Serial Number Sequences on Arab Bank Notes

Peter Symes

Many banknote collectors are interested in the serial numbers of the notes they collect, as serial numbers and serial number prefixes are useful for a number of reasons. They can give an indication of the number of notes issued, they be used to identify a series of notes, and they can assist in determining the chronology of signature varieties. For collectors of banknotes issued in Arab countries, it can be difficult to identify serial numbers and their sequences. These difficulties arise for two reasons: firstly, one has to be familiar with the Arabic alphabet and, secondly, one has to know the sequence of the alphabet.Neither of these tasks are easy for non-Arabic speaking collectors. Problems inevitably arise in the first task, as each letter in the Arabic alphabet can have up to four formats, and problems occur in the second task because there are two sequences to the Arabic alphabet and the second sequence is not commonly known by non-Arabic speaking people.

            Let’s being this journey of discovery by looking at the Arabic alphabet. In the following chart, the twenty eight letters of the Arabic alphabet are shown in their four formats—stand-alone, terminal, medial and initial. The stand-alone form is the most commonly recognized format of each letter and it is usually, although not universally, the form of the letters used in the serial number prefixes of banknotes. The initial form is used at the beginning of the word, the medial form between two letters, and the terminal form at the end of a word. Because some letters do not have a medial form, if they occur in the middle of a word, the following letter adopts the initial form. However, this detail is not necessary to understand the alphabet.

Stand-alone Terminal Medial Initial
ا ـا ـا ا
ب ـب ـبـ بـ
ت ـت ـتـ تـ
ث ـث ـثـ ثـ
ج ـج ـجـ جـ
ح ـح ـحـ حـ
خ ـخ ـخـ خـ
د ـد ـد د
ذ ـذ ـذ ذ
ر ـر ـر ر
ز ـز ـز ز
س ـس ـسـ سـ
ش ـش ـشـ شـ
ص ـص ـصـ صـ
ض ـض ـضـ ضـ
ط ـط ـطـ طـ
ظ ـظ ـظـ ظـ
ع ـع ـعـ عـ
غ ـغ ـغـ غـ
ف ـف ـفـ فـ
ق ـق ـقـ قـ
ك ـك ـكـ كـ
ل ـل ـلـ لـ
م ـم ـمـ مـ
ن ـن ـنـ نـ
ه ـه ـهـ هـ
و ـو ـو و
ي ـي ـيـ يـ

            The table above shows all forms of the letters and it shows them in their strict alphabetical sequence. While it is important to know the Arabic alphabet (and its alphabetical sequence), the more important order for banknote collectors to understand is the ‘numeric’ order of the alphabet. This order depends on numeric values assigned to the letters of the alphabet, and it is this order which is used to determine the sequence of letters in the serial number prefixes used on the bank notes issued by many Arab countries.

            This sequence, wherein numeric values have been assigned to the letters of the Arabic alphabet, has been in use for hundreds of years and in certain areas the numeric values are considered very important. In Arabic literature it is not uncommon to come across a poem describing a famous event, wherein the poet would have included certain words which, when converted to their numeric value (letter by letter), would indicate a special date associated with the event.

            For Arabs who believe in horoscopes, the association of letters with their numeric values is also important. By adding the value of a person’s given name and their mother’s maiden name, and then dividing the number by twelve, their horoscope sign can be determined by the using the remainder of the division. (For example, if the value of the person’s name and their mother’s maiden name added to 366, then this is divided by 12 to give 30 and a remainder of 6. Thus the number 6 refers to their horoscope sign.)

            The letters of the ‘numeric’ sequence are also used in some books for the first few pages which might contain the contents or introduction. The use in this case is similar to many English-language publications where Roman numerals (i.e. i, v, x, xi, xiv, etc.) are used to number the pages of the contents or introduction before the body of the work, which is in turn numbered with regular numerals.

            The numbers assigned to the letters of the Arabic alphabet for the ‘numeric’ sequence are as follows:

ا ب ج د هـ و ز ح ط
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
ي ك ل م ن س ع ف ص
10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90
ق ر ش ت ث خ ذ ض ظ غ
100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000

This sequence of letters is often referred to as the ‘abjad’ sequence, as ‘abjad’ represents the first four letters of the sequence: alif, baa, jeem and dal.

            While this short study is concerned with the use of the Arabic alphabet in serial number prefixes, it is necessary to be aware of the Arabic numerals. So, to conclude the elements required for this study, the following table shows the Arabic numerals and their values:

١ ٢ ٣ ٤ ٥ ٦ ٧ ٨ ٩ ٠
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

            The simplest use of the ‘numeric’ sequence can be seen in the bank notes issued in Oman. All denominations of the first notes issued by the Currency Board of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman had the letter ‘ا’ over a number, with the number increasing as the sequence continued, i.e. ١/ا was followed by ٢/ا then by ٣/ا and ٤/ا, et cetera. All notes of the second issue, by the renamed Oman Currency Board, had the letter ‘ب’ instead of the letter ‘ا’. With the abolition of the Currency Board and the creation of the Central Bank of Oman, a new series of bank notes was introduced with the serial number prefixes commencing a new sequence, again starting with ‘ا’ for the first issue and continuing with ‘ب’ for the second issue.

            At this point it would be easy, and quite valid, to say that the Omani authorities were using the first two letters of the Arabic alphabet as the identifiers in the serial numbers for their bank notes. Because the first two letters of the alphabet (ا and ب) are also the first two letters of the numeric sequence, it is difficult to know which sequence is being used: the ‘numeric’ sequence or the strict alphabetic sequence. However, the third series issued by the Central Bank of Oman uses the letter ‘ج’ over the number, and while this is the fifth letter of the alphabet, it is the third letter of the ‘numeric’ sequence, which is the first real evidence that the ‘numeric’ sequence is being used.

            One possible argument in supposing that the alphabetic sequence was still being used could be that the third and fourth letters of the alphabet (ت and ث) were omitted from use because of their similarity to ‘ب’. However this is not the case, and to see how the ‘numeric’ sequence is used in a more extensive manner, we need only look at the serial numbers used by Kuwait.

            The first and second issues of Kuwait follow the same format as that of the first and second issues of Oman. However the third issue changes the format of the serial number prefix to contain two letters over a number; where the right-hand letter is the initial form of the third letter of the ‘numeric’ sequence (جـ), while the left-hand letter changes for each denomination. It is here that the use of the ‘numeric’ sequence can best be seen, as not only can the third issue of Kuwait be identified by the third letter of the ‘numeric’ sequence, but the first six letters of the sequence are assigned as the left-hand letter of the serial number to each of the six denominations in ascending order. The assignations are as follows:

ا   ¼ dinar
ب   ½ dinar
جـ   1 dinar
د   5 dinars
هـ   10 dinars
و   20 dinars

            The fourth Kuwaiti series continues with the format of two letters over a number, with the only difference being that the right-hand letter is now ‘د’, the fourth letter of the numeric sequence. The fifth series continues with this format up to a point, but there is a change in that one serial number is in Arabic letters above Arabic numerals, while the other is in western letters and numerals. For the Arabic serial number, the format introduced in the third issue is still used, although the right-hand letter is now ‘هـ’, the fifth letter in the ‘numeric’ sequence. For the western-style serial number the right-hand letter is ‘E’ (being the fifth letter of the alphabet), while the letter assigned to each denomination is in ascending order of the western alphabet. The pairings for each denomination for both styles of serial numbers in this series are:

هـ​ا   AE   ¼ dinar
هـ​ب   BE   ½ dinar
هـ​جـ   CE   1 dinar
هـ​د   DE   5 dinars
هـ​هـ   EE   10 dinars
هـ​و   FE   20 dinars

            The serial numbers of the first issue of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also use the ‘numeric’ sequence, and are quite easy to follow. The serial number prefixes of the first issue consist of a number and a letter, with the number increasing through the issue, but the letter is determined by the denomination. In the first issue that determination has the letters of the ‘numeric’ sequence assigned to the various denominations in ascending order:

ا    1 dirham
ب    5 dirhams
ج    10 dirhams
د    50 dirhams
هـ    100 dirhams
و    1000 dirhams

            Thus we see, in these examples of Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, that the ‘numeric’ sequence of the alphabet is often used for the serial numbers. Virtually all banknotes issued by countries that use Arabic characters in their serial number prefix use letters in their ‘alphabetic’ or ‘numeric’ sequences. One exception is Saudi Arabia, which uses only numerals in the prefixes. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates has used three styles of serial number prefixes: letters in the ‘numeric’ sequence, letters in strict alphabetic sequence, and only numerals. Some countries use combinations of numerals and letters and come countries use more than one letter. However, wherever Arabic characters are in use, it is incumbent on collectors to be aware of the two sequences of the Arabic alphabet and, where necessary, the different forms of the letters.

This article was completed in March 2004
© Peter Symes