Dozens of coins from the second and fourth years of the Great Revolt against Rome, that poignantly suggest the mounting despair of the Jewish rebels, were found in a large cave that had remained sealed for 2,000 years near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The cave with its treasures, including the bronze coins, were found by Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar during excavations at the Ophel, located below the Temple Mount’s southern wall. We know precisely when the coins were made because they say so.
“That’s the unique thing about the coins minted during the rebellion,” Mazar told Haaretz. “They always say Year Bet (two), or Year Dalet (four), in Hebrew.” Few coins from the revolt’s first year have been found, possibly because the rebels were still gearing up, and very few from the third year, when the tide may have fatally turned, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., she explains.
But there was a striking difference between the coins the Jews minted in Year 2 and Year 4.
Coins minted earlier in the revolt say “for the freedom of Zion.” Those minted as the Jews starved and the revolt imploded as the Romans besieged Jerusalem read “for the redemption of Zion.”
Two thousand years later, we can only speculate what was in the minters’ minds. Mazar opts to keep things simple. The coins that say “freedom” were probably made when they were still hopeful, she says.
“But when that changed to ‘redemption,’ they had to have good reason, and it certainly showcases their despair,” she says. “I think that in the last year, they realized that no freedom would ensue from all this. They didn’t give up, though, because they could never give up, but they could still hope for redemption.”
The Great Revolt began in 66 C.E. Although the Jews in ancient Israel were intensely preoccupied with fighting one another, Mazar says, they were able to unite against the oppressor, the Roman Empire. It did not go well.
How were they able to make bronze coins while fighting a war? Mazar believes that although the internecine wars were dreadful, the Jews were united in war for freedom from the Romans and imposition of their pagan way of life. “Meanwhile, however, life went on. Worship at the Temple went on, to the last second (when the Temple and Jerusalem were razed),” she explains. “Pilgrimages to Jerusalem and sacrifices went on. Apparently, there had been a special effort to mint the coins, using ancient Hebrew letters to show their roots and using symbols of the Temple as well.”
Inscriptions aside, the coins, around 1.5 centimeters in diameter, bore traditionally Jewish symbols such as the Four Species mentioned in the Bible: palm, myrtle, citron and willow. They also show the goblet believed to have been used in Temple worship.
The coins’ remarkable state of preservation is precisely because they hadn’t been circulated much, Mazar surmises.
As for the cave where they were found, the fact is that she found no evidence whatsoever of habitation during the rebellion, Mazar tells Haaretz. A likely scenario is that the rebels were stockpiling things in the cave for their future use, including ceramic cookware and other pottery, as well as the coins, but never did use it.
The cave was large, some 7 meters by 14 meters, and definitely had been used earlier, she adds: The floor of the cave has a thick layer dating to the Hasmonean period, going by characteristic pottery and coins. That later lasted through the days of King Herod, but not later, she says.
Then there was a second phase of use during the Second Temple period. After that, the rebels seem to have used it as emergency storage, or possibly they envisioned hiding there from the Romans even as Jerusalem collapsed about them.
They evidently never made it.
Yet, Mazal feels, even as they admitted through their coinage that they weren’t going to make it and that freedom from Rome was a pipe dream, they could not lose hope entirely — it wasn’t in their nature. And thus they changed the word on the coins to “redemption.”
It bears noting that the rebellion was not confined to Jerusalem: Caves where rebels had hid from the Roman troops 2,000 years ago were found in the Galilee.
But the cave in Jerusalem was apparently not the final hiding place
of the Jewish rebels, but archaeologists think they may have already found that. In 2016, sections of the monumental stepped road leading from the Siloam Pool to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem were dug up. In the road's drainage canal, the archaeologists found coins and pots. Their surmise finds support in none other than the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who described how rebels fled to that valley beneath Siloam, and after failing to breach the Roman siege wall, descended into the subterranean caverns.
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