by Dr. Esam Aljaber Abou-Fakher
With the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire as a result of the First World War, an autonomous Syrian kingdom was constituted in Syria in 1920, with Faisal bin al Hussain being its king. As an important expression of the state’s self-representation, the Ottoman currency that had previously been in circulation was now to be replaced by a new one. Thus the kingdom created its own currency, the dinar, which heralded the birth of the ‘Syrian’ coins. The young state did not last long, however, because in the same year Syria fell under the French mandate, which thwarted the dinar and imposed a new currency on the country by installing the “Bank of Syria”. The new currency unit was the pound (or lira), equivalent to 100 piasters. It was only when Syria gained independence in 1946 that it was able to free the financial system from France and, through the subsequent establishment of the “Central Bank of Syria”, to exercise monetary sovereignty and issue money independently. The monetary system of the mandate was thereby adopted for the new money. Against this background, the Syrian coins can be divided into three political phases:
1. coin of the Syrian Kingdom – The gold dinar (1920)
2. coins of the French Mandate (1920-1946)
3. coins of the independence period (from 1946)
Coin of the Syrian Kingdom – The Gold Dinar (1920)
The dinar of the Syrian kingdom was a gold coin that did not come into circulation and only existed in a few specimens as trial coins. The coat of arms of the kingdom with a seven-pointed star and crown was minted on its obverse (fig. 1). The star symbolizes the seven verses of the Qur’anic opening surah, the crown a royal emblem. However, the crown is unusual in Islamic culture; it is more likely to be associated with Christian European culture, which makes this combination remarkable. The reverse of the dinar shows the name of King Faisal I as “tughra” (calligraphic combination of name and title of the Sultan), thus recalling the Ottoman coinage tradition. This design of the dinar shows the political influences of the time, which was characterized by declining Ottoman and increasing Western thought.
Coins of the French mandate (1920-1946)
With the French occupation of Syria in 1920, Syrian coins were largely subjected to the visual culture of France and carried the French language alongside Arabic. Their visual language was mainly based on plant motifs such as oaks, olives, ears of corn, etc. These were insignificant in Islamic coins, whereas they are very present in French culture and coin design (Fig. 2). Thus, Syrian coins served primarily as a means of representation of the French mandate power. It was not until 1929 that coins were issued that tended to appeal to Syrian culture through abstract ornamental motifs (Fig. 3). The ‘local’ government, which was in principle the mediator between the population and the mandate power, was probably involved in the design. In any case, the mandate coins – both through the plant motifs and the abstract ornaments – initiated a modernization in domestic coin design, which had previously been characterized more by Islamic-calligraphic motifs. By largely dispensing with depictions of people and animals, these coins were in harmony with traditional Islamic culture and its “ban on images”.
Coins of the independence period (from 1946)
After independence in 1946, Syria wanted to present itself on the international stage as a sovereign and open state through a new visual language. Even before the first issue of coins – and as an advance over the nonfigurative features of Islamic art – the eagle image was developed as the national emblem, based on the so-called eagle flag (Arab.: al-Uqab) of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, this motif found its way directly – from the first issue of coins in 1947 until today – as a permanent motif on the front of the coins. As for the reverse side, Syria initially used motifs with global symbolic content, such as the sun for the ‘new morning’, which clearly stood for the new state. The grain of wheat reappeared, but now in response to its internationally widespread presence as a vital food and symbol of fertility (Fig. 4). In addition, the abstract Islamic ornamental pattern of an arabesque appeared, which has been frequently varied since then. This arabesque points to its roots in Islamic culture, which was meant to make it an unmistakable sign of the authenticity and continuity of the new state. For almost half a century (1947-1995) it was the main motif on the reverse of Syrian coins. The combination eagle/arabesque characterized this period.
In 1958 Syria was united with Egypt under socialist auspices. As a result, motifs of socialist symbolism were placed on Syrian coins. Thus the grain of wheat was connected with the gear rim. This combination stands for industry and agriculture, two common themes of socialist iconography (Fig. 5). However, political unification failed within a short time and the coin design returned to the tradition of eagle/arabesque, which reached its peak with the issue of the coin in 1968, when new coins were added and the arabesque became more expansive (Fig. 6).
After independence, commemorative coins were also issued, the design of which showed current occasions on the reverse side – for example the coins for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which dealt with the increase in food production through the construction of the Euphrates dam (Fig. 7). Above all, however, the commemorative coins celebrated the ruling socialist Baath Party and President Hafiz al-Assad as the central figure, thus intensifying the political propaganda on the coins. In addition to the above-mentioned socialist symbolism, which was generally continued, the party flag and the portrait of al-Assad are the most striking motifs (Figs. 8 and 9).
In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a weakening of socialist state sentiment. At the same time, tourism developed increasingly as an economic sector. Subsequently, the country’s historical cultural heritage gained in importance. In 1996, historical buildings such as the citadel of Aleppo were depicted on the coins and the arabesque was displaced (Fig. 10). These coins are still in circulation today.
Even before 2011, the 25-pound coin had been commissioned for minting from the Austrian Mint in three different designs – as commemorative coins. It was to introduce a change in coin design with new motifs and themes (including “Damascus, capital of Arab culture 2008”). Due to the European sanctions against Syria, however, the order was stopped and the coins were not yet put into circulation.
The latest Syrian coin with a value of 50 pounds was minted during the war and has been in circulation since 2018. In addition to the coat of arms on the obverse, it features the monument to the Unknown Soldier in Damascus on the reverse and is thus closely related to the current war (Fig. 11).
Esam Aljaber Abou-Fakher is a visual artist working on numismatics and political iconography. He studied art at the University of Damascus (Syria) and received his PhD from the University of Oldenburg (Germany) in 2016 with the dissertation “The Syrian coins from 1918 to 2010. A look at the political iconography and representation of the state”. In 2005, he brought out the poetry collection “Foreignness of Marble” (in Arabic).