A rare stash of pure gold coins from the Abbasid Caliphate period, dated around 1,100 years ago, was uncovered by young volunteers in an archaeological excavation carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood in central Israel.
The Abbasid Caliphate was the third caliphate to succeed the prophet Muhammad. It was founded by a dynasty descended from Muhammad’s uncle, Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib, from whom the dynasty takes its name. Harun al-Rashid, of One Thousand and One Nights fame, was the fifth Abbasid Caliph.
The directors of the excavation, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Elie Haddad of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that “the hoard, deliberately buried in the ground in a clay jar, contained 425 gold coins, most of which date to the Abbasid period. The person who buried this treasure 1,100 years ago must have expected to retrieve it, and even secured the vessel with a nail so that it would not move.”
“We can only guess what prevented him from returning to collect this treasure,” they said. “Finding gold coins, certainly in such large quantity, is extremely rare. We almost never find them in archaeological excavations, given that gold has always been extremely valuable and was melted down and reused from generation to generation. The coins—made of pure gold that does not oxidize with exposure to air—were found in excellent condition, as if they were buried just the day before. The find may indicate that international trade took place between the area’s residents and remote areas.”
According to Dr. Robert Kool, a coin expert at the Israel Antiquities Authority, “it is extremely rare to find treasures from the Abbasid period in excavations in Israel – especially gold coins. This is one of the earliest known caches from this period (end of the 9th century) found in the country. The coins are made of pure gold – 24 carats. The total weight of the hoard is about 845 grams of pure gold – a significant amount of money in those days. For example, with such a sum, a person could buy a luxurious house in one of the best neighborhoods in Fustat, the wealthy capital of Egypt in those days.”
Dr. Kool said “an initial examination of the coins showed most of them date to the end of the 9th century CE. During this period, the region was part of the vast Abbasid Caliphate, stretching from Persia in the east to North Africa in the west, with the center of government in Baghdad, Iraq. The hoard consists of full gold dinars, but also – which is unusual – contains about 270 small gold cuttings, pieces of gold dinars cut to serve as small change.”
Cutting pieces off gold and silver coins was a regular feature of the monetary system in Islamic countries after the 850s, with the sudden disappearance of bronze and copper coins.
One of the cuttings is an exceptionally rare piece, never found in excavations in Israel before: a fragment of a gold solidus of the Byzantine emperor Theophilos (829 – 842 CE), minted in Constantinople. The appearance of this small Byzantine coin fragment in an Islamic coin hoard is rare material evidence to the continuous contacts through war and trade between the two rival empires during this period.
Dr. Kool said that “this rare treasure will certainly be a major contribution to research, as finds from the Abbasid period in Israel are relatively few. Hopefully, the study of the hoard will tell us more about a period of which we still know very little.”
The coin hoard was uncovered by young volunteers in their pre-military year of service. Last Tuesday, two of them noticed something shimmering in the ground while working at the excavation. One of them, Oz Cohen, recalled: “It was amazing. I dug in the ground and when I excavated the soil I saw what looked like very thin leaves. When I looked closer I realized these were gold coins. It was truly exciting to find this ancient treasure.”