14th Century Silver Coin of Tsar Ivan Alexander of Second Bulgarian Empire Becomes August 2020 ‘Exhibit of the Month’ in National Archaeology Museum
A silver coin minted by Tsar Ivan (Yoan) Alexander (r. 1331 – 1371), the last relatively successful ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire before its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in the 14th century, has been declared “exhibit of the month” for August 2020 by Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology.
Tsar Ivan Alexander’s silver coin is part of the collection of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. It is the first time the national museum has chosen an “exhibit of the month” and publicized in a release.
The front side (obverse) of the late medieval Bulgarian coin features a depiction of Jesus Christ with a halo, a tunic, and a mantle, with both his hands raised for a blessing, the museum explains.
Behind Jesus Christ’s figure, there is a backless throne. Both sides of the coin observe image of Christ feature monograms of the name “Alexander” and the “Tsar” title in reference to Tsar Ivan Alexander of the Second Bulgarian Empire. “Tsar”, the title of the Bulgarian rulers in the middle ages is derived from Roman title of “Caesar” (itself based on the name of Julius Caesar), and is equivalent to “Emperor”.
The reverse side of the 14th century silver coin features images of the standing Tsar Ivan Alexander (on the left) and his first-born son and Co-Emperor Mihail IV Asen holding between them a flag with a long pole. On both sides of the pole there is one multi-pointed star.
Tsar Mihail IV Asen (1322 – 1355, Co-Emperor in 1331 – 1355) died in a battle with the invading Ottoman Turks near Sofia (back then Sredets) in 1355, which was lost but nonetheless staved off further Ottoman Turkish attacks on Bulgaria for another 15 years, until 1370.
On the silver coin from the mid-14th century, both Tsar Ivan Alexander and his Co-Emperor and son Tsar Mihail IV Asen are depicted in their ceremonial attire, wearing crowns, and each one of them holding one of the symbols of power, a short scepter with a cross.
On both sides of their figures, there are monograms of the names “Alexander”, “Mihail” as well as of the Bulgarian word “благоверен“ (“blagoveren”), meaning “pious”.
“The silver coins of Tsar Ivan Alexander and Mihail Asen are among the few surviving artistic monuments from the Late Middle Ages in Bulgaria,” says the National Institute and Museum of History about its first “exhibit of the month”.
“They are a valuable source of information about the political and economic history of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and offer a glimpse of the symbols of power and attire of the Bulgarian rulers,” the museum adds.
It points out that the silver coins were minted meticulously, with skillfully engraved seals, and their images on both sides are of the linear and schematic style that is characteristic of Bulgarian coin minting in the 14th century.
“Their iconography illustrates the medieval idea of the godly origin of the tsar’s authority. On the front side, the image of Jesus Christ is presented in a way that is untypical for medieval coins, with his arms raised high for a blessing. Usually, it is the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) “Oranta”, i.e. “praying”, who is depicted with such iconography,” explains the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology.
“The fact that so far no other coins are known to depict such a scene makes this image unique for medieval Bulgarian coin minting,” it adds.
The Museum also informs that the silver coins featuring Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Mihail Asen are the longest produced and most mass produced medieval Bulgarian silver coins.
They were minted in vast quantities for their time, with about 10 to 15 million coins minted in total, according to some estimates.
“These are also the medieval Bulgarian coins that are discovered most frequently, and whose minting continued ever after Ivan Alexander’s death in 1371, during the early years of the reign of Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371 – 1395),” says the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
It adds that several versions of coins from the same emissions have been found over the 2019 archaeological seasons, and can be seen in the 2019 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition, which will be on display at the museum until August 30, 2020.
Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) of the Second Bulgarian Empire was the second longest ruling state leader in Bulgarian history (after Tsar Peter I (r. 927 – 969)). He was a great patron of the Old Bulgarian literary tradition, Orthodox Christianity, and the arts but not a very strong political and military leader.
He did, however, deliver the last big medieval Bulgarian military victory in the 1331 Battle of Rusocastro against the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, one of the concluding episodes of the 7-century-long Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars, with both powers getting conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the follwoing decades.
After he lost his two eldest sons – Ivan (Tsar Ivan Asen IV) in 1349 AD and Mihail in 1355 AD – in battles with the Ottoman Turks, he failed to prevent a number of Bulgarian feudal lords seceding, and on top of that divided the remainder of the Bulgarian Tsardom between his two surviving sons.
His third son Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396) received the smaller so called Vidin Tsardom, with the Danube city of Bdin (Vidin) as its capital, and his fourth son Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) received the rest, the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, with the capital proper of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo).
Just two decades later almost all Bulgarian lands, disunited and even warring among themselves, fell prey to the invading Ottoman Turks, ushering Bulgaria into five centuries of Ottoman Yoke (1396 – 1878/1912), signifying a practically irreversible loss of its former great power status of the medieval Bulgarian Empire.
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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria, among other books.
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