By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
In a press release issued Tuesday, February 17, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) reported that the largest treasure of gold coins ever discovered in Israeli territory had been recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea in the harbor of the ancient city of Caesarea.
Winter storms in the area were responsible for uncovering the find site, according to the IAA.
Members of a local scuba-diving club made the discovery. At first, Tzvika Feuer, Kobi Tweena, Avivit Fishler, Yoav Levi and Yoel Miller thought the coins were toys from a game that had been dropped in the sea. Once they realized what they’d stumbled across, the group contacted the Antiquities Authority. Armed with metal detectors, officials from the IAA accompanied the divers back to the site.
Nearly 2,000 gold coins–dinars, half dinars and quarter dinars of various denominations and specifications–were recovered, weighing close to 20 pounds (9 kg) all together.
The coins date to a time when the Fatimid caliphate controlled the area (approximately the 11th century CE). The Fatimids were a Shiite Islamic dynasty that held power over parts of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean from 909-1171. After the Fatimids conquered Egypt in 969, they made it their seat of power, founding the city of Cairo that same year.
The earliest coin found during recovery efforts is a quarter dinar minted in Palermo, Sicily in the mid- to late-800s CE (Sicily was then part of the Fatimid Empire). The latest coin dates to 1036. Most of the remainder were minted in Egypt and North Africa during the caliphates of Al-Ḥākim (996-1021) and his son Al-Ẓāhir (1021–1036).
Kobi Sharvit, Director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the IAA, posited that a shipwreck was likely nearby, and that the vessel had been either a Fatimid treasure boat carrying taxes collected in the region back to Cairo or a large vessel transferring funds between wealthy merchants. According to historical documents in Cairo, seafaring merchants of the era were known to carry purses capable of holding up to 100 gold dinars at one time.
Sharvit also had high praise for the divers who made the initial discovery. “They discovered the gold and have a heart of gold that loves the country and its history,” he said.
Robert Cole, an expert numismatist with the IAA, spoke as to the condition of the coins after nearly a thousand years exposure to seawater, saying they were in an excellent state of preservation and didn’t require cleaning or the conservation efforts of the IAA’s metallurgical laboratory.
He also mentioned another curious property of the gold coinage.
“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,” Cole said.
He likewise explained that these particular coin types were still in circulation after the Crusaders invaded and occupied the territory in the 12th century.
The Israel Antiquities Authority would not speculate as to the cash value of the treasure.
UPDATE: On Sunday, April 26, 2015, as Druze communities in Israel celebrated a holiday commemorating Nebi Shu’eib, the 14th prophet in the Druze and Islamic religions (identified with the Biblical Jethro), they also honored the scuba divers who discovered the Fatimid coin treasure.
This is because most of the coins feature the image of Al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allah (“Ruler by God’s Command”), Fatimid caliph from 996 to 1021 CE and an important figure in the Druze religion and culture. In 1018, Ad-Dazari, the founder of the Druze community, declared Al-Ḥākim the incarnation of God. Al-Ḥākim disappeared mysteriously in 1021, and the Druze believe that he is still alive, waiting to reveal himself when the Last Days are upon the world.
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, educator and Druze community leader Salah Khatib said:
“It’s an archaeological find that corresponds to our holy text and creates great excitement… Al-Hakim laid the foundations for the Druze doctrine. Finding the treasure is an opportunity to awaken the faith in the heart of every Druze.”
The Druze religion developed from the Ismāʿīlī branch of Shia Islam, incorporating elements of many other regional cultures and belief systems. Its esoteric and gnostic doctrines–along with its divergence from fundamental Islamic orthodoxy–often cause misunderstandings between the Druze community and the larger cultures they find themselves living among and contributing to.