February 19, 2015
The Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority are delighted to tell you that the largest cache of gold coins ever found in Israel was recently discovered by chance by divers in Caesarea. The treasure includes at least 2,700 gold coins dating to the Fatimid period (11th Century CE). The recreational divers reported their find to the head of the Caesarea diving club, who informed the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Marine Archaeology Department. The IAA’s underwater archaeologists conducted a number of dives, bringing up 2,700 gold coins with a total weight of about 7 kilograms (ca. 14 lbs.).
According to Kobi Sharvit, Director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “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 that was stationed in Caesarea and protected the city. 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.”
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.
Israel Antiquities Authority coin expert Dr. Robert Kool remarked, “The coins are in an excellent state of preservation and despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention from the metallurgical laboratory. This is because gold is a noble metal and is not affected by air or water. The types of coins that were exposed remained in monetary circulation after the Crusader conquest, particularly in the port cities through which international commerce was conducted. Several of the coins that were found in the assemblage were bent and exhibit teeth and bite marks, evidence that they were “physically” inspected by their owners or by merchants. Other coins bear signs of wear and abrasion from use, and still others seem as though they were just minted.”
The Fatimid kingdom was extremely rich and its wealth was legendary. Their treasury at the time reported twelve million gold dinars in the capital’s coffers in al-Qahira (today’s Cairo). The rise of the Fatimid dynasty to power in the second half of the Tenth Century CE with its political and economic policies brought renewed growth to the maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean basin. Coming from North Africa, the Fatimids brought trading practices to Egypt which were characteristic of the western Mediterranean Sea. Under their rule Caesarea and other coastal cities were developed and city walls were built. Governors who were directly subordinate to the government in Egypt resided in these cities and had at their disposal garrisons that protected the cities against potential enemies. One of the outstanding features of this period is the expansion of international trade whereby merchant ships sailed alongside warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Even during times of conflict and siege, commerce between the Muslims and Crusaders did not cease, and trade prospered in times of peace. Caesarea flourished and prospered during this period. Despite the poor condition of the harbor that was built by Herod in Roman times, vibrant commerce with other port cities was conducted through Caesarea. On May 17, 1101 CE, Caesarea, enclosed within a mighty wall and protected by its own garrison, surrendered to the invading Crusaders after a two week siege.