The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has announced the discovery of a massive hoard of almost 2,000 gold coins by divers in the ancient harbor in Caesarea. The coins, which are over 1,000 years old, constitute the largest find of its kind in the country. It is believed the treasure belongs to a shipwreck of an official treasury boat on its ways to Egypt with collected taxes.
The discovery was made when a group of divers from a local dive club spotted what they initially thought were “toy coins”, while diving in the Caesarea National Park. The ancient Caesarea Maritima (or Caesarea Palestinae) city and harbor, which lies on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, was built by Herod the Great in about 25–13 BCE and was populated through the late Roman and Byzantine era.
The divers reported the discovery to the Marine Archaeology Unit of the IAA, which immediately sent out additional divers with metal detectors to the discovery site, yielding nearly 2,000 gold coins in a spectacular state of preservation. They were in such good condition that archaeologists were even able to identify teeth and bite marks in the coins, evidence they had been physically inspected by their owners or the merchants.
The coins are in different denominations, including a dinar, half dinar, and quarter dinar, and date to the era of the Fatimid Empire (909 – 1171 AD), a Shia Islamic caliphate which spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa and ultimately made Egypt the centre of the caliphate.
“The discovery of such a large hoard of coins that had such tremendous economic power in antiquity raises several possibilities regarding its presence on the seabed. There is probably a shipwreck there of an official treasury boat which was on its way to the central government in Egypt with taxes that had been collected. Perhaps the treasure of coins was meant to pay the salaries of the Fatimid military garrison which was stationed in Caesarea and protected the city,” said Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the IAA. “Another theory is that the treasure was money belonging to a large merchant ship that traded with the coastal cities and the port on the Mediterranean Sea and sank there,” he added.
The IAA revealed that most of the coins belong to the Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim (996–1021 CE), and his son Al-Ẓāhir (1021–1036), and were minted in Egypt and North Africa. Al-Ḥākim is sometimes referred to as the “Mad Caliph” due to his erratic and oppressive behavior concerning religious minorities under his command. This differed markedly from the previous caliphs who had shown tolerance to non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews, who occupied high levels in government. It was, however ‘tolerance for a purpose’, set in place to ensure the flow of money from all those who were non-Muslims in order to finance the Caliphs’ large army of Mamluks (slave soldiers).
Az-Zāhir assumed the Caliphate after the disappearance of Al-Ḥākim on the night of 12/13 February 1021 and at the age of 36. Al-Ḥākim had left for one of his night journeys to the al-Muqattam hills outside of Cairo, and never returned. A search found only his donkey and bloodstained garments. The disappearance has remained a mystery.
According to the IAA, “the great value and significance of the treasure become apparent when viewed in light of the historical sources.” Ancient records reveal that the Muslim residents of the settlements were required to pay half their agricultural produce at harvest time, in addition to payment of a head tax of one dinar and five carats (twenty-four carats equal one dinar, hence the method used to measure gold according to carats).
The Caesarea Development Company and Nature and Parks Authority were thrilled with the discovery of the treasure. They said: “There is no doubt that the discovery of the impressive treasure highlights the uniqueness of Caesarea as an ancient port city with rich history and cultural heritage. After 2,000 years it is still capable of captivating its many visitors, of continuing to innovate and surprise again when other parts of its mysterious past are revealed in the ground and in the sea”.