Divers Find Largest-ever Israeli Cache of Ancient Gold Coins

Treasure includes at least 2,000 gold coins from the Fatimid period, approximately 1,000 years ago.

Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority

The largest cache of gold coins ever found in Israel was discovered by chance by divers at Caesarea, it was announced on Tuesday. The treasure includes at least 2,000 gold coins from the Fatimid period, approximately 1,000 years ago.

The divers, Tzvika Faier, Kobi Twina, Avivit Fischler, Yoav Lavi and Yoel Miller, who found the coins two weeks ago, reported their find to the head of the Caesarea diving club, which informed the Israel Antiquities Authority marine division. Using a metal detector, the authority conducted a number of dives, bringing up 2,000 coins with a total weight of about six kilograms. Experts say there could be still more in the depths.

The coins might have come from a ship wrecked near the shore, according to Jacob Sharvit, head of the authority’s marine unit. “The ship may have been carrying tax money on its way to the central government in Egypt, or perhaps the coins were meant to pay the salaries of soldiers in the Fatimid garrison stationed in Caesarea,” Sharvit said.

Yet another possibility, he said, is that the coins belonged to a large merchant ship, which was trading among the coastal cities of the Mediterranean when it sank.

The treasure includes coins of two denominations, dinars and quarter-dinars. They bear insignia from various places in the Fatimid kingdom, which ruled Northern Africa and Palestine beginning in the 10th century.

Most of the coins belong to the Caliph Al-Hakim, who ruled from 996 to 1021, and to his son, Al-Zahir (1021–1036), and were minted in Egypt and North Africa.

The earliest coin in the cache is a quarter-dinar minted in Palermo, Sicily in the second half of the 9th century.

The latest coin dates to 1036, so it can be concluded that the ship sank around that year, although until excavations are carried out around the spot where the cache was found, the date is difficult to determine.

Sharvit complimented the divers who found and reported the treasure, calling their action an example of good citizenship.

Antiquities Authority coin expert Robert Kool said, “I’ve been working at the authority for 23 years and I’ve never seen a cache this size. The preservation of the gold coins is excellent and although they were in the seabed for 1,000 years, they needed no cleaning or preservation in the lab. That is because gold is a noble metal, which is not impacted by water or air.”

Kool said the gold coins uncovered were also in circulation after the Crusader conquest in the late 11th century, particularly in port cities, through which international trade passed.

Some of the coins in the assemblage bore bite marks, which showed that they were physically tested for their quality, Kool said. Others were worn from use, he added.

Kool said documents in the Cairo Geniza mention purses full of gold coins – a purse could apparently contain up to 100 gold dinars – transported by ships from one merchant to another. Documents from the Geniza also mention ransom money for Jewish prisoners from Ashkelon who had been taken to Egypt. In that case, the Jewish community of Ashkelon paid 500 gold dinars to ransom the prisoners and bring them home, and the community still owed 200 dinars.

In another case, a ransom of 80 dinars was demanded for the release of a single prisoner.