Frescoes &
Art of Book
Metalwork and Engraving

By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian

he Armenian plateau, rich in ores, was one of the first places to practice metallurgy and was ahead of neighboring regions in the use of copper and iron. Throughout history Armenians have been master metalworkers and jewelers. There is a near continuous tradition of metal objects from the first millennium B.C. to the present.  Armenian metal craft can be divided conveniently, if arbitrarily, into three categories: 1) silver and bronze coins; 2) gold and silver works of art; and 3) bronze and other non-precious metal objects. Under the Orontid (Ervandian, fourth to second century B.C.) and Artaxiad (Artashesian, second to first century B.C.) Armenian dynasties, the minting of coins provided the art of engraving a natural outlet. During the first ten Christian centuries, however, Armenians did not strike coins.  It is only under Cilician Armenian dynasties of the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries that the numismatic tradition of the Artaxiads is renewed. 


By Khachatur Musheghian 

he extraordinary phenomenon of marking pieces of precious metal for use as money was a Greek invention of the seventh century before our era, first in the cities of Asia Minor and then on the islands and mainland of Greece itself. This greatly improved the development of international trade. In Armenia metal money only appeared much later. Until the fourth century B.C., commerce was carried out in the form of barter or by payment in gold and silver ingots according to weight. Only after this date was Armenian trade facilitated through the acceptance of coined money as a form of payment. 

Archaeological excavations carried out in the Erebuni (Erevan) fortress have led to the discovery of Greek silver coins of the sixth-fifth centuries B.C. minted at Miletus (two specimens), as well as silver coins dating from the same period minted in Athens (several examples), others were discovered in the Sisian (Zangezur) region. The use of metal coins with weight and purity guaranteed by the state began to appear in Armenian circles just before and under Alexander the Great (died 323 B.C.) and his successors.  Numerous coins bearing the effigies of Alexander and those who followed him have been discovered. The presence of this money proves that there were economic links between Armenia and the neighboring countries of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. During this period, the Greek drachma, a silver coin of 4.36 grams, was the most commonly circulated money of international trade. 

The Greek monetary unit was used as principle value in international exchanges. Armenian markets traded with gold coins called "Alexander the Macedonian," which weighed 8.60 grams and were stamped with the effigy of Athena and a Victory. In Armenia this coin was called a "sater," from the Greek word "stater." A gold stater could be exchanged for twenty silver drachmas or five tetradrachmas  (tetra  meaning four). Gold coins were seldom used in exchange, leaving silver coins as the medium for trade. After the dispersion of the immense empire created by Alexander of Macedonia, coupled with an increasing demand for money in local markets in the third century B.C., the first coins were minted by the Armenian rulers of Sophene (Dzopk'). International trading links were made through the established connections of the realm of Sophene located in the southwest of the Armenian plateau. 

Sophenian coins bear the effigy of the king of Armenia on one side and on the other the sovereign's name and title in Greek characters and signs related to the cult: the goddess of victory, Athena, an eagle, a horse, etc. Only a few examples of these first Armenian coins have survived; they are in bronze and bear the portraits of the sovereigns Arsham, Abdissaris, and Xerxes (Shavarsh). 

Further economic development created appropriate conditions for the minting of a greater number of Armenian coins by the Artashesian (Artaxiad) dynasty, which, during the second and first centuries B.C., was able to form a centralized state that spread over the Armenian plateau. The Artashesian kings ended foreign domination over the country and put its money, which was of the same weight and size as the Attic Greek unit, into circulation on the international market. On all these coins a standard effigy of the Artashesian sovereigns dressed with the Armenian tiara or crown was stamped on the front, and on the back there was the name and title of the ruler inscribed in Greek and accompanied by symbols related to the religious cult of Armenia. In chronological order, and according to the metal used, the following coins minted by the Armenian sovereigns are known to us: 

 Tigran I (123-96) - bronze coins
 Tigran II (95-55) - silver and bronze coins 
 Artavazd II (56-34) - silver & bronze coins 
 Artashes II (34-20) - bronze coins 
 Tigran III (20-8) - silver and bronze coins 
 Tigran IV (8-5) - bronze coins 
 Artavazd III (5-2) - bronze coins 
 Tigran  IV and Queen Erato (2-1) - bronze coins 
 Artavazd IV (4-6 A.D.) - silver & bronze coins 
 Tigran V (circa 6 A.D.) - bronze coins 

The most abundant of the coins minted by these sovereigns were those of Tigran II, the Great, and some issues of his immediate successor Artavazd II. The coins bearing the effigy of Tigran II were minted in Armenia as well as in Syria after that country was brought under the control of Armenia. The coins of Tigran minted in Armenia show the portrait of the king with the imperial title "King of Kings" in Greek. On the reverse side of Artashesian coins were allegoric and mythological figures dedicated to the supreme goddess of the country, the water cult, fertility, victory as well as objects of veneration. 

On the occasion of military victories, coins were minted with the face of the sovereign on the obverse and the goddess of victory or the legendary figure of Vahakn on the reverse. The evolution of the images struck on these coins shows the development of the skills of the master engravers. With the fall of the Artashesian dynasty, Armenia ceased minting coins for centuries. Neither the rulers of the Arshakuni (Arsacid) dynasty of Armenia, nor those of the Bagratuni (Bagratid) minted coins. Nevertheless, as an exceptional phenomenon, mention should be made of the curopalate Kiurike, king of the Armenian province of Lori, one of three branches of the Bagratuni dynasty, who minted bronze coins in the eleventh century depicting a bust of Christ accompanied by an inscription in Armenian. 

The main center for the issuing of coins with Armenian legends was Cilician Armenia.  In the eleventh century, large numbers of Armenians fled west and southwest before the conquest and persecution of the Seljuk Turks and settled in Cilicia, where, by the end of the twelfth century, a kingdom was established. For more than three centuries this state issued its own currency, bearing Armenian inscriptions and the symbols of the Christian faith.  Millions of such Armenian coins from Cilicia have been preserved. A great number of them were minted by the first ruler to bear the title king, Levon I of the Rupenian dynasty. During the reign of Levon and his successors, the coins were of silver and bronze, with a few rare gold pieces dating from the reigns of Levon I (1198-1219), Het'um I (1221-1270) and Constantine I (1298-1299). In the early thirteenth century, large quantities of Cilician silver coins were minted and circulated widely in the world market.  Afterwards, a shortage of silver caused a reduction in production. During the reign of the last Armenian king of Cilicia, Levon V (1374-1375), copper or nickel replaced silver for coinage. 

. Coins minted by thirteenth and fourteenth century Cilician Armenian rulers of the Rupenid dynasty and their successors the Het'umids, display a very rich and varied iconography of interest to both historians and art historians. At several moments in the thirteenth century bilingual coins in Arabic and Armenian were issued, underlining the Cilician kingdom's relations with its Muslim neighbors to the north and south. In the post-Cilician period, though there was no Armenian currency until the first Armenian Republic (1918-1920), numerous commemorative medals were struck by private individuals and the church.  

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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