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Balog Weights

Balog, P. "Islamic Bronze Weights from Egypt" in JESHO 13 (1970), pp. 235 - 255.

PDF available online:


WEIGHTS are among the more common objects of pre-modern societies. Weights and a balance were essential for measuring quantities of many commodities and for evaluating coins. In the Islamic world, balance weights were made of metal, glass, or stone. If the mass of any small solid object conforms to an appropriate weight unit, it is likely to be a balance weight. Many excavated weights have been wrongly identified as game pieces or tokens.

Probably the most common class of weights are those for evaluating coins. The weights of pre-industrial handmade coins were often regulated loosely or not at all. Nearly every monetary transaction, therefore, required the use of a balance with weights, to ensure that the coins being transferred were of full weight or to measure their value as a direct function of their total mass. Every merchant, money changer, and fiscal official had a balance and a set of weights for the coins he used. Bakers in eleventh-century Cairo, for example, had weights for the bread they sold and for the coins they received (al-Musabbi . h‰, 63; Bates, "Function," 71).

Islamic coin weights, called sanaj in Arabic, are for the mithqal or dinar (the gold coin) and its fractions or multiples; or for the dirham (silver coin) and its fractions or multiples. The weights are most often of bronze, but lead and iron weights are known. Stone weights are rare (or difficult to recognize as such). Inscriptions on metal weights are rare and mostly uninformative, being references to the reliability of the weight ( adl), pious phrases (bism Allah, al-mulk lillah), or common names ( Al‰, Muhammad). A very few weights, over represented in museums, have the names of identifiable rulers. Some weights have meaningful ornamentation: punches or other marks to indicate the standard or the denomination of the weight. The vast majority, however, have nothing, or simple ornamentation. Their shapes are often significant: in Egypt, mithqal-system weights are mostly polygonal with flat tops and bottoms, while dirham-system weights are most often barrel shaped with smooth or faceted sides.

Weights can be attributed to specific places and periods by site finds, but some types seem to have been widespread over long periods. They were also portable; travelling merchants brought their balance sets along to evaluate payments in their home currency. Another method for the identification of metal weights is their metrology. If the base unit of the weight can be identified from its mass, it can be tentatively attributed to the place and era that used that standard.

Common mithqal or dinar weight standards include the Byzantine solidus, about 4.5grams; the Umayyad dinar, 4.25 grams (in Egypt, 4.23; in the Maghrib, 4.29); the Fatimid dinar,4.18 grams; and the Muwahhid dinar, 4.62 grams. Weights in the dinar or mithqal system include those for one-fourth or one-third dinar, one-half dinar, one, two, five, ten, twenty or twenty-five, fifty and one hundred dinars. By the late eighteenth century, only dirham weights were in use in Egypt, the mithqal having been defined as 150% of the dirham of 3.08 grams.

Dirhams varied quite a bit more in weight standard, and there are few reliable studies.The earliest dirham of Egypt was two-thirds the weight of the mithqal, or 2.82 grams, but in the course of the eighth century, Egypt had successively five different dirham weight standards. In seventh and early eighth-century Iran, there were a number of dirham standard weights,expressed as proportions of the mithqal, which in that context was the standard weight of the late Sasanian dirham, about 4.05 grams. Dirhams in al-Mashriq were described, for example, as"weight of five" or "weight of seven," meaning that their weight was five-tenths or seven-tenths of the mithqal. By the ninth century, the mithqal had been re-defined as the weight of the current gold dinar. A dirham weighing seven-tenths of the local dinar weight standard had become normal, and this became the canonical ratio of the Islamic sharia. In the thirteenth century, the Egyptian dirham was increased to 3.05 grams; by the eighteenth century, it was 3.08 grams. Elsewhere, little is known about standards. In general, weights with a mass of 2, 5, 10, 20 or 50times any figure between 2.5 and 3.1 are likely to be dirham-system weights. Metal weights for one dirham and one-half dirham are also common.

Glass weights were made mostly in Egypt, from the seventh to the sixteenth century.Most of these have inscriptions, which were stamped into the glass while it was still molten.Those of the eighth century name the governor and subordinate officials and give the denomination of the weight, often with a date. The very common weights of the Fatimid and Ayyubid period name the caliph briefly without additional information. In the late Ayyubid and Mamluk period the weights name their private makers. Whereas multiple money-unit weights of bronze are common, those of glass never exceed the double unit (except for a few late Mamluk and early Ottoman glass weights for 200 and 400 dirhams, unpublished, in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo). From the eighth century, there are also glass weights for ounces and pounds,commonly found in large fragments. Glass coin weights from Syria, Tunisia, and Sicily are also known, identifiable by their inscriptions or find-spot. Undamaged glass weights of the same denomination are very precise in their weight, agreeing to within one or two hundredths of a gram, and are precious physical evidence for monetary and commercial weight standards, both of which were changed from time to time.

Weights for heavier units, such as the uqiyya (wuqiyya), or ounce, and the ratl, or pound, are largely unknown except for those of glass from Egypt. For much of the Islamic world there are no known weights of any kind. No weights are known for the Caucasus region, Iraq and Iran (except for a very few coin weights of the eighth century), or Transoxiana. Unrecognized weights may exist in museum storerooms or antiquary shops, waiting to be weighed and identified.

Samuel Bernard, "Notice sur les poids arabes anciens et modernes," in Description de l ',gypte ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui on ‚t‚ faites en ,gypte pendant l 'exp‚dition de l 'arm‚e fran‡aise, XVI, ,tat moderne (2nd edition, Paris, 1825), 73-106 (extremely important for its description of weights in use).

Metal weights:
R. Curiel and Ph. Gignoux, "Un poids arabo-sasanide," Studia Iranica 5 (1976), 165-69;
Paul Balog, "Pesi di bronzo islamici del XIII secolo," Quaderni ticinesi di numismatica e antichit classiche 1973, 179-93;
Balog, "Islamic Bronze Weights from Egypt," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 13 (1970), 233-56;
Balog, "Poids forts fatimites en plomb," Revue Belge de Numismatique 105 (1959), 171-88;
Lionel Holland, "Islamic Bronze Weights from Caesarea Maritima," American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 31 (1986), 171-201;
Tawf‰q Ibrah‰m, "Ponderales andaluses," Numisma 233 (July-December 1993), 39-68.

Glass weights:
Morton, A. A Catalogue of Early Islamic Glass Stamps in the British Museum (London: British Museum Publications, 1985);
Balog, P. "The Fatimid Glass Jeton," Annali dell 'Istituto Italiano di Numismatica 18-19 (1971-72), 175-264; 20 (1973), 121-212;
Balog, P. "The Ayyubid Glass Jetons and Their Use," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 9 (1966), 242-56.
Balog, P. Umayyad, Abbasid and Tulunid Glass Weights and Vessel Stamps. (New York, 1976).

The use of weights:
Bernard, above;
Michael L. Bates, "The Function of Fatimid and Ayyubid Glass Weights," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 24 (1981), 63-92;
Paul Balog, "Fatimid Glass Jetons: Token Currency or Coin-Weights?" JESHO 24 (1981), 93-109;
Bates, "How Egyptian Glass Coin Weights Were Used," Rivista Italiana di Numismatica e Scienze Affini 95 (1993), 539-545.

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