When dictators fall, so do their banknotes

When dictatorships crumble, the currencies commemorating their leaders are often hastily replaced. The following now defunct or possibly soon-to-be defunct banknotes are imbued with the symbols and iconography of their strongman leaders, past and present.

1.Libyan dinar

Pictured: one-dinar note, acquired in Benghazi in 2011

Even as eastern Libyans rose up in droves, they continued using currency bearing the faces of two former leaders – one they loathed and one they loved. A young, svelte Muammar Qadaffi smiled out from the ubiquitous one-dinar note, while celebrated anti-colonial resistance leader Omar al-Mukhtar graced the 10-dinar note.

Mr. Mukhtar, a celebrated early 20th century anti-colonial resistance leader who was executed by Italian authorities in 1931, became a symbol of the Libyan rebellion in the eastern Libyan state of Cyrenaica. As of this writing, Libyans continue to use the Qaddafi-era currency, although Libyan authorities report the distribution of a new currency, which won't feature Qaddafi, is imminent.

Syrian pound

Pictured: 100-pound note, acquired in Latakia in 2006

A previous version of Syria’s 100-pound note depicts the ancient Roman emperor hailing from Syria, Philip the Arab, who made peace with pre-Islamic Persia – pointing to Syria and Iran’s shared history dating back to classical antiquity. To Philip’s left on the note is the theater of Bosra, an exquisitely preserved Roman engineering marvel.

The Syrian pound's value has been devastated since the uprising began in March 2011, and its printer, a subsidiary of the Austrian central bank, was forced to quit producing it because of European Union sanctions on the Assad regime. A Russian state currency printing firm is reportedly now printing the Syrian pound.

Iraqi dinar

Pictured: 25-dinar note, acquired in Baghdad in 2003

On the Saddam Hussein-era 25-dinar note, the Ba’ath Party emphasizes its ancient enmity with neighboring Persia by depicting Arab warriors defeating their Persian enemies in the Battle of Qadissyah. Mr. Hussein used Qadissyah as a thinly disguised metaphor for his hatred of modern Iran.

The deposed Iraqi president confessed under FBI interrogation in early 2004 that he did not want Iran to know his entire weapons of mass destruction program had been demobilized and destroyed. Hussein likely feared that even if the US warnings didn’t materialize into an actual invasion, his frontier would look weak to the Shiite leaders in Iran and they might take advantage.

The Iraqi provisional government issued a new Iraqi dinar between late 2003 and early 2004 as part of an effort to erase the imagery of Hussein from everyday life. Despite high hopes for an oil gushing, resurgent Iraq, the new, post-Saddam Iraqi dinar remains the extremely weak currency of a country locked in sectarian violence and ethnic tensions.

Turkmenistan manat

Pictured: 1,000-manat note, acquired in Ashgabat in 2001

The late Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, known to his subjects and the world as “Turkmenbashi” (“Father of all Turkmen”) had a visage that was as ubiquitous in Turkmenistan as that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. For many commentators, Turkmenbashi was synonymous with Turkmenistan itself. 

As an indicator of just how much the Turkmen leader loomed over everyday life, Mr. Niyazov featured himself on every denomination of the manat, the currency introduced to replace the ruble in the early 1990s.

In comparison, Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad's father, has only been depicted on Syria's 1,000-pound note. 

After Niyazov’s death in December 2006, his successor introduced a series of post-Turkmenbashi manat notes. The official reasoning for the fresh currency was to help fight out of control inflation by revaluing the manat, but the new notes were also meant to help deconstruct Turkmenbashi’s pervasive cult of personality by drawing on historical figures from Turkmen lore and Ashgabat’s bland, foreign-built architectural achievements.

Afghanistan afghani

Pictured: 10,000-afghani note, acquired in Khwaja Bahauddin in 2001

After the Islamist  government took control of Kabul in 1992, it began to purge things in Afghanistan’s public space that it judged to be in violation of Islam’s general taboo on human imagery. It was also a convenient way to erase the visages of the country’s previous heads of state.

The man-less currency issued in 1993 by Da Afghanistan Bank intersected neatly with the Taliban government’s even more extreme edicts when it wrested control of Kabul in 1996 from the weak government of the late Burhunaddin Rabbani.

This 10,000-afghani note features the arch of Qala-e-Bost in what is now Lashkar Gah, the capital of the troubled Helmand Province. Dating back to the 11th century, it remains a stunning relic of Ghaznavid architecture.

In October 2002, the civil war-era currency was replaced, and the magnificent ancient arch was placed on the new 100-afghani note.

Iranian rial

Pictured: 2,000-rial note, acquired in Tehran in 1999

This Iranian note is steeped in the symbolism of Tehran’s eight-year long war with Iraq. It shows a band of victorious soldiers, including one on the far right hoisting a Soviet Kalashnikov in the air and one in the center clutching a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On the far left is watermark visage of a youthful shaheed or martyr (only visible to the naked eye).

After Saddam Hussein was toppled in early 2003 and a Shiite-led government came to power there, Iran’s Central Bank issued a new 2,000-rial note. The new note replaced the jubilant Iranian fighters with yet another portrait of a glowering Ayatollah Khomeini, reflecting the new political reality of a pro-Shiite, post-Arab nationalist Baghdad amenable to deep Iranian influence. 

*All notes courtesy of the author’s private collection.