A Secret Cache Of Crusader-Era Coins Has Been Found Beneath An Ancient Port City In Israel

Image: Getty Images/Jack Guez

Over the past few decades, the ancient Israeli city of Caesarea has thrown up a a number of archaeological treasures. And through the results of careful excavation, experts have been able to slowly paint a picture of what life was like in the area throughout the ages. In 2018, however, a trove of rare, centuries-old coins were unearthed in one of Caesarea’s neighborhoods, and this fascinating new find appears to tell us yet more about the region’s colorful history.

Image: Getty Images/Jack Guez

Located today within the borders of modern-day Israel, Caesarea has had a long and eventful existence. And to begin with, the city was initially established by the infamous Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Herod’s reign was supported by the Roman senate at the time, and this effectively made the monarch no more than a puppet leader for Rome.

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What’s more, Caesarea was an important location within Judea during the period that Herod presided over the region. Initially known as Caesarea Maritima, the city is thought to have been constructed within the vicinity of an old naval base between 25 B.C. and 13 B.C. In 22 B.C. a deep-sea harbor – which later served as a base for Herod’s navy – also began to be built.

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And Caesarea eventually grew to be the capital of Roman Judaea, making it a pivotal location in the initial stages of the new religion of Christianity. In fact, the city is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, with one section recounting the time that Paul the Apostle was held in captivity as a prisoner there.

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Yet many Jews throughout Judea were unhappy with life under Roman rule, and such dissatisfaction therefore resulted in a number of rebellions. The first of these took place in 66 A.D. and was fought for some seven years; a second is thought to have occurred in 115 A.D., while the third happened in 132 A.D.

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Ultimately, though, the third Jewish uprising – which is known as the Bar Kokhba revolt – was put down in 136 A.D. After that, some historians argue, the Romans then sought to eradicate the heritage of Judea entirely. And perhaps as a result of this decision, the name of Caesarea was duly changed to Syria Palaestina – later simply Palaestina.

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The name “Palestine” itself can be traced back to the Greeks, as they used a similar word to describe the area in which the Philistines lived during the 12th century B.C. Then, after the Romans took up the moniker Palaestina, the word subsequently slipped into Arabic usage and has continued to be used over the centuries.

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After the Byzantine Empire emerged in the 4th century A.D., however, it began to rule over the region – dubbed Palaestina Prima – that contained what had once been known as Caesarea. Byzantium itself was established in the eastern territories of the Roman Empire after the emperor Constantine had come to power.

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And as the capital of the province of Palaestina Prima, Caesarea was at that time considered to be an important religious center. The city remained as such throughout the fifth and sixth centuries A.D, too. In the year 614 A.D., however, the city began to go through some major changes.

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From the years 602 A.D. to 628 A.D., you see, the Byzantine Empire was at war with the Sasanian Empire. And during this time, the Sasanians managed to take control of Caesarea. They held the city for a number of years, in fact, before the Byzantines managed to recapture it in 625 A.D.

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This time around, however, the Byzantines’ rule over Caesarea was short-lived, as from the beginning of the seventh century, a Muslim conquest swept through the Arab world. And in 640 A.D. Caesarea duly fell as a result, with parts of the city supposedly ruined in the process.

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Some historians have suggested that Caesarea’s population dwindled somewhat during its time under Arab rule. At the very least, the harbor – though remaining functional for a time – seems to have become inoperative by the ninth century. Yet it appears that the city once again grew strong – and ultimately it became protected by fortifications, too.

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In 1047 a Persian scholar by the name of Nasir-i-Khusraw wrote about Caesarea as it had been back then. He explained that it was “a fine city, with running waters and palm gardens and orange and citron trees. Its walls are strong, and it has an iron gate. There are [also] fountains that gush out within the city.”

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Still, change was again set to wash over Caesarea. After speaking in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II ordered the capture of lands under the rule of the Muslims. And that same year, the First Crusade began, with the campaign continuing until 1099.

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Then, following the conclusion of the First Crusade, the commander Baldwin I took control of Caesarea in 1101. And a number of accounts have suggested that his reign was particularly brutal. Indeed, according to Michael the Syrian, an important member of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the city was left “devastated” in the wake of Baldwin I’s arrival.

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Medieval historian William of Tyre noted, too, that Baldwin’s siege on Caesarea lasted some 15 days, during which catapults were put into action. By the time that the campaign had ended, then, the city had descended into crime and further violence. At this point, Caesarea had also become a part of the crusader state of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

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And control of the city continued to fluctuate over the following years, going from Muslim rule and back to the Crusaders. Even when Louis IX of France tried to ensure the protection of Caesarea by building tall walls and a moat around the location in 1251, the Islamic Mamluks nevertheless recaptured the city 14 years later.

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The Mamluks then decided to totally destroy Caesarea so that it could not again reestablish itself as a fortress. The city subsequently remained in a state of wreckage until the 19th century approached its end. Yet Caesarea’s fortunes appeared to finally improve in 1884, when a group of Bosnian immigrants known as the Bushnaks set up a fishing community there.

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Nevertheless, rule of the city was yet again overturned in 1948, when a Palmach unit led by one Yitzhak Rabin managed to take control of the area. The Palmach were a specialized group of the Jewish underground army, which was known as the Haganah.

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Then, finally, in 1952 a new Jewish-controlled town was set up beside the remnants of the ancient Caesarea, with the old and new cities located less than two miles from each another. The site of the ruins also became part of a national park in 2011.

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So, given the long, vast and utterly varied history of Caesarea, it should go without saying that its ruins have proven to be a focus of archaeological enquiry. And over recent decades, artifacts and structures have all been unearthed that appear to originate from the city’s time under its various rulers.

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Specifically, though, various Roman ruins discovered in Caesarea have proven fascinating. A number of archaeological excavations have yielded buildings of considerable significance, including a 20,000-seater hippodrome, a temple and an amphitheater. And in 1961 researchers came across a particularly noteworthy find: an inscription that bears the name of Pontius Pilate.

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But why was this discovery so important? Well, as many know, Pontius Pilate is thought to have been a Roman governor who ruled Judaea when Jesus was said to have been crucified. The inscription, then, was the first item found to mention Pilate that could actually be dated back to the time in which he reportedly lived.

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But yet more has been unearthed in Caesarea. During the same decade that saw the Pilate inscription recovered, for example, a container holding silver and gold jewels was also revealed in an area of the ancient city. Then, in the 1990s, an array of bronze artifacts was found within the vicinity. These items are all now reportedly exhibited within the Jerusalem-based Israel Museum.

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So, given the past discoveries within this specific location in Caesarea, it’s not surprising that excavation works have continued up to the present day. And in December 2018 archaeologists announced yet another find there – with this one being particularly rare.

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Image: Yaniv Berman/Caesarea Development Corporation via The Times of Israel

Specifically, the archaeologists working in the area unearthed a golden earring and a collection of 24 coins that are all thought to be from the 11th century. These artifacts were held, it was noticed, within a bronze container – by itself a considerable specimen. However, it’s arguably the coins about which the archaeological community is most intensely enthused.

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Three-quarters of the 24 coins are Fatimid dinars, which was once the local currency of Caesarea under the Islamic rule of the Fatimid Caliphate. But as examples of such dinars have been discovered in the area before, they are not considered particularly unusual.

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Image: Yaniv Berman/Caesarea Development Corporation via The Times of Israel

The true objects of interest, then, are the other six coins, which come from the Christian Byzantine Empire and are thought to date back to the year 1079. And perhaps most intriguingly, the currency would have had to be transported in some manner from the Christian Byzantines over to Islamic Caesarea.

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Image: Yaniv Berman/Caesarea Development Corporation via The Times of Israel

Speaking in December 2018 to The Times of Israel, a coin expert by the name of Dr. Robert Kool emphasized the significance of the discovery. “On the whole, [the coins] are very, very rare,” he said. “[They] usually did not travel beyond the political borders of the Byzantine Empire.”

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Image: Yaniv Berman/Caesarea Development Corporation via The Times of Israel

Yes, according to Kool, the 22-karat gold coins were not generally in circulation throughout the area in which they were discovered. This, he believes, points towards the existence of a trading relationship between Caesarea and Constantinople during the 11th century.

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And the coins themselves are thought to have been extremely valuable within their time. For context, it has been suggested that a single example would have been equivalent to a local farmer’s yearly wage – meaning, perhaps, that the original owner of the collection had been quite affluent.

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We can surmise other things about the individual who once had hold of the coins, too. Both the money and the bronze container were excavated from a well in a house that is thought to trace back roughly to between the years 909 and 1171. And the manner in which the treasures were stored seems to indicate that their owner had been hoping to conceal them from an external danger. “There is a feeling that the hoard was put away in quite a quick way,” Kool explained to The Times of Israel.

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In fact, even the bronze container itself is indicative of the theory that someone was hoping to stash it swiftly before making an escape. “The people [who hid the treasures] broke a piece of ceramic and put it in as a stop-gap lid so the coins wouldn’t fall out,” Kool revealed. “It really seems to add up to the Crusader conquest, which was a pretty dramatic event.”

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Kool was referring to Baldwin I’s crusade that had swept through Caesarea in 1101. This particular event saw the Fatimid Caliphate that had ruled over the region wiped out, while many of the people who had lived under Fatimid rule were either murdered or enslaved.

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Image: Yaniv Berman via BBC News

And as accounts have suggested that many of those within Caesarea during this crusade were slaughtered, it is likely that the person who hid the coins was also killed. The excavation’s leaders, Dr. Peter Gendelman and Mohammed Hatar, certainly seem to believe that this theory has some credence. “It is reasonable to assume that the treasure’s owner and his family perished in the massacre or were sold into slavery and therefore were not able to retrieve their gold,” the pair said in a statement.

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The work of Hatar, Gendelman and their fellow excavators is being supported in part by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, which has donated some $40 million to the project. In 2018 the foundation’s vice chairman, Guy Swersky, was quoted by The Times of Israel as saying that the operation is intended to allow “hundreds of thousands of tourists from Israel and around the world” to access the wonders of Caesarea.

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And some youngsters have already had the opportunity to gaze upon artifacts from Caesarea. Shortly after the coins were discovered, you see, Kool allowed a number of children touring the site to see the ancient currency – an experience for which they were apparently grateful.

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“The coins are so beautiful, and [the children] were so happy to see them,” Dr. Kool later recalled to The Times of Israel. “That’s what we do it for – to bring it to the public.” However, before finishing up his conversation with the online newspaper, Kool also pointed out that the discovery had come about at a fitting time: during Hanukkah.

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Hanukkah is one of the most important events in the Jewish calendar, with the celebratory festival lasting for eight days and the same number of nights during either November or December of each year. And the fact that the stash of gold coins was found during the Hanukkah period of 2018 has certainly not been lost on Kool.

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Image: Yaniv Berman/Caesarea Development Corporation via The Times of Israel

“A little vessel – albeit bronze – but full of Islamic and Christian coins found close to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah… I find it significant,” Kool reflected to The Times of Israel. “You can be cynical about it, but on the other hand, for us, in terms of the archaeology it’s a small miracle to find something like that.”

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