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An Arabic Coin in King Offa’s Court

posted on: Jun 18, 2021

The borders of Mercia within England, along with the surrounding Saxon kingdoms Offa brought under his influence
The borders of Mercia within England, along with the surrounding Saxon kingdoms Offa brought under his influence

By Steven Brander / Arab America Contributing Writer

One of those peculiar, esoteric and yet incredibly interesting historical tidbits relegated to the metaphorical dusty corner of some history office is King Offa’s Arabic coin. Offa was the dominant king in the region which would, though not for several hundred years, become modern day England. At this point in history, several hundred years after the withdrawal and subsequent collapse of the Western Roman Empire, coins in general had only relatively recently begun to see usage again, replacing food as the primary source of value and medium of economic activity.

International Relations

Given its proximity to the wider Mediterranean world, the island of Britannia (modern day Great Britain) necessarily came into contact with the Abbasid caliphate as well as its predecessors. Subsequently, their currency through international trade and travel, usually religious pilgrimages, came along as well. Besides merchants, Christians from northern Europe (including Britannia) also often journeyed to a variety Mediterranean holy sites, especially the See of Rome and even the Holy Land, encountering and interacting with the caliphate’s citizens and territories all along the route.

King Offa's Arabic coin

What About the Coin?

Because of the strange design, there have been a number of theories about the origin of King Offa’s Arabic coin. The most significant details are the replication of the dinar’s design, the Arabic script around the edge, the abridged shahadah, and the Latin inscription of Offa’s name and title.

At first glance, these all seem to fit with the more outlandish theory that Offa had undergone a religious conversion. However, there are several strong reasons to doubt that possibility. First, the Arabic is clumsy and often misspelled. Also, Offa’s name and title rex (king) are upside down in relation to the shahadah on the other side.

Other explanations for the coins include the possibility that Offa had sent the coins (in hindsight quite ironically) as a part of an annual diplomatic gift to the Pope in Rome – another strike against the conversion hypothesis.

An Offa Idea

Instead the most likely explanation for Offa’s plagiarism is political, rather than religious. At that point in time, the Abbasid caliphate’s economic dominance was basically unchallenged. The dinar was therefore the de-facto gold currency standard even across the English Channel. Not since the collapse of the Western portion of the Roman Empire had any polity’s currency possessed such influence. Not the Byzantines even following Justinian’s reconquests nor the reunified Frankish Empire under Offa’s contemporary, Charlemagne, had the wealth, power or prestige to see their coinage distributed so widely, never mind imitated.

It was instead the Arab world that projected strength and authority. Its currency likely set for Offa the idea of what, precisely, a gold coin looked like. Thus Offa’s creation of the gold ‘dinar’ as an imitation of the most widely trusted coinage at the time.

Tapestry depicting King Offa of Mercia
Tapestry depicting Offa, King of Mercia

An Offa He Couldn’t Refuse

Let’s wade a little deeper into the numismatic weeds. The choice to replicate the dinar can also be seen as a means of propaganda for Offa. Using coins, Offa was associating his own newly won supremacy over the region with the preeminence of the Abbasid caliphate.

This is analogous to the way in which multiple states throughout history have called themselves variations of ‘the (new) Roman Empire’. The most obvious examples being the Holy Roman Empire and the Russian Empire, which called itself the Third Rome.

In other words, Offa may have seen the gold dinars minted by the Abbasid caliphate as at least one of the measures by which leaders could display their greatness and power both to the wider international community as well as his own subjects. By imprinting his own image upon the coins, he was therefore both metaphorically and literally stamping himself and his domain with the grandeur of the Arab empire from the other side of the world.

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