C.4. Silver shortage: true or false?


As mentioned above, there are no surviving Samanid silver dishes with which to compare the ceramics. This fact is strange because the Samanids are known to have controlled the most productive silver mines in the Muslim world during the C10th, at Panjhir, and silver vessels are known from the dynasties who ruled the same territory in the periods immediately preceding and following the Samanids. Thus it would be almost impossible that the Samanids themselves produced no silver vessels. This problem is linked to the theory of a silver famine in the Islamic world during this period, and involves a consideration of the numismatic evidence from Viking hoards.

The proof of a shortage of silver in the Islamic world is not conclusive, but is strongly implied by the debased silver coinage circulating out of Delhi, Gujarat and the Ghaznavid territory in the C10th and C11th, and the absence of silver coinage in Egyptian and Syrian bank accounts, according to the Geniza documents. Perhaps the emergence of a new metalwork industry of beaten bronze vessels occurs because of a lack of precious metals, just as ceramic imitations of metal prototypes provide cheaper wares to the consumer when silver is so scarce it’s price goes through the roof.

The main postulated explanation for this shortage is that the silver output of the Panjhir mines continued unabated, but the coins were being drained out of circulation by trade routes leading to the north-western lands, and hoard evidence from Russia and Scandinavia reveals thousands of Islamic silver coins, of which up to 80% may be Samanid. Originally the number of coins may have been much higher, because the silver content of many Viking silver bracelets and other jewellery is the same as the content of Samanid coins, suggesting that the coins were melted down by the Vikings.

Commercial activity in the Baltic was dominated by the Swedes, and it is in Sweden that the vast majority of coins have been unearthed: some 800 hoards containing over 200,000 coins in total, of which half are Islamic, minted before 970. According to Hovén’s statistics based on the 30,000 or so Islamic coins in the Royal Coin Cabinet in Stockholm, 57.2% are Samanid, while 27.5% are ‘Abbasid. Thereafter the percentages decline from 1.7% (Umayyad) to 0.1%. It is clear then that trade between the Muslims and the Vikings began in the C8th.

The coins from north-eastern Iran passed easily into the hands of traders on the steppes, who in their turn traded with the Russians, the Bulghars in the Volga region, and the Khazars on the shore of the Caspian. At these great markets, the Samanid coins passed into Scandinavian hands, and thus taken out of circulation entirely by burial or remelting for jewellery. However, the cessation of silver flow to Scandinavia after 970 does not necessarily suggest there was no more silver; instead, when we look at the political situation of the late C10th, we see the destruction of the Khazar and Bulghar empires, and the decline of the Samanids themselves. Thus the lack of silver is perhaps due to problems of access rather than shortage.

Lieber believes that there is no silver shortage at all, but rather that silver was not as important to Islamic traders as it was to the western countries where gold was scarce. He believes that the Muslim conquests brought back into circulation all the stores of gold that the Pharaohs and Sasanians had stored as royal treasures, and also gained control of the rich gold minds of Nubia and Sudan. Thus the silver was flowing out of the Islamic lands because it was more highly valued in the west. He also thinks that Arab merchants in Russia were palming off silver coins that were no longer in circulation back home on to Russian traders who could not read the Arabic inscriptions or dates: it is thus that coins of widely diverse origins and dates make their way into southern Russian hoards. The lack of gold objects as evidence is explainable by the continuing importance of gold to all cultures, and thus it was melted down for re-use in subsequent eras.

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