Byzantine Coins

Archaeology keeps the memory archives of the world, presents us with the codes of traces, thousands of years old. Those codes showing us that different cultures having flourished at different corners of the world without direct contact with each other,

By Aylin Şen

 

Archaeology keeps the memory archives of the world, presents us with the codes of traces, thousands of years old. Those codes showing us that different cultures having flourished at different corners of the world without direct contact with each other, were using similar signs and symbols for communication purposes. One of those oldest symbols common to mankind is fish… Did you know that Trotsky put on alert Stalin and the whole Soviet nomenclatura because of a fish he collected at the Prince Islands’ shore during his years of exile in Istanbul? Or why a certain kind of fish of the Marmara Sea is called Prophet’s fish? Fish is indeed one the most common figures encountered in archaeological remains. So much so that it figures on Byzantine coins. Archaeology keeps the memory archives of the world, presents us with the codes of traces, thousands of years old. Those codes showing us that different cultures having flourished at different corners  of the world without direct contact with each other, were using similar signs and symbols for communication purposes. For instance, the eye design… Or, a hand, having different meanings when pictured in different positions… And, one of the oldest symbols: the fish! From China to Egypt, from Mesopotamia to the cold shores of the North, the fish meant abundance and fertility, because it is one of the biological assets nature is offering with ample generosity. It also carries some mystery with itself because it keeps living in the darkness of deep waters. Maybe this is why fish was the symbol of reincarnation in ancient Egypt. Actually, fish has also been the symbol of Christianity and used as such for several centuries. Among different tales on how fish was related to Christianity, Christians attribute priority to the belief that Jesus Christ saved five thousand people from hunger by feeding them with fish and bread. In fact, the early Christians were using fish drawings on the ground as a code to recognize each other discreetly, thus avoiding persecution. This is probably why the people of Marmara used to call the john dory fish, whose face reminds us of a human face with a tragic expression, Prophet’s fish or Saint Peter’s fish. Again, Trotsky’s rockfish story is one of the most amazing and ironic episodes of this unusual historical account on fish. End of the twenties, beginning of the thirties, one of the leading personalities of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky, had to flee the Soviet Union due to his disagreement with Stalin and took refuge in Turkey, namely in İstanbul’s Prince Islands. His exile years were focused on ideological discussions with some friends around him and through correspondence with other friends and foes. But of course, there was time for leisure and Trotsky’s preferred pastime was fishing. He asked a friend, in a letter, to buy for him some line possibly 200 meters long for underwater rods used for catching big fish. Apparently it was with this line sent to him from the United States that he collected three specimen of the rockfish which provoked big turmoil in Kremlin. Trotsky noted the unusual hammer and sickle pattern, the emblem of the Soviet Communist Party, on the fish’s flanks. Known for his academic work in the field of ichthyology, Trotsky baptized (!) this rockfish as the Hammer and Sickle Fish. But, since he had to continue to escape from Stalin’s secret police still after him, he was unable to finish his scientific study. It was Stalin who later ordered Soviet scientists to follow up on Trotsky’s footsteps to complete the research on the so-called hammer and sickle fish. Finally, a description of the new rockfish species was published in 1942 by Joseph Stalin in the Zoological Journal where he was naming it “Sebastes Lenini” supposedly in remembrance of his predecessor Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution. Marmara, the Prince Islands and particularly the Bosporus enjoy a rich heritage in  such fish anecdotes embracing thousands of years. The favourite figure in this heritage is the one of pelamyd, a fish also called horse mackerel or bonito (in the Atlantic Ocean), which used to cross the Bosporus in earlier years in large schools and which became rather rare in recent years. Due to its smooth-shaped body, pelamyd was considered the most ‘handsome’ among fishes. The fact that it was found in large quantities in the area, pelamyd was at all times greatly ‘respected’ in İstanbul from the period of the oldest civilizations up to our era. Byzantion chose pelamyd as the city’s emblem and, Byzantine coins were engraved with the pelamyd pattern during the 2nd century A.D. Later, the fish pattern continued to be imprinted on coins along with kings’ pictures.

 

 TURSAB ENG

This article has originally appeared in “Müze” Magazine, published quarterly with the contributions of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. We would like to thank TÜRSAB Museum Enterprises for sharing this piece with Istanbul Digital Platform followers. 

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