Discovery of Treasures Across Israel Heralds Rise of Islamic-era Archaeology

Half a million gold coins and other spectacular treasures are causing, among other things, a recast of the Fatimid epoch as much more than quakes and war

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Coins found in Caesarea from early 12th century
Coins found in Caesarea from early 12th centuryCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Gold coins cast a spell. The pile of coins found in a wall in Caesarea and now displayed in a glass case at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem begs questions. Who hid it? Why? What were they afraid of?

Definitely, the hider assumed they could return to retrieve the treasure. He or she surely didn’t mean to abandon it for 1,000 years. What went wrong?

Archaeologists suspect the coins, placed in a bronze vessel stoppered with a bit of pottery, were hidden in the year 1101, as the Crusaders approached Caesarea.

Liza Luria, curator of the Islamic Art and Archaeology Exhibit at the Israel Museum, shows me the hoard which was found two years ago in the wall of a well in Caesarea. Discovered two years ago in an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation, it is now on display for the first time.

For some we stand silently before the illuminated display, captivated by the glamor of the gold. The cache had been valuable, Luria explains. A lower-class family could have lived on a dinar or two for an enteire month.

This particular cache contains 24 coins and a gold earring, and is the first to have both dinars from the Fatimid era (a dynasty of Shi’ite rulers in the 10th to 11th centuries, which ruled in North Africa and the Middle East) with Byzantine coins (fourth and fifth centuries). The Fatimid dinars consist of 98 percent pure gold and you can see it. They seem to shine with a different light.

Some of the gold coins and precious objects found in IsraelCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority collection

The inconsistency of the Fatimid period

In fact, the Islamic period of what is today Israel suddenly finds itself in the spotlight.

“Interest in it has grown,” Luria says. “To generalize, one could say that in the past excavators hastened to the lowest layers [which are oldest], and engaged less with the Islamic periods. They were under-researched,” she says.

But in research, as in life, there are fashions, passions and schools, she explains: and now the Islamic period is staging a comeback, as it were, hence there are more discoveries from that time.

She personally is particularly intrigued by a seeming inconsistency. The Fatimid period has been assumed to have been a terrible time, in the sense that there were earthquakes, wars, and governmental instability.

Yet the material culture archaeologists are finding indicates wealth. Some of the biggest and richest hoards ever found in Israel are from that time.

Liza Luria, curator of the Islamic Art and Archaeology Exhibit at the Israel MuseumCredit: Elie Posner

The government center was in Cairo, but the explanation for the seeming contradiction lies in this area having important cities, including Caesarea, which had a large merchant class of about 1,000 people; Tiberias and Ramle; and Ashkelon was an important site for Shi’ite Islam, she explains. There was an intelligentsia.

All in all, the finds – a large number of rich treasures from that period – have been changing our image of the time, Luria says.

Another thing that changed was back then: the use made of gold during the Fatimid period, according to Luria. The first gold coins in this region were minted during the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE). By during the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) they had come into broader use.

And in fact the Caesarea hoard displayed at the Israel Museum is one of many discovered in Israel in recent years. In Tiberias a cache of no less than 700 rare bronze tools, and 81 coins from the 9th to 11th centuries was discovered. On the seabed by Caesarea other archaeologists found a hoard of 2,000 gold coins from the 11th century. In Apollonia, just north of Tel Aviv, a cache of 400 Byzantine coins was found: 108 gold coins, 200 Samarian lamps, gold coins and jewelry.

At a construction site in Yavne, builders came across 425 coins made of solid 24-carat gold from the Abbasid period, about 1,100 years ago. The cache is clear evidence of increased use of gold coins during the Abbasid Caliphate. Aside from the complete dinars, that cache also includes 270 pieces of gold dinars that were cut to serve to pay small amounts.

In Ramle, by the White Tower, archaeologists discovered 376 gold coins more than 1,000 years old, weighing 1.6 kilograms. Moving onto Jerusalem, a gold medallion decorated with a lamp; coins; and fragments of silver and gold jewelry were found in a public building from the Byzantine period, near the southern wall of the Temple Mount. Another hoard was discovered in the Givati parking lot (now the City of David excavation site) by the Western Wall, with 284 gold coins from the seventh century.

There are major differences between the hoards, Luria explains.

When a big treasure is found, like the one in Apollonia, the assumption is that it belonged to a community or to the state. But the smaller hoard found in Caesarea likely belonged to a trader, Luria says.

11th century coins and treasures found in TiberiasCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection

The largest Islamic hoard in the world

The discovery of the Tiberias hoard was quite a reversal. “I was participating at the time in a rescue dig headed by the late Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld. The dig took place opposite the Gai Beach in Tiberias, where they wanted to build a sewage treatment facility. That means that we were mired in crap, literally,” says Dr. Oren Gutfeld of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “The heat was terrible and the smell was even worse.”

As they suffered, the archaeologists uncovered a neighborhood from the Abbasid-Fatimid period (ninth to 11th centuries). And then: in a back room they found a huge pithos, a large clay storage container. At the end of the day, after everyone else had gone home, they opened it.

“We were astounded at what we found. We sat all night long, three archaeologists, and counted the amazing contents,” Gutfeld tells: more than 330 bronze lamps; games; musical instruments and cooking gear. All were beautifully decorated.”

The pithos also contained 42 candlesticks of the highest quality of manufacture. “We knew already that there’s one such candlestick in a museum in Kuwait and they’re very proud of it. Imagine what we felt when we found 42 of them,” he says. “That same night we realized that we had found the largest Islamic metal hoard in the world. Suddenly you see proof that Tiberias was a commercial power 1,000 years ago – an important commercial center in the span from Afghanistan in the east to Morocco in the west.”

Found in TiberiasCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority collection

They only left the site come morning and brought the treasures to the university safe.

“A few days later, in an adjacent room in the same house in Tiberias, we found another pithos with 300 implements. At the time I thought I was going crazy. In a third room we found dozens of kilograms of metal waste and under them 81 rare coins. In all we found almost 1,000 tools in that house, which was the home of a metalworker and creator of bronze tools,” Gutfeld says. Some of the tools were made of gold and a few were of glass, he qualifies.

“Later we were invited to the Vatican to display the coins to the pope,” he adds.

Why had this extraordinary Fatimid period been so little studied for years? “This is a very lively period. In many respects this country reached a peak during the period, and for years we ‘missed’ it,” Gutfeld says. “The reasons aren’t necessarily political, but stem from the fact that fewer people were engaged in Islamic archaeology. The situation changed because today more scholars are studying these periods, but even that is only a partial explanation.”

All the caches, explains Gutfeld, were discovered by chance, without anyone searching for them. That’s what happened with the maritime hoard in Caesarea, or the rescue digs in Tiberias and Yavne. Now however there are simply more research excavations, more supervision of excavation sites, and more salvage excavations – which is when a new road, building, neighborhood or anything is slated to e built, and archaeologists are called in to study the area before the builders rip it up. It is standard procedure in Israel.

Discovered in CaesareaCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority collection

In his opinion, that the greatest potential for finding more treasures is in the sea. “It’s enough if one ship sank every year and you already have a list of 3,000 ships loaded with treasure,” he says.

‘Our job is not to enlist the findings’

In a locked room at the Israel Museum, Dr. Robert Kool, a numismatist with the Antiquities Authority, shows me a cupboard with 300 drawers, each containing findings from a hoard. He removes a coin from a drawer and puts it in my hand. It’s shockingly heavy. Kool smiles. “That’s the largest gold coin in the ancient world – 28 grams,” he says. It was found in Tel Kadesh in the Galilee.

“We have half a million coins here. What unique about our collection is that it belongs to this place. We know where every coin was found,” Kool explains. “There are amazing coin collections in the world, but most of the items in them were purchased and they don’t know where the coins came from. Our collection is smaller but it’s of tremendous scientific importance.

“Archaeology in the Land of Israel has always been politically enlisted,” he adds. Everyone, Jews, Christians, Muslims, has traditionally felt that archaeological discoveries will establish some historical claim. “But today we’re getting away from that. For the first time we’re studying all the periods. There’s an understanding today that our job is not to enlist the findings. In addition, today there’s a more professional approach to findings from the Islamic and Ottoman period.”

The press also plays a more important role than in the past, because gold is a fantastic story, Kool notes. “I see how serious journalists turn into children. Everyone pictures Harrison Ford looking for gold in ‘Indiana Jones.’,” he says. “Gold simply brings out something different, something emotional.”

Indeed. A day after the visit I’m still thinking of the words of poet Haim Hefer:

“What a night, what a sea / What shade, how hot it is / Look, man / Yes, everything’s gold, everything’s gold”

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