A unique coin discovered by a prominent numismatic expert in the UK has dispelled the belief that no coins were minted in Malta during the Arab period. The Fatimid quarter dinar minted in Malta in 1080 has now led to a revision of Maltese numismatic history.

Arab rule in Malta began towards the end of August 870 after the island fell under the control of the Aghlabids. In 909, the Aghlabids were deposed by the Fatimids who established the Fatimid Caliphate. The Fatimids were Ismaili Muslim, a sect of Shi’ite Islam, who claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. This lay at the heart of the Fatimid caliphs’ claim to divine guidance and the ability to interpret the Quran. The Fatimids expanded their power to Sicily and most of North Africa. In 969 they conquered Egypt; Cairo became the capital of their empire.

Malta straddled the important Sicily to Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) maritime route. Archaeological evidence indicates that Malta had significant trade links with Sicily and North Africa. Nathaniel Cutajar says that plentiful imported glazed ceramic remains indicate that commercial activity in Mdina did not diminish with the arrival of the Arabs.

In Sicily the Aghlabids had established the monetary system of their homeland in Ifriqiya. This system, which was upheld by the Fatimids, must have prevailed in Malta. The gold dinar of 4.25 grams and the silver dirham of 2.97 grams had been established as the standard for coinage throughout the Muslim world. Eventually these were replaced by smaller denominations, the quarter dinar of 1.05 grams, the half dirham, and the kharrubah, which amounted to 1/16 of a dirham.

During the reign of Caliph al-Mu’izz (953-975) the format of coins was changed to one which became emblematic of the Fatimids. The new style consisted of concentric circles with Kufic inscriptions surrounding a central pellet, instead of the script being in horizontal lines as in previous types.

Since Fatimid dinars were made of almost pure gold, they were much valued and accepted in many lands. The high degree of finesse of gold coins was maintained throughout the Fatimid period. This was made possible by the plentiful supply of gold from the mines of Upper Egypt and pharaonic tombs. An indication of the high reputation enjoyed by Fatimid gold coinage was its deliberate imitation by the Crusaders.

The number of Arab coins surviving in Malta is quite low compared with the span of Arab domination over the island. In 1992, Helen Brown wrote that given the dearth of surviving coins it would be impossible to draw well-founded conclusions about the currency of the island or about the commercial and economic life at the time.

The most spectacular find of Arab coins in Malta was unearthed in Mdina in 1698. The gold coins, which may have numbered up to 5,000, were almost entirely melted down at the time. Contemporary descriptions by G. Ciantar indicate that many of the coin types were of the Fatimid period. Brown and Luttrell suggest that the circumstances behind the hiding of this considerable amount of money might be tied to the Norman invasion of 1091.

The other significant Arab coin finds made in Malta consist of two hoards of silver pieces that are attributed to date from the 1030s to the 1150s. These coins are of the type which circulated in Sicily, and which, according to Brown, had no role in the wider commerce of the Mediterranean. The use of this coinage seems to confirm the close ties, monetary and otherwise, between Sicily and Malta.

Of all the surviving Muslim coins found in Malta, none are known to have been minted locally: no Muslim coins bearing the mint name of Malta were known. This led some numismatists to state that no Muslim coinage was minted on the island. This view has been dispelled thanks to the important discovery, made by Andre P. de Clermont, of a Fatimid quarter dinar bearing the mint name ‘Malta’, which came up for sale in the UK in 2008. Clermont’s claim regarding the Malta attribution has been backed by other international experts in the field. This must surely rank as the most exciting find for Maltese numismatic history of the Arab period since the 1698 Mdina hoard.

This quarter dinar is made of fine gold and weighs 1.30 grams. The coin has inscriptions in Kufic script, an early Arabic calligraphy characterised by the angular forms of the letters of the alphabet.

Fatimid coins are generally characterised by religious scripts on the obverse, and scripts which indicate the date and the reigning caliph on the reverse. From the time of the caliph, al-Mansur (946 – 953), the place of minting started being indicated on the quarter dinars.

The obverse of the Malta coin has two religious inscriptions. The one in the centre reads: ‘There is no god but Allah – Muhammad is the prophet of Allah’. Around the edge the inscription reads: ‘He it is Who hath sent His messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may make it conqueror of all religion however much idolaters may be averse’.

The coin reverse has two inscriptions as well. One reads: ‘The Imam al Mustansir Billah – Prince of Believers’; the other, round the edge, reads: ‘In the name of Allah – this dinar was struck in Malita in the year two and seventy and four hundred [472 AH]’.

From a local perspective, the most significant inscription is the one indicating the caliph’s name, the year of minting, and, more importantly, the place where it was minted, i.e. Malta.

The Malta quarter dinar was minted during the reign of al-Mustansir (1036-1094). It was minted in the year 472, according to the Muslim calendar, which corresponds to the year 1080/81. This coin was struck towards the end of Muslim rule in Sicily, and near to the Norman invasion of Malta in 1091.

The quarter dinar, referred to as ruba’i’, which means quarter, was first struck in Sicily in the 10th century. Experts believe it was intended to replace the Byzantine tremissis. Coins of this type, known as tari, continued to be minted in Sicily following the Norman conquest.

The Normans descended on Sicily in 1061. They took Palermo in January 1072. Studies of Sicilian coin finds show that there was no break in the activity of the Palermo mint between the Arab and the Norman period. It is thought that Muslim quarter dinars were withdrawn from circulation when Norman taris started to be issued.

Could the events in Sicily have instigated the minting of coins in Malta? It might be possible that the flow of coinage from Sicily diminished as a result of the upheavals brought about by the Norman conflict and the withdrawal of Arab coinage from circulation. This could have induced the rulers of Malta to resort to minting coins locally. In 1091 Roger de Hauteville, popularly known as Count Roger, invaded Malta. The Arabs negotiated a peace settlement and agreed to pay an annual tribute. The monk Godfredo Malaterrra described how the Arabs were forced to pay ‘infinita pecunia’ before Count Roger’s departure from the island. A large number of Maltese quarter dinars possibly found their way in Count Roger’s coffers to be melted down and struck into new coinage.

The discovery of the unique quarter dinar minted in Malta was very important for the study of Muslim coinage of the Fatimid period. It is an even more important discovery for Malta. It has changed the history of local coinage and minting. But it also raises questions. How long had the Fatimids been minting coins in Malta? When did they start minting, and why? This coin surely indicates that there was a good measure of economic activity on the island, as otherwise there would have been little need for minting coins of this type.

The Fatimid quarter dinar minted in Malta was recently acquired by the Central Bank of Malta to be added to the bank’s numismatic collection. It will be exhibited for the first time on Saturday when the bank will be opening its numismatic collection to the public during the Notte Bianca from 6 to 11 p.m. A number of Fatimid dinars and quarter dinars from the collection of the Maltese numismatist Emmanuel Azzopardi will also be on display.

The bank’s collection also includes historic coins used in Malta over the ages, with all the coins and banknotes issued by the Central Bank of Malta since its establishment in 1968. It is housed in the bank’s main premises at Castille Place, Valletta, and may be visited by the public during office hours.

Mr Cassar is an archivist at the Central Bank of Malta’s Records Management Services Office and curator of the bank’s numismatic collection.

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