It is well known that music reflects the distinctiveness of diverse cultures. Books, photography, paintings, and talk shows have the same effect. But have you ever thought about the images printed on coins and banknotes as a kind of national art? Can such images reveal what hundreds of books, newspapers and TV shows failed to reflect? Or are they just random figures that fill the gaps, providing exposure to the money we hold in our hands?
Most people realize that contemporary Egyptian currency is mostly inspired by ancient Egypt, although some are influenced by Islamic Egypt carrying the pictures of mosques. (I wonder why there isn’t one reflecting the Coptic culture too…)
Before going into details let us take a look at the past. Let us get back to the first Egyptian “revolution” in 1952. President Gamal Abdelnasser, who led the freedom struggle, afterwards aimed to create a very strong bond of unity and nationalization. He certainly succeeded in creating that. Those of us Egyptians who like to have a look at our parents’ old belongings we will find tens of coins with images related to the national projects during this era. Question is, if this was part of Abdelnasser’s plan? Or was it a simply a way to satisfy his presidential ego? Maybe he wanted to document Egypt’s great achievements?
WHEN COMPARING the old revolution with the two recent ones, new questions bloomed: Why didn’t the government print coins regarding the revolution as it used to do in ancient times? And what do the current monetary images tell us about Egypt?
A while before President Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt there were coins for celebrating education, women’s rights and national projects, but coins have now become static, especially since 2005 when the government printed the one-pound (with the face of the Sphinx) and the fifty piasters (with the face of Cleopatra). Coins do tell many stories – they show “action”, but perhaps there was nothing there to tell in Mubarak’s last five years… Since 2005, we have seen nothing but those two faces: the Sphinx and Cleopatra. We have witnessed their silence for so long, waiting for them to speak. These two immortal figures were the symbol of power and royalty. Could these figures fall as metaphors for the regime that was implemented upon us in this particular era? The Sphinx has always been a metaphor of silence in the Egyptian culture. When we joke about a person’s quiet manners, in a sarcastic way we exclaim, “Even the Sphinx has spoken!”
"...contemporary Egyptian currency is mostly inspired by ancient Egypt"
In the past every president and king of Egypt at some time printed their faces on coins, at least occasionally, yet Mubarak never did. Perhaps he carried the intention of being a Pharaonic king rather than a president. Perhaps he intended to live and rule longer than we expected. Perhaps he was merely humble.
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Or could it be that it was all part of a huge brainwashing process to support our silence and passiveness? We were being brainwashed by the money we were eager to collect! We were being brainwashed with a tool that we cannot avoid. Is this brilliance coming from the president, the government or another source? Or is it all a destined coincidence? Is it also a coincidence that the male figure is given the one-pound coin while the female figure is given a lower value; the fifty piasters coin? In the eyes of feminists does it imply that men have superior power over women? Or in the eyes of Islamists it might also match by sheer coincidence with the Quranic quote: “For the male is the equal of the portion of two females”. (Al-Nisa Verse 11)
On the other hand, it is known that the Sphinx was built to protect Egypt and scare its enemies away. It could also be a sign of strength for every Egyptian. Cleopatra could be a sign of the multi-cultured Egypt, and her continuous efforts to always save her country and family – and the thrown.
Spanning from the coins up to the highest Egyptian monetary value, we will find out that the 200-pound bill contains on one of its sides the image of the ancient Egyptian writer. This could resemble the power of knowledge and art. Ancient Egyptians mastered the art of narrating their history on their engraved temples, and this narration has inspired the entire world. The metaphor of the ancient Egyptian writer could also be directly related to the glory of the pen and the power of writing in the Quranic quote: “Nun. By the pen and what they inscribe.” (Al-Qalam Verse 1)
ON THE OTHER HAND the 200-pound bill can be interpreted in a very undesirable yet realistic meaning. It can be a reflection of the “Capitalism within Art” that many writers are facing in the publishing industry. The idea to pay to have your book published. It also reflects the problems many readers face; namely that the valuable good quality books are always expensive, so that they only reach a certain social class. Good books are banned from the low social classes (which is the majority) due to their high prices and the publisher’s market segmentation.
The idea of reading money can inspire readers to excavate tons of philosophy and imageries. Money is a free book available to public readers.
Question is, what would the next version of Egyptian coins and banknotes look like? If the Muslim Brothers were still in control, they would probably have printed money carrying the images of their Imam Hassan Al-Banna. If the Socialist party were at the helm perhaps they would have included the images of their martyrs. But what will President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi do? Will he print his own image, like tens of other presidents and rulers in Egypt’s past and elsewhere in the world? Or will he choose metaphorical images as the ones already existing? Or shall we witness one day the images of national projects and causes printed on coins, like the New Suez Canal? The revolution perhaps? Or more importantly, anti-harassment imagery and an Egypt against racism? Or other cultural imageries like the Coptic Egypt and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina?
Money is much more than a means of trade, rather it is a very valuable piece of art, wisdom, history, and passion towards one’s culture.