A rare half shekel coin, first minted in 66 or 67 C.E., was discovered by 14 year-old Omri Ya'ari as volunteers sifted through mounds of dirt from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The coin is the first one found to originate from the Temple Mount.
For the fourth year, archaeologists and volunteers have been sifting through dirt dug by the Waqf, the Muslim authority in charge of the Temple Mount compound, in an unauthorized project in 1999. The dig caused extensive and irreversible archaeological damage to the ancient layers of the mountain. The Waqf transported the dug up dirt in trucks to another location, where it was taken to Emek Tzurim. 40,000 volunteers have so far participated in the sifting project, in search of archaeological artifacts, under the guidance of Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Yitzhak Zweig.
The project is sponsored by Bar Ilan University and funded by the Ir David Foundation with the assistance of the National Parks Authority.
The half shekel coin was first minted during the Great Revolt against the Romans. The face of the coin is decorated with a branch of three pomegranates and ancient Hebrew letters reading "holy Jerusalem." On the flip side, the letters say "half shekel".
The coin that was found in the sifting project, though it was well preserved, showed some damage from a fire. Experts believe it was the same fire that destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
Dr. Gabriel Barkay explained that "the half shekel coin was used to pay the temple taxes... The coins were apparently minted at Temple Mount itself by the Temple authorities."
The half shekel tax is mentioned in the book of Exodus (Portion Ki Tisa), commanding every Jew to contribute half a shekel to the Temple every year for the purpose of purchasing public sacrifices.
Dr. Barkay added that "this is the first time a coin minted at the Temple Mount itself has been found, and therein lies its immense importance, because similar coins have been found in the past in the Jerusalem area and in the Old City's Jewish quarter, as well as Masada, but they are extremely rare in Jerusalem."
So far, some 3,500 ancient coins have been discovered in the Temple Mount dirt sifting, ranging from earliest minting of coins during the Persian era all the way up to the Ottoman era.
An additional important archaeological discovery in the sifting project was another well preserved coin, minted between 175 and 163 B.C.E. by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, against whom the Hasmoneans revolted. This revolt brought about the re-dedication of the Temple after Antiochus seized the Temple's treasures and conducted idol worship in it. The coin depicts a portrait of Antiochus the Seleucid King.
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