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Egyptian coins


Egyptian coins cover one of the oldest civilisations in history; a part of human culture dating back to 10,000 BC. Despite this, Egyptian coins didn’t appear until relatively late in its history, as we’ll discuss further below. As a fulcrum point between Europe, Asia and Africa, leadership of Egypt has changed hands several times, and its coinage reflects this.

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The Egyptian Relic coin series

As an interesting aside, the Scottsdale Mint in the United States produces a unique range of Egyptian-themed bullion coins for the Republic of Chad, known as the Egyptian Relic coin series. The series consists of silver coins, produced in larger-than-typical weights, and celebrates Ancient Egyptian civilisation. The coins feature a mixture of famous Egyptian leaders such as Pharaoh Ramesses II, King Tutankhamen and Queen Nefertiti, as well as figures from Egyptian mythology including the God Horus, and the Sphinx of Hatshepsut.

These coins have exquisite designs that mix the unique style of Egyptian culture with a bullion coin, making them a great gift choice for a keen Egyptologist.
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Old Egyptian coins

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Considering the immense age of the Egyptian civilisation, it is somewhat surprising how few old Egyptian coins are actually found. Egypt was a commercial phenomenon, being known as one of the most fertile and wealthy people of the ancient world.

Such a large country with trade flowing through it had to have some sort of currency. Images of trade do appear in ancient Egyptian art, with scenes of busy market traders bartering items, but it is accepted that barter alone would not be sufficient for such a large civilisation.

Even back in the ancient world, accountants did keep detailed records of transactions, and there are consistent mentions of a currency unit known as a ‘shat’. The shat however does not appear to have been a coin; historians thought it could potentially be a gold ring based on imagery, but none have been found, and historians believe the shat may have been a currency on paper only. Without any evidence of a specific coin, token, or associated item of any kind, the shat remains something of a mystery.

What is known for certain is that the Egyptians used one of the oldest forms of a gold standard. As part of this guideline, 7.5 grams of gold was worth one shat, and 12 shats was worth a ‘deben’. All mention of the shat seemed to disappear from records under Pharaoh Ramesses II (1279 – 1212 BC) however.

Gold was very symbolic to Egyptian culture as it was considered a gift from the Gods. This meant that Egyptian leaders wouldn’t have wanted this godly metal associated with monetary coins used in daily life. It is believed that the Egyptians even changed to a silver standard after this period.

The first coins found to be minted in Egypt were relatively late; coming from the late dynastic period of 664 BC – 332 BC. The oldest Egyptian gold coins were known as a ‘stater’, a coin that originated in Greece. The old Egyptian staters were introduced under the Pharaoh Teos, and were minted primarily to pay Greek mercenaries used in a campaign against the Persians. Teos was unpopular however, and was replaced by his nephew Nectanebo II, who struck his own version of the gold stater. There is evidence of some Persian coins also minted in Egypt around this time.

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An ancient Egyptian gold stater.

A gold Egyptian Nectanebo II stater. Image courtesy of Wikimedia creative commons.

The Ptolemaic Period (305 – 30 BC) onwards marks the beginning of regular minting of old Egyptian coins. The reign of Ptolemy II in particular saw a rapid increase in the circulation of coins, but these were made mostly of bronze. Unlike the Greeks, Egypt had no silver mines, and had to import silver for use in the production of coins. This made it too expensive for widespread use, but some silver was used for coins up to the time of Cleopatra and the Roman conquest. Silver coins had however been debased to 33% purity by the early BC years. Gold was simply considered too valuable for daily use at this time, but an impressive octodrachm coin was produced, which contained almost one ounce of pure gold.

The Roman conquest of Egypt signalled the end of an era for Egyptian coins, in which Roman coins were introduced, and Egyptian coins slowly phased out of circulation. By the time of Emperor Nero (54 – 68 AD) few Ptolemaic coins remained. For the next 1,800 years Egypt found itself under the rule of the Roman and Byzantine empires, before becoming part of the Fatimid Caliphate, the Mamluk Sultanate, and eventually the Ottoman Empire.

The piastre (ersh) was the Egyptian currency until 1834, and was based on the Turkish kuruş as a leftover from the Ottoman Empire. The Egyptian pound (also known as the geneih) was then introduced in 1834, and a bimetallic standard of gold and silver was adopted. The Maria Theresa thaler in particular was a popular silver coin in the region. The Egyptian pound closely followed the British pound sterling until 1962, when it switched to the US Dollar.

Using a bimetallic standard, Egypt continued to produce gold and silver coins. Between 1837 and 1900 the following coins were struck:

Silver coins: 10 & 20 para coin. 1, 5, 10 & 20 piastre coin.
Gold coins: 5, 10 & 20 piastre coin. 1 pound coin.

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1944 Egyptian 2 piastres silver coin, a unique hexagonal coin, featuring King Farouk.

A 1944 2 piastres silver coin; obverse featuring King Farouk.

Gold and silver coins were slowly phased out following 1900, but were reissued in 1916 and 1917. 1922 – 1923 also saw the gold coin range extended to include new 20 and 50 piastre coins, and a 5 pound gold coin. 1944 saw an interesting hexagonal silver coin issued, featuring King Farouk, and was worth 2 piastres, before silver coins were abandoned altogether in 1967.