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2011-08-11 16:52:53 Views : 25545 |

Shekel: an Ancient Iraq Currency


By: Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari

Dept. of English,

College of Education,

Salahaddin University,





     The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary (OALD 2007) defines shekel as an ancient silver coin used by the Jews.

     Historical evidence, however, proves that shekel is mentioned in  cuneiform texts in Mesopotamia three thousands years B.C. as a unit of measure first and later as a coin.

     There is an immense number (16,000) of texts that describe the economic structure of the Sumerian empire as contracts, vouchers, payrolls, accounts, and accurate conclusions, showing the growing importance of the private property and private business and the ever-increasing part played by the secular authority. A growing number of individuals owned land, houses, chattels, slaves and animals that were sold by contract.

     Prices varied according to quality, place and time and were expressed in shekel. For example, date-palm groves at Nippur were worth about one shekel of silver (about one – quarter of an ounce) per sar (116 square feet); a healthy male slave cost about eleven shekels, an ass, five gur of barley (Roux 1964). Moreover, private money lenders made fortunes from short-term loans. 

Ancient Iraq texts abound in mentioning the shekel as currency. The earliest mention of shekel goes back to the Sumerian Age where it is mentioned in the ancient Code of Ur Namu, founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur ( circa 2113-2006B.C.).

     Goods were first used in ancient Iraq for bartering. Cereals and minerals such as barley and silver were used for such purposes, but were gradually replaced by the shekel which continued to be used as money throughout all the ancient history of Iraq as is clear from the following codes of law:


1. Code of Ur-Namu:

     The word shekel is mentioned for the first time in this ancient and famous  Code of Ur-Namu King of Ur (2111-2003BC), and founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur ( circa 2113-2006BC). It is the oldest collection of laws in the world found in Nippur in 1952.

     Great efforts were made to decipher the cuneiform inscription on the badly damaged tablets bearing the code by Cramer and others. Following long studies, scientists came to the conclusion that it was one of the most ancient codes.  

     It contained 31 articles including some economic ones in which silver and cereals were mentioned as a means of bartering and pricing.

     Article 19 of the Code of Ur Namu states that:


“ if a man breaks the tooth of another man, he has to pay him in fee two shekels of silver”.


2. The Lipit - Ishtar Code of Law: this is the second ancient Iraq code of law that belongs to the Sumerian king Lipit-Ishtar the fifth king of the Isin Dynasty ( 2017-1794B.C.) and author of the code of which some forty-three articles and parts of the prologue and epilogue have survived.

     These laws deal, among other things, with real estates, hire contract and the condition of privately owned slaves, and therefore give us a limited but interesting insight into the society which was then taking shape.

     The code contained economic texts found in Neffer? by the American expedition of Pennsylvania beginning the twentieth century. Scholars specialized in cuneiform writing found out that it contained 37 articles preceded by a prologue in praise of god Inlil and state that the aim of passing the code was to bring abundance and prosperity to the country of Sumer and Akkad and rid people of injustice.

     Article nine of Lipit-Ishtar Code states that ,” if a man entered a grove belonging to another man and was caught and accused of theft, then he has to pay ten shekels of silver”. While article 33 states that “ if a man alleged that the unmarried daughter of a free man had sex with a man, and it was later proved that she was innocent, then the accuser had to pay 10 shekels in fee”.


3. The Ishnuna Code of Law

     The Ishnuna law that was found in Baghdad in the area of Tell Harmal in 1945, was studied by Taha Baqir and published in Sumer Jnl Vol 4 , 1948.

     The code has 61 articles in which the phrase (for one shekel of silver) is mentioned in many articles. In article one of the code are found the prices of a number of goods valued at the price of (one shekel of silver= 180 grains or 5. 5gms) :


“The price of one gur of barley is one shekel of silver’.

“The price of 3 qas of pure oil is one shekel of silver”.

“The price one sut and 5 qas of sesame oil is one shekel of silver”.

“The price of 6 suts of wool is one shekel of silver”.

“The price of 2 gurs of salt is one shekel of silver”.

“The price of one hal seed is one shekel of silver”.

     Article 11 of the law states that:

 “ the wage of a labourer is one shekel of silver and his food one ban of barley and he has to serve for this wage for one month”.

     Among these articles it can be noted that the term shekel is mentioned more frequently than cereals. This is an indication that ancient Iraqis preferred to deal in minerals than in cereals for many reasons: cereals need big jars to preserve and transportation means to be carried from one place to another. They also needed to be protected from humidity and rain as well as big warehouse for storage compared to metals that are easier to use for it is easy to melt them down and save them in small containers and then safe and transport them.


4. The Code of Hammurabi:

     Although the code can no longer be considered the most ancient in the world, for similar documents have been discovered from the reigns of Ur-Nammu, Lipit-Ishtar as mentioned above as well as in Bilalam, it is still the most complete. It was issued by King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty (1894-1594 BC):


‘To cause justice to prevail in the country

To destroy the wicked and the evil,

That the strong may not oppress the weak’


    Among other things, the code regulated the economy of the country and this is what is meant by the formula of the second year of Hammurabi: ‘he established justice in the country’, and a good example of a mesharum(justice)-act( has survived in the ‘ edict ‘ of King Ammni-saduqa, one of Hammurabi’s successors. In the course of his reign many social and economic changes occurred which required the laws to be adjusted, and the king pronounced sentences on a number of isolated cases for which no precedent could be found. These royal decisions (dinat sharrin), duly recorded and eventually collected together to be used for reference by the judges of future generations , formed the so-called ‘Codes of Law’.

    Several such copies of the Code of Hammurabi were preserved on clay tablets, ranging from the Old Babylonian period to the time of the Chaldean dynasty.

     Hammurabi had his royal decisions carved on steles and placed in temples. One of theses steles, found in an excellent state of preservation, is in itself a remarkable work of art. It was erected originally in the temple of Shamash at Sippar, but was later looted by Elamite king Shatruk Nakhony? during his invasion of Babylon in (1171BC) and taken to Susa, where it was discovered in 1901 by the French expedition in season (1901-1902). The Elamite king has apparently removed the inscription from a number of lines to write his name.  


     On top of the eight-feet high and (225x60cm) wide stele of polished basalt  that is covered with 44 vertical columns of text beautifully engraved and written in the purest Babylonian language, is carved a scene representing Hammurabi in the attitude of prayer facing Marduk or Shamash the sun-god and god of justice, seated on his throne.

The relief shows also god Shamash giving the king the measures of tools by which he could reconstruct the country. On its epilogue are carved :


 “ I, Hammurabi, king of justice, whom Shamash, the god of justice, gave laws. My words are chosen and my deeds have no example, they are for the fool empty, but for the wise merit marvel. He who discerns my words that I wrote on my stele, and does not violate the laws, nor annul my verdict, or change my laws, may god Shamash expand the rule of that man like me, a king for justice and may he lead his people in justice”.


     It contains at least 282 laws dealing, among other things, with trade and commerce, wages and rates of hire and the sale and purchase of slaves. Fees and punishments varied according to the social condition.


     For instance, the cost of a life-saving operation was fixed at 10 shekels of silver for an awelum (free man), 5 shekels for a mushkenum (commoner) and 2 shekels for a slave (articles 215-217).


Dealing in Shekel:


     Shekel as a unit of measurement is likewise mentioned in Akkadian and Babylonian texts. During the Neo - Assyrian Age, King Sennacherib (705-681)BC, ordered to make moulds to cast shekel and half a shekel. It was then that the shekel became a monetary unit. Following is the translation of the text of King Sennacherib:


“ I have ordered to make moulds of clay and cast bronze to make a shekel and half a shekel”. From that time on it is possible to say that coins came to be used for the first time and that it was an ancient Iraqi invention dating back to the Old Assyrian Age.

     Ancient Iraqis paid attention to commerce and banking institutions as the most effective means of promoting their goods and enlarge their internal and external trade channels. Banking became an advanced façade compared with other sciences and arts.

     The laws and legislature of ancient Iraq regulated contract of selling, property, heritage, business transactions, economy and banking. This helped expand and diversify these activities as wide as the Assyrian state that extended to remote areas. Such business transactions were very profitable and encouraged further initiatives.

     Banking relations between the various commercial centers and foreign tradesmen and bankers took the form of letters, checks and travel checks. These all represented credit means that remained in use for centuries.

     In a document dating back to the Babylonian king Hammurabi, in form of a bill of exchange issued by a worship centre (temple) in Sippar, the Babylonian city that used to lie on the Euphrates – its ruins are now near the sub-district of al-Yousifiya about 30 km south of Baghdad- that authorizes its bearer to receive in the city of Eshama on R. Tigris- after 15 days - 5. 8 manna of lead entrusted to the temple priestess. The letter represents the nature of dealing in banking and check system that resemble the present bills of exchange.

     Assyrian records have been discovered in Anatolia near the city of Caesarea, stating the number of merchants who had commercial relations with Assyrian merchants. Among them was Pushkin? whose business relations reached not only Cappadocia where he had his business headquarter, but also all the areas under the Assyrian sway at that time. He used to offer loans and dealt in silver, lead and other things.

     The Assyrian relations with the cities of Anatolia have been uncovered by archaeological ruins whether in Iraq or in that country. They highlight the commercial and economic activities in volume and means of transportation. Inscriptions have referred to various letters, contracts and business transactions. It is said that the number of Assyrian merchants working in Anatolia were estimated at a few thousands. Some of them lived in the city of Canish? because it was a commercial centre. Besides, the Assyrians also used kinds of animals to transport their commodities such as donkeys, mules, and camels.

     It is worthwhile mentioning that there is a biblical reference explaining the number of Assyrian merchants,” Make your couriers more numerous than the stars” (Na 3: 16).



The Use of Shekel as Money

     It is possible to say that money appeared for the first time when cereals were replaced by (silver) coins for circulation because the latter were metal coins of definite weight and form, with smaller categories and bore an inscription. These specifications are typical of the Assyrian shekel; as there was one shekel and half a shekel. It had also a definite shape and weight with an inscription depicting god Shamash and Ishtar. From that time on the shekel was regarded as a coin in ancient Iraq because it functioned as such. It was a means of exchange and to make good the credits. It also had an indefinite power of discharge.

     All business contracts, loans and payment as money were conducted using the shekel.

      It also became a means of saving, i.e. it was used for investment and circulation as is the case in the above Code of Ishnuna where shekel was the fixed price of many commodities of daily and commercial use.

     The merchant was called Damqar? meaning merchant, banker or broker in business. Trade soon flourished when shekel was used for circulation.   

     Markets were held at the city gates in the form of gatherings where buying and selling was conducted. The scale was also known which was called (shaqlu) in ancient Iraq Codes and laws whence the term shekel comes.

     In modern times, Iraqi scholars, archaeologists and bankers have written a lot about the shekel as an ancient Iraqi currency.

     Even campaigns were launched against Israel accusing it of stealing the shekel from the ancient Iraq civilization.

     Such a campaign was led by the prominent Iraqi banker Hassan al- Najafi.

    In the late seventies of the last century, Al-Najafi (1926-1992), governor of the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) who wrote many articles and books on the economy and monetary policies of Iraq and also author of (Shekel: its Orgin and Uses 1981), led a campaign accusing Israel of stealing the Iraqi currency.

     Will a day come when this ancient Iraqi currency will one again be in restored back to circulation as the official currency of Iraq to replace the dinar - the once gold coin used in the countries of southwest Asia and north Africa, and the Derham (Greek Drakhma)?



Roux, G (1964) Ancient Iraq. George Allen & Unwin Lt., London.

Al-Najafi H. (1981) Shekel: its Origin and Uses. Central Bank of Iraq.

Arabic References: 


[1] The present article is based on  Role of Ancient Iraqis in the Invention of the Shekel (in Arabic) by Prof. Nahedh al-Qaisi, in Ma’altha Quaterly, vol 4, issue 3,4, 2010.

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