Notes For British Palestine
By Dr. K.A. Rodgers
Few tracts of real estate on our planet engender such intensity of emotions as does Palestine. For millennia the land has consumed hearts, minds - and bodies. It is seldom out of the news these days. Little wonder then, that objects that evoke its history are in demand, more so when they carry potent symbols of the region's past.
For many, the banknotes issued during the British Mandate in the early twentieth century epitomize the land and its history. Their very existence presages the birth of modern Israel and the evolution of the present political impasse that wracks the Middle East. The desirability of these notes is enhanced by elegantly executed vignettes of four buildings of profound historical and religious significance: Rachel's Tomb, The Tower of Ramla, The Tower of David and, arguably the most potent symbol of them all, The Dome of the Rock. Together they speak eloquently of the cultural and religious history of the region, of its hope, its triumphs, its sufferings and its despairs. It is little wonder that the banknotes of British Palestine are among the most sought after objects of the many to emerge from this region in the past hundred years.
A Mandate to Govern
For better or worse, Britain got the job of administering Palestine on behalf of the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The British Mandate extended over an area covering modern Israel, Jordan and Gaza. It ran from 1920 to 1948. To assist the economic recovery of the war
damaged and politically disparate region the British administration introduced a uniform currency consisting of a Palestine pound divided into one thousand mils. The system was loosely based on that used successfully in Egypt where the Egyptian pound was divided into 100 piastres. The new currency was formalized on 7 February 1927. Subsequently a Currency Notes Ordinance of 1927 defined the specific legal tender to be issued by a newly constituted Palestine Currency Board. The notes were to be backed by their sterling equivalents in London.
The Palestine Currency Board had been appointed in 1926 by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. It was independent of the local government and reported directly to the British Colonial Office. The Board's responsibilities were limited to the introduction, issue and control of currency throughout the entire British Mandate. The 1927 Currency Ordinance specified the denominations of the new notes as 500 mils, £1, £5, £10, £50, and £100. These were designed and printed by Thomas de la Rue using one litho-tint and two direct plate passes. Article 22 of the Mandate's charter from the League of Nations required that the name "Palestine" be shown in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. The British administration underwent some blunt lobbying regarding the language to be used for the remainder of the notes' inscriptions. In the end they opted to walk that extra mile and show all text in all three languages.The buildings to appear as parts of the notes' design also generated warm discussion. Very deliberately those selected have significance for the three religions that hold the country dear: Jews, Muslims and Christians.
The first notes were issued from 1 November 1927 - the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that had announced Britain's intent to establish Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people. The notes would remain in circulation until the mandate was wound-up and the Currency Board dissolved in 1948 at which point over 59,000,000 Palestine pounds would have been placed in circulation. They remained legal tender in Israel until 15 September 1948, four months after formation of the State of Israel on 14 May, after which they could be redeemed for their British pound equivalent. In Transjordan, including the West Bank, they continued as
legal tender until 30 September 1950, and in the Gaza Stripuntil 9 June 1951. Four printings were made of the 500 mils (P-6), £1 (P-7), £5 (P-8) and £10 (P-9) denominations, with three printings of the £50 (P-10) and, possibly, of the £100 (P-11). The different printings show different dates and/or different signatures. All told there are twenty-one, maybe twenty-two denomination, signature and date combinations in a complete type set of Palestinian notes. Assembling a collection of all twenty-one/-two is The Ultimate - The El Dorado - for any Palestinian aficionado. It is doubtful if it has ever been achieved. The exceptional range of Palestinian notes in Spink's autumn sale provides collectors with the rare opportunity to score all sixteen of the possible 500 mils, £1, £5, and £10 varieties at a single sale. Of these, the first issues from 1927 are the rarest with the £5 and £10 showing this date unpriced in the latest edition of The Standard Catalog of World Paper Money. Of course, for serious paper money collectors, condition is everything with a premium paid for top grade material. Fortunately, many of the notes on offer are as good as they come. Both higher denominations, the £50 and £100, are extremely rare. Remarkably, Spink is offering two examples of the £50, both dated 30th September 1929. Both come with impeccable pedigrees. The top-graded example last saw an auctioneer's hammer in 1978 at NASCA's New York sale of the fabled Olson collection. At the time it fetched a few thousand dollars. It comes in a fresh, original, almost uncirculated condition. A note of similar quality was sold by Spink's in 2007 for £70,000. The present example is one of the finest, if not the finest known. It may well provide the top-priced lot of the sale. The second is an equally famous note that was sold as part of the Alexander Goldstein auction in December 1976. It has suffered fire damage at left and right but the note's centre is sound and is in extremely fine condition.
And, in case any reader was wondering, when it comes to rarity, few issued notes from around the world come rarer than a Palestinian £100. The Standard Catalog of World Paper Money observes that Bank of England records show only six of the original issue are unaccounted for. Of these only four are known to still exist. An example of this denomination is desirable in any condition. Regrettably none are offered in the present sale.
The 500 mil note is the sole denomination to show the Tomb of Rachel aka The Dome of Rachel or Qever Rahel in Hebrew and Qubbat Rakhil in Arabic. Rachel was the second and favourite wife of Jacob, grandson of Abraham and father of the tribes of Israel. During a journey from Shechem to Hebron Rachel suffered a hard labour while giving birth to their second son Benoni aka Benjamin: And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave Genesis 35:19-20
Jacob's grave marker consisted of eleven stones, one for each of his sons born before Rachel's death. As with many historical sites in the Middle East there is considerable argument over the exact site of the grave. That illustrated on the 500 mil note lies at the northern entrance to Bethlehem on the Hebron Road that runs to Jerusalem.
The present structure is believed by some to have been built, at least in part, by the Crusaders during their occupation of Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187 CE. It was they, perhaps, who cemented Jacob's eleven stones together and placed the domed cupola over the site supported by four pillars. Subsequently walls were built between the pillars to enclose the grave. Later the site was claimed by Muslims and Jews forbidden access but when Muhammad Pasha had the Tomb rebuilt in 1615 he granted the Jewish community use. When the building suffered severe earthquake damage in 1837 Sir Moses Montefiore, a Jewish philanthropist, purchased the Tomb and surrounding land from the Turkish Sultan. He had it fully restored and tactfully added an antechamber that included a mihrab facing Mecca for use by Muslims. The British experienced their own interesting moments with the site. In 1920 the entire building was cleaned and whitewashed by Jewish workers without a murmur from local Muslims. But in 1921 when the Chief Rabbinate wished to undertake repairs, the Muslims objected. The British High Commissioner stepped-in and offered to have the work done by the British administration. This time the Jews raised objections and the matter was dropped. But in 1925 Sephardic Jews requested external repairs be undertaken which the Government did, making the building structurally sound. However, no workers were allowed inside the shrine and, again, the Government discretely suspended any further work.Post-1948 the site fell firstly under the control of Jordan and then Israel following the Six Day War. Today it remains a hotly disputed location and is presently sited inside the contentious West Bank Barrier.
The Tower of Ramla
The front of the £5, £10, £50, and £100 Palestinian notes all show a vignette of the Tower of Ramla aka The White Tower. It holds connections for both Muslims, who refer to it as the Tower of the Forty Companions of the Prophet, and for Christians who claim it as the Tower of the Forty Martyrs. One popular name, however, the Crusader's Tower, is a misnomer.
The tower was built in the 13th century by the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars to celebrate his eviction of the Crusaders from Ramla in 1268 and to provide a minaret for the 8th century White Mosque, Masjid al-Abyad, of Caliph Suleiman. This building had been turned into a Christian church by the Crusaders during their occupation. The tower is dedicated to the Muslim prophet Saleh and is now all that remains of the original buildings - above the ground. Below is an impressive complex of water reservoirs, installed to assure abundant fresh water for the needs of worshippers.
In many ways the tower resembles a campanile. It stands 30 metres high and contains six stories each pierced by arched windows on all four sides. Inside is a spiral staircase of 119 steps. Al-Ramla is the only township to have been founded by Arabs in the region. It lies southeast of Tel Aviv on the main road to Jerusalem. For Christians it is built on the traditional site of Arimathea, the home of Joseph who arranged for Jesus' burial along with Nicodemus (John 19:38-39).
The Citadel and Tower of David
The circular vignette on the back of all six denominations shows the Citadel and Tower of David - Migdal David in Hebrew, Burj Daud in Arabic. It is the symbol of Jerusalem for all three of the country's religions. It is one of Jerusalem's most prominent landmarks, forming part of the Western Wall of the Old City on the slopes of Mt Zion next to the Jaffa Gate and the Armenian Quarter. The site it occupies is considered to have been that of a fortress built by King David and from where he was first smitten by sight of Bathsheba.
The Citadel in various forms had long been part of Jerusalem's fortifications. In 37-34 BCE King Herod added three towers complete with battlements, turrets and connecting ramparts. One commemorated his elder brother Phasael, a second his friend Hippicus, and the third his wife Mariamne. In one way or another Herod was responsible for all their deaths. When Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE the Roman Tenth Legion took over the Citadel. Their seal, the letters LXF, occurs in a number of places. When the Rome adopted Christianity as the imperial religion in the 4th century a community of monks became the Citadel's next occupants. After the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638 CE, the Muslims refurbished the Citadel sufficiently for it to withstand the best assault the Crusaders could offer in 1099. It was surrendered only when its defenders were guaranteed safe passage.
The Citadel was rebuilt by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1540 with the former Hasmonian, Herodian, and Crusader ruins providing the foundations for his Mameluke structures. A prominent minaret was added in 1665 to complement a 14th century mosque in the southwest corner. It towers over all earlier structures including Herod's battlements, as shown on the note vignette. Consequently this minaret is often incorrectly identified as the Tower of David.
All that remains today is the base of the north-eastern or Phasael Tower, the tallest of the three at 45 m. It became known as the Tower of David years after Herod's death with the name perhaps derived from the Song of Songs (4:4): Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.
Dome of the Rock
The vignette on the front of the £1 note banknote shows the most prominent feature of Jerusalem, the glorious golden dome of Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, known in Hebrew as Kipat Hasela and in English as The Dome of the Rock. It is the third most important site in Islam. The Dome stands atop Mount Moriah on a man-made platform referred to by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif or The Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as Har ha'Bayit or Temple Mount. There are few pieces of real estate on the planet that have been more bitterly contested than the heights of Mount Moriah. They feature in both the Bible and the Qur'an. It is where Abraham was ordered to sacrifice Isaac.
For Muslims the Dome is built over the rock from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. For Jews, this is the Foundation Rock, the holiest spot on Earth. During the Temple period it served as the site of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary entered only by the High Priest. To complicate matters just that little bit more, the mother of Byzantine Emperor Constantine had a chapel built on the spot dedicated to St Cyrus and St John.
Prior to the Dome's construction in 691 CE the summit of Mount Moriah was occupied from 960 to 587 BCE by The First Temple of the Israelites built by Sol-omon. It was succeeded by the Second Temple completed in 538 BCE and which stood until destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The extensive summit platform was constructed by Herod the Great during his total refurbishment of the Second Temple. Once in full control of the Mount, the Romans erected their own temple to Jupiter.
After Jerusalem was captured by the Rashidun Caliphate army, Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan had the Dome erected simply to provide a place of shelter for pilgrims visiting the hallowed rock. The Caliph ordered a structure that would blend into the existing buildings in the ancient city. In this he was well served by his architects. The building was never a mosque but when Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders, the Dome was given to the Augustinians who converted it into a church. Subsequently, on Jerusalem's recapture by Saladin in 1187 the entire area was re-consecrated as a Muslim sanctuary with the Christian cross atop the Dome replaced by a golden crescent. Extensive restoration was commenced during the British occupation of Palestine post-WWI. However, many of these repairs were destroyed by an earthquake in 1927. When the Mount came under control of Jordan, post 1948, the entire site was totally renovated commencing in 1955. In 1965 the heavy lead sheeting of the Dome was replaced by a lighter aluminium-bronze alloy with an oxidized copper finish applied later, courtesy of King Ibn Saud.
Today's golden dome was donated by King Hussein of Jordan at a cost of $15,000,000. It uses 176 pounds of gold with the sheen muted to avoid blinding any passing tourist. Then came the 1967 Six Day War. By Day 2 the Mount was in Israeli Army hands and the Israeli flag had been raised over the Dome. To keep the peace, General Moshe Dayan ordered it lowered and had the management of Temple Mount vested in a religious trust, the Muslim Waqf. Today the site and Dome are formally owned and maintained by the Ministry of Awqaf in Jordan. And so it goes.
With the compelling cultural and religious imagery portrayed on the notes, it is little wonder that they have become objects of desire among collectors other than numismatists. For many, one example of each of the six denominations are but part of wider, general collections assembled to document the history of this part of the Middle East. Apart from the numerous Palestinian notes in the general sale and the exceptional Type collection of Palestine from The Elzner Collection, collectors may wish to check out the Tom Warburton sale.
© K.A. Rodgers 2010