• Adrian J. Boas

On the Power of Mammon and the Need to Fit In

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

Frankish Gold Bezants, British Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Like other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia frequently condemns Israel. Yet, a recent report by the United Arab Emirate news website Al-Khaleej claimed that Israel has sold Saudi Arabia espionage technologies for an estimated $250,000,000, and according to earlier reports Saudi Arabia also purchased from Israel the Iron Dome missile defence system in order to defend the kingdom from Houthi missile attacks. Trade between Israel and Palestine is significant, with Palestinian purchases from Israel accounting for about two-thirds of total Palestinian imports and Palestinian sales to Israel accounting for about 81 percent of total Palestinian exports. It is a remarkable human trait that, when it comes to religion people are often intractable and are willing to go even to their deaths for their beliefs, yet when money is involved, formerly insurmountable barriers often crumble away.

Religion was the principal motivating factor behind the First Crusade, but once the conquest was over, and the Latin settlement established, and without abandoning to any degree their enmity to one another, Christians and Muslims became partners in commerce and remained so for two centuries until the collapse of Frankish rule in the Levant. Trade with the Muslims was extensive and the ports of the kingdom of Jerusalem became to a large degree the principal nexus for much of the commerce between the East and West which had formerly flowed through Cairo, Damietta and Alexandria.

It was in order to facilitate this activity that the rulers of the kingdom made the decision to mint a coin displaying a Muslim devotional text in Arabic script, and dated according to the hijra. The gold bezant (above left), a Frankish imitation of the Egyptian dinar of Caliph al-Amir, certainly ranks high among the more extraordinary examples of the efforts made by the Christian settlers to fit in. With religion being the raison d'être of the crusades and of the establishment of the crusader states, it is nothing less than remarkable that they should choose to mint a coin that displayed no Christian emblem, had no representation of the king, and not even Latin script, but rather Muslim text in Arabic script. If nothing else, it reveals the remarkable pragmatism of the Franks, and their appreciation of the fact that if they were to survive and flourish in this hostile region it would be necessary to make some decisions which at best must have been regarded as uncomfortable.

This certainly was not a minor concession in a society so bound in religious symbolism. A sense of how offensive it must have been for some, can be understood by the condemnation it received, albeit after a exceptionally long interval, when in 1251 a visiting papal legate saw the coin, was duly shocked, and reported it to the pope who, equally shocked, demanded that it be replaced by a more appropriate Christian coin. This was done, but here we see yet again the pragmatism of the Franks. They henceforth minted of a new gold bezant (above on the right), now indeed with a Christian text and a Christian date, and with a cross – but still in Arabic script. It was now the turn of the Muslim merchants to be pragmatic in accepting to trade with a coin that must have looked as strange to them as it would have to Christians in the West.