreading into the Indian subcontinent – an area where religious history usually focuses on Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
This one comes from Bactria, a mountainous area to the west of Gandhara which now forms part of several countries, including Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but mostly Tajikistan. It was struck for Peroz II Kushanshah. The style is better than that of the coin from Gandhara and shows the ruler wearing a distinctive horned headdress.
The reverse of the coin shows a figure, perhaps Mithra, emerging from the fire of the altar. The odd, extreme angle of the wrist holding the staff is typical of these coins.
Here is a fire altar coin from the area that is now Afghanistan.
This interesting and elaborate design, produced in Kabul, shows the king wearing a buffalo's head over a winged helm. The reverse shows a fire altar with wheels above the heads of the usual two attendants. The reverse of this particular coin is a mirror-image of the usual, with the control marks reversed and retrograde. This is probably an engraver's error.
You can find the makers of this coin referred to as Hunas, Indo-Hepthalites, Turco-Hepthalites, Nezak Huns or sometimes White Huns. "Nezak Malka," the legend on this coin, is probably a title, not the name of a king.
In Gandhara, now the north of Pakistan, is the Kashmir Smast, a network of caves which formed the centre of an independent kingdom in the 4th to 8th centuries CE.
This intriguing coin shows a ruler wearing a horned headdress – probably representing bull's horns. It is smaller and thicker than the Nezak coin above, but weighs almost the same. The style of the portrait is similar to the Bactrian Kushanshah coin shown above, but in fact it has been identified as a type issued under the Sasanian Peroz II by the satrap Meze in the Indian, rather than Bactrian, Kushanshah area.
This much lighter coin is clearly a similar design to the larger Nezak coin in the previous section, and probably has the same origin, though from a different dynasty.
Both of these small coins were found in the Kashmir Smast caves. The idea of a cave kingdom that lasted several hundred years sounds impossibly romantic, but seems to be real enough!
Some of the Sasanid coins were re-used by the Turco-Hepthalites.
The Sasanid ruler Khushrou II was very expansionist. He re-conquered most of the territory of the old Achaemenid empire. However, he was assassinated in 628 CE, and the Sasanid empire never recovered from the resulting chaos. Coins of Khushrou II are easy to find, but this one is less common. It has a countermark showing that it was given approval to be used as currency by the later Turco-Hephthalites.
The Sasanian empire failed to withstand the spread of Islam, and fell to the Caliph Umar in a succession of battles in the mid 7th century CE. Persian culture was not completely repressed, despite some acts of destruction which resulted in a considerable emigration. The Zoroastrians were eventually accepted as "People of the Book" and a policy of tolerance was applied. Though, inevitably, within a couple of centuries most Persians became Islamic, and infused Persian cultural ideas into the Shi'a faith.
Tabaristan – now the province of Mazandaran in northern Iran – remained independent of the Umayyads, and the mountainous regious were independent for some while after that. But their successors, the Abbasid Caliphate, controlled some areas. Here is a coin of an Abbasid governor, Sa'id bin Da'laj, struck by the Tabaristan mint. This coin shows that the Sasanian coin type was retained with little change, and Sa'id was apparently quite happy to depict a human face. However, the attendants on the reverse are here shown as stylised designs.
This interesting hemidrachm was minted by the only ruler of Tabaristan to heed the Islamic prohibition against depicting the human form, as far as the coinage was concerned. Not only are the two attendants on the reverse still the same stylised columns, but the face on the obverse has been replaced with a neutral lozenge bearing the Arabic word "bakh," meaning "excellent." The shoulders, robes and crown are still in place, which gives a very odd effect.
This bronze coin is an Abbasid fals from Bukhara in Sogdiana, currently part of Uzbekistan. Bukhara used a tamgha, or typical symbol, to indicate the origin of the coin. Sogdiana was rich in Persian cultural history, having been an eastern province of Achaemenid Persia, and so the tamgha chosen for this coin was a fire altar, placed on its side so as to fit in with the design of the coin.
To the left of the coin is the tamgha turned the right way up.
Bukhara was on the silk road to China that was first established by Alexander the Great, so had increasing Chinese influence. But at the time of these two coins it was under the control of the Abbasid dynasty, the successor to the Umayyads. Even so, as with Tabaristan, their silver coins were in the old Sasanian tradition.
This silver drachm. issued by the Caliph al-Mahdi, has an obverse based on coins of the Sasanian Vahran V, and the reverse has a stylised fire altar with attendants, and with the bust of Ahura Mazda among the flames.
When the Umayyad Caliphate conquered Persia, many Zoroastrians fled, migrating into India and mostly ending up in Gujarat, which lies on the west coast, south of modern Pakistan.
This Pratihara coin comes from the area of Rajasthan in northern India, and clearly shows a Sasanian-style fire altar with stylised attendants. (Though, I have also seen it said that the coin's style is wrong for the Pratiharas, and this coin type is from a later issue of unknown provenance.)
The Buddhist Pala dynasty ruled Bengal in the ninth century. This coin is much more stylised, and the design was much larger than the flan of the coin, making it even harder to make out. The obverse of this one shows the area behind the head, with the circle of dots marking the edge of the design visible to the left, and a stylised hair tie at the top. The reverse is the left side of the fire altar, with one dot of flame visible, and the main part of the visible design is what remains of an attendant.
This coin is from the Saindhavas dynasty, who were eventually conquered in 915 CE by the Abhiras dynasty, who owed alleigance to the Pratiharas. The bust and fire altar are crudely done, but stylised in a different way from either of the two coins above. You will see below that this type of styling continued for some while.
The design of these coins from Gujarat is said to derive from silver drachms of the Sasanian king Peroz, whose coins were brought into Northern India by invading Huns in the 6th Century. That sounds very specific – why not coins of Khushru II, for example? Perhaps because Peroz is said to have paid a heavy ransom to the Hepthalites for the return of his son, in the 5th century CE, and the coins of that ransom could well have been the inspiration for this type. A nice story!
But the inspiration was probably second or third-hand, via Hephthalite types like those shown above. Very stylised designs like this were most likely purely imitative, and didn't indicate that Zoroastrianism was a state religion. This example shows the further development of stylisation. Look how the eye, nostril, lips and chin are shown as a row of dots, which is continued decoratively below and round the head. This coin also has a "sun and moon" design above the head.
This is a very three-dimensional coin, much different from the flat and thin Sasanian drachms. The design is so stylised here that casual observers don't recognise the head and fire altar motifs at all. But the coin type over several hundred years remained quite consistent, and if you follow the series, the meaning of the design is clear.
In the next example of this series, the nose has become completely detatched from the head, which is now just a dumbbell-like abstract shape within a semi-circle of dots, with more ornate patterns around. The fire altar is still distinguishable on the reverse. The shape of the coin is irregular and the reverse is quite concave, so it's possible that the reverse die was domed in shape. Like the Pala example, none of these last four show the whole design on any one coin.
Finally, a coin which shows the purity of the design making way for something more informative. The curves to the left of the head are a Brahmi "Ja" symbol. To the right of the head, hard to make out, are an inverted triangle and another sun and moon symbol. The shaft of the fire altar on the reverse has written on it "Sri Omkara," which indicates that it was minted by the Omkara Mandhata Monastery in Malwa.
The Parsis of modern India are the descendants of those Persian immigrants, and form a large part of the modern Indian Zoroastrian community. Zoroastrianism is not a large religion, but is said to have about 140,000 adherents world wide, so it is very far from dying out.
However, I don't know of any modern coins showing fire altars. Pity!
The content of this page was last updated on 1 October 2009
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