Archaeologists Find Hoard of Islamic Coins in Israel: 'It's Like a Hanukkah Present'

Coins placed in a clay juglet 1,200 years ago included rare specimens from North Africa and one issued by Caliph Haroun A-Rashid, on whom 'One Thousand and One Nights,' was based

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Rare gold dinars found inside a juglet in Yavneh
Rare gold dinars from Abbasid caliphate period found inside a juglet in YavnehCredit: Liat Nadav-Ziv, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A hoard including rare gold coins from the early Islamic period about 1,200 years ago was found during a salvage excavation in Yavneh on Thursday. The find, inside a broken clay pot, was made on Thursday, the fourth day of Hanukkah.

Gold dinars found in Yavneh from Abbasid Caliphate periodCredit: Liat Nadav-Ziv, Israel Antiquities Authority
Gold dinars found in Yavneh from early Islamic periodCredit: Liat Nadav-Ziv, Israel Antiquities Authority

Dr. Robert Kool, a numismatist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, dates the coins to the ninth century C.E., early in the Abbasid Period. The coins were found in a broken clay juglet in the ancient Yavneh industrial zone, which had been active for centuries.

Among seven gold coins found in the hoard is a dinar minted by none other than Caliph Haroun A-Rashid (786-809 C.E.), on whom “The Arabian Nights”, aka “One Thousand and One Nights”, was based, Kool says. “The discovery was like a Hanukkah present for us,” he adds.

Numismatists versus archaeologists

In fact a harbinger of the discovery, one sole gold coin, turned up on the third day of Hanukkah, a day before the treasure was found. It was brought to Kool to identify.

“They thought they were in an Umayyad layer but it I had to disappoint them. The coin was Abbasid (a later period),” laughs Kool, who identifies all coins found in digs by the IAA. “Archaeology isn’t an exact science. Especially in the archaeology of Islam in Israel, we still don’t always know what we’re finding. The periods are quite stretched out.”

Coins on the other hand are more of an exact science, he avers: “Coins are a great find, literally and figuratively. Islamic coins are very specific: they bear a date and the name of the mint. The coin we found … was from the first half of the 8th century, around 80 years after the Umayyad dynasty ended in the year 750.”

In fact all the coins in the juglet were from around the same period, he says. That could attest to the nature of the stash of ancient cash.

Aeriel image of ancient Yavneh and its industrial winery Credit: Idan Jonish, Israel Antiquities Authority

The archaeologists postulate that it may have been a local potter’s “piggy bank.” Excavations had found an unusually large amount of pottery kilns that had been in operation at the end of the Byzantine and beginning of the Early Islamic period – the seventh to ninth centuries C.E. The pot with the coins was found near a kiln.

Kool, when asked, speculates alternatively that the pot wasn’t a savings plan per se.

In Western Europe gold wasn’t in use between the eighth to the 13th century. But it was very much in use to the in east in Byzantium and throughout the Islamic region, because of the intense international trade at the time, he explains.

“Gold coins were really the hallmark of international trade,” Kool tells Haaretz. “There was a very developed tax system then too. They collected from the people in gold and in exchange gave other things. So gold played an important role in the domestic and mainly in the international economy.”

Liat Nadav-Ziv and Marc Molkondov with the hoardCredit: Amihai Tamir, Israel Antiquities Authority

Another indication is that the hoard was put together at once, not coin by coin over years and decades as is the norm for piggy banks: all were in circulation at the same time. Also, the hoard included a number of coins rarely found in Israel: gold dinars minted by the Aghlabid dynasty that ruled in North Africa, in the region of modern Tunisia, initially as vassals of the Abbasid Caliphate centered in Baghdad.

“The coin issued by Haroun a-Rashid wasn’t that rare,” Kool says. Nor are coins issued by the Abbasids, though gold coins are rare and when found, are a quarter-dinar, not a whole dinar. But coins issued by the North African dynasty of the Aghlabids are unusual.”

The Aghlabids had been subject to the Caliphate in Iraq but around the 9th century they became relatively independent and minted their own coins, with the names of their rulers, he explains.

In a hoard of over two thousand coins discovered in Caesarea in 2015, they found a small number of Aghlabid coins but all were quarter-dinars, he says. “Here we have big lovely dinars weighing four grams and more of gold, more than 90% pure. That was a nice surprise.”

Wine collection vats from the Persian period, YavnehCredit: Idan Jonish, Israel Antiquities Authority

Rulers come, rulers go

Yavneh is usually recalled as a Philistine town, referred to as Jabneh in the English transliteration of the bible. But it apparently had its beginnings in the Middle Bronze Age and would remain occupied, with ups and downs, throughout the many upheavals and regimes this region has known. Occupation intensified during the biblical Iron Age, from which time pottery fragments have been found for all the periods characterizing the region, including Philistine ware dating to about the 12th or 11th century B.C.E., and from the biblical period (Iron Age) and the Persian period.

During this latest excavation the archaeologists unearthed a large wine production facility dating to the Persian period – the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Excavation co-director Elie Haddad identified grape seeds in the installation. “The size and number of vats found at the site indicated that wine was produced on a commercial scale, well beyond the local needs of Yavneh’s ancient inhabitants,” Haddad says.

Yavneh was certainly significant in the Hellenistic period, during which time it became a polis renamed Jamnia. It even became a collision point in the Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid rulers led by Judah Maccabee starting in 167 B.C.E. To the Romans, Yavneh was evidently important enough to be listed among the early conquests from the Hasmoneans by the General Pompey, as described in a detailed history of the city by Moshe Fischer and Itamar Taxel of Tel Aviv University, who write: “The reinstatement of Yavneh as a gentile city was a step in the relative neutralization, both economically and politically, of the Jewish population in Palestine.” Roman writings indicate that the city had become heavily populated, they add.

Yavneh would remain continuously occupied, with possible ebbs in population as indicated by a paucity of pottery and numismatic finds, throughout the rule of the Umayyad Dynasty, and the following Abbasid period. That was the third caliphate after Mohammed’s time, whose rulers were said to have descended from the Prophet Mohammed’s uncle Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. They ruled from Baghdad from the 8th century to the 13th over an empire that stretched at its peak from North Africa in the west, included modern-day Israel and the Arabian Gulf, stretching to Armenia and Afghanistan. Israel was under Abbasid sway from the late 8th century to the end of 10th century.

The city would remain occupied in the Crusader time as well, when the city was dubbed Ibelin. Families from Ibelin would become among the strongest in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and in Cyprus as well, Kool says.

Rulers came, rulers went, but Yavneh soldiered on, though it bears adding that no numismatic evidence has been found for the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, Kool says. Archaeological excavations on the other hand have reported on Mamluk structures.

“What we do in archaeology is to understand more and more about what happened, and today in archaeology, we can say that we don’t narrowly look only at the Jewish facet but look at the whole history of the site, from the earliest days of humanity to the Ottoman period,” Kool sums up.

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