Almost 2000 Fatimid gold coins found in Caesarea ancient harbour

The gold coins from the Fatimid period (eleventh century CE) were discovered by a group of divers. Image: Israel Antiquities Authority

The gold coins from the Fatimid period (eleventh century CE) were discovered by a group of divers. Image: Israel Antiquities Authority

The largest hoard of gold coins ever discovered in Israel was found in recent weeks by a group of divers. The coins were found on the seabed of the ancient harbour at Caesarea National Park.

The discovery, exposed as a result of winter storms, was reported to the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, after which a metal detector was taken out to the find spot. Almost 2,000 gold coins were retrieved in different denominations: dinar, half dinar and quarter dinar, of various dimensions and weight.

According to Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit, they intended to carry out salvage excavations in the near future. He said “The discovery of such a large hoard of coins raises several possibilities regarding its presence on the seabed, where there is probably a shipwreck. With such a value of coinage it was possibly an official treasury boat which was on its way to the central government in Egypt with taxes that had been collected, perhaps to pay the salaries of the Fatimid military garrison which 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.

Caesarea National Park. Image: Derhexer/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Caesarea National Park. Image: Derhexer/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Excellent state of preservation

According to Robert Cole, an expert numismatist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “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. The coins that were exposed also remained in the 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 they were “physically” inspected by their owners or the merchants. Other coins bear signs of wear and abrasion from use while others seem as though they were just minted.

Kobi Sharvit praised the action of the divers, and said “The law says that all antiquities belong to the state and that not reporting or removing antiquities from their location, selling or trading them is an offence punishable by up to five years imprisonment. In this case the divers reported the find; but in many instances they take the objects home and that way extremely important archaeological information is lost forever, which cannot be recovered. Therefore the discovery of the treasure underscores the need to combine the development of the place as a tourism and diving site with restrictions that will allow the public to dive there only when accompanied by inspectors or instructors from the diving club.”

Historical background

The earliest coin from the hoard is a quarter dinar minted in Palermo, Sicily in the second half of the ninth century CE. Most of the coins though 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. The coin assemblage included no coins from the Eastern Islamic dynasties and it can therefore be stated with certainty this is a Fatimid treasure.

The great value and significance of the treasure become apparent when viewed in light of the historical sources. For example, the description of the traveller and geographer Ibn Jubayr who writes that the Muslim residents of the settlements were required to pay the Fatimid government 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).

Descriptions in the Cairo Geniza from the eleventh and twelfth century CE tell, among other things, of the redemption of prisoners, including Jewish captives from Ashkelon that were transferred to Egypt. According to the documents, the Jewish community paid a sum of about five hundred gold dinars to redeem and return them to Israel.