Greece may be about to suffer its biggest crisis since the Spartans invaded it in antiquity. It is about to default on its $500 billions in public debt. It is one of the 17 out of 27 European states that adopted the euro after abandoning their national currency.
Some Greek economists recommend going back to drachma and thus saying goodbye to the European monetary union. So now it is time to ponder the once unthinkable: that Greece might end its 10-year use of the euro and return to its former currency, the drachma.
Drachma is one of the oldest currencies known to mankind. As a measure of value it was derived from the Greek verb ‘drassesthai’, ‘to grasp’, from which it is assumed that the measure was denoted by a ‘fistful’. Today we have dram as a measure. The fluid dram is one-eighth of a fluid ounce, hence ‘a small drink of liquor’ (circa 1713); hence dram shop (circa 1725), where liquor was sold by the shot.
Drachma, the silver coin of ancient Greece, dated from about the mid-sixth century BC. The early drachma had different weights in different regions. From the fifth century BC, Athens gained commercial pre-eminence and the Athenian drachma became the foremost currency. One drachma equalled six oboli; 100 drachmas equalled one mine; and 60 mine equalled one Attic talent. It took one talent to build a ship.
But in Arabic, drachma is dirham and it is the currency of the United Arab Emirates. It was introduced in December 1971. It replaced the Qatar and Dubai riyal at par. The Qatar and Dubai riyal had circulated since 1966 in all of the emirates except Abu Dhabi, where the dirham replaced the Bahraini dinar — at the exchange rate of 1 dirham = 0.1 dinar.
Before 1966, all the emirates that were to form the UAE used the Gulf rupee. As in Qatar, the emirates briefly adopted the Saudi riyal during the transition from the Gulf rupee to the Qatar and Dubai riyal. Riyal was originally Spanish; rupee was British Indian.
But we have another currency, this time Roman, in Muslim countries: dinar. In the Roman currency system, the denarius (plural: denarii) was a small silver coin first minted in 211 BC. The word ‘denarius’ is derived from the Latin ‘deni’, ‘containing ten’, as its value was 10 asses!
States that have the dinar as currency are: Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya and Tunisia. There are others too: Bosnia, Croatia, Srpska Republic, etc.
Both these names of money are familiar to Muslims in South Asia through stories told in our classics. They are mentioned in the story collections of Alf Laila as well as in Talism-e-Hoshruba. Both the names came to the Middle East when the Roman Empire stretched to Palestine and Egypt.
The official language of the Roman Empire in the East was not Latin but Greek. That is why Arabic has so many words taken from Greek, including drachma. Later Latin, too, became familiar and that is when dinar was borrowed as a currency name.
Why was dinar equal to 10 asses? Because in ancient times, payments were made in heads of cattle and dinar was equal to that measure of payment. It should be interesting to know that in Latin the word for cattle is ‘pecu’. From there we have the English pecuniary which means pertaining to money matters.
Don’t you think that the Latin pecu is close to the Hindi and Punjabi word for cattle: pasu? By the way, the English word ‘money’ actually means to warn and came from Rome where a hill contained the temple of Juno Moneta (Juno the Warner) and the Romans kept their treasure there.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2011.