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Gold coin hoard discovered off Mediterranean coast

Nearly 2,000 coins, the largest treasure hoard ever discovered in Israel, was found a few weeks ago in the waters off the medieval port of Caesarea.

gold coins israel - photo courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

The coins were discovered by a group of divers, who initially believed they were toy coins. Once they realized these were genuine historical coins, the group reported the discovery to the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority. After quickly organizing, divers of the Israel Antiquities Authority used a metal detector to uncover a set of thousand-year-old in different denominations: a dinar, half dinar and quarter dinar, of various dimensions and weight.

The earliest coin found in the treasure is a quarter dinar minted in Palermo, Sicily in the second half of the ninth century. Most of the coins though belong to the Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim (996–1021) and his son Al-Ẓāhir (1021–1036), and were minted in Egypt and North Africa. The coin assemblage included no coins from the Eastern Islamic dynasties and it can therefore be stated with certainty this is a Fatimid treasure.

According to Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, this is fascinating and rare historical evidence of life in the past which was exposed during winter storms. “The discovery of such a large hoard of coins that had such tremendous economic power in antiquity raises several possibilities regarding its presence on the seabed. There is probably a shipwreck there of an official treasury boat which was on its way to the central government in Egypt with taxes that had been collected. Perhaps the treasure of coins was meant to pay the salaries of the Fatimid military garrison which was stationed in Caesarea and protected the city. Another theory is that the treasure was money belonging to a large merchant ship that traded with the coastal cities and the port on the Mediterranean Sea and sank there. In the Marine Archaeological Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority they are hoping that with the salvage excavations that will be conducted there, it will be possible to supplement our understanding of the entire archaeological context, and thus answer the many questions that still remain unanswered about the treasure.”

According to Robert Cole, an expert numismaticist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The coins are in an excellent state of preservation, and despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention from the metallurgical laboratory. This is because gold is a noble metal and is not affected by air or water. The coins that were exposed also remained in the monetary circulation after the Crusader conquest, particularly in the port cities through which international commerce was conducted. Several of the coins that were found in the assemblage were bent and exhibit teeth and bite marks, evidence they were ‘physically’ inspected by their owners or the merchants. Other coins bear signs of wear and abrasion from use while others seem as though they were just minted.”

The port of Caesarea was built just over two thousand years ago by Herod II and remained an important trading hub in Roman and Byzantine times. It was fought over during the crusades, but after its capture by the Mamluks in 1265 the port was dismantled to prevent it from being used as a staging area for crusader naval actions.

The Caesarea Development Company and Nature and Parks Authority welcomed the discovery of the treasure. According to them, “There is no doubt that the discovery of the impressive treasure highlights the uniqueness of Caesarea as an ancient port city with rich history and cultural heritage. After 2,000 years it is still capable of captivating its many visitors, of continuing to innovate and surprise again when other parts of its mysterious past are revealed in the ground and in the sea”.



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