By Hugh Finlay
On a morning in Feb. 2015, Zvika was scuba diving at the ancient Israeli port of Caesarea, when suddenly he saw something in the sand. He had gone diving there many times before, and loved the teeming fish, and remains of shipwrecks and pottery he sometimes glimpsed on the sea floor. Many of Israel's underwater archaeological zones are open to divers. Caesarea was one of Zvika’s favorite places for exploring.
A powerful storm the night before battered the coast, which stirred up the sea floor and changed the underwater landscape. As Zvika dived deeper to look at the shining object he had seen, he knew another storm was on the way. An experienced diver, he was confident in going out. But the winter sky was starting to get dark, the breeze was changing.
He got closer, and assumed the gleam would been a discarded wrapper. But as he swept away the sand and picked up the item, he realized he was wrong. It was not a piece of foil, it was a gold coin with Arabic on it.
“I was astonished when I saw that both sides of the metal were gold,” he said.
He moved more sand, and discovered another coin, and more, and more, from a shipwreck far in the past.
Other divers would have taken the treasure home with them, but Zvika and his companions got back to the boat and contacted officials in Caesarea, who quickly called the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
When the IAA arrived, they were skeptical. Caesarea is a site that is covered with ancient underwater artifacts, and they assumed there was looting.
“We got a bit of a (proverbial) cold shower,” Zvika said. “They were yelling at us, asking why we had taken the coins out of the sea. We explained about the conditions… there was another storm coming, with waves expected to be 10m high. We told them that if we didn’t take the coins out of the ocean right then, we might never find them again.”
Working with the IAA, Zvika and his companions went back, and uncovered more coins. Some days later, they found hundreds more. Over 2,000 coins have been found. As the coins are 24-carat gold, pure up to 95%, and also well preserved for 1,000 years because of the temperate water of the Mediterranean, they are giving historians new information about past times in history.
Caesarea, between Tel Aviv and Haifa on the coast, is known for its Roman ruins. The ancient center has been restored and turned into a favorite tourist destination, with a museum and restaurant. There is a residential park and golf course nearby. When you stand in the c-shaped harbor, or close to the arches of the old aqueduct, and look over the azure sea towards Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, it is easy to imagine the harbor as it would have been many centuries ago.
In the 4th century BC, the first buildings were built, to create a Phoenician and Greek trading port. After 96 BC, the city came under the control of Egypt. The area was later taken by the Romans, and Caesarea, known as Stratonos Pyrgos, (Greek for Straton’s Tower) was given to Herod the Great, a king appointed by the Romans. He renamed the port after the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar.
Caesarea then blossomed. The king ordered the construction of break walls to form a massive deep-sea harbor, along with an aqueduct, hippodrome, and 20,000-person amphitheater, for watching the rush and carnage of chariot races.
In 6 AD, Caesarea became the capital city of the province of Judea. So, it was home to many Roman governors of Judea, including of course, Pontius Pilate. When the Jews revolted against Rome (66-70 AD) Jerusalem was razed, and Caesarea became the economic and political center of the region. If the Caesarea seems like a backwater nowadays, it was certainly not that, 2,000 years ago.
The city stayed important, with its history recorded well, until around 640 AD, when it fell to Muslim invaders. Thereafter, records were sparse. The opinion was that the city faded in importance, having been sacked and re-settled by smaller communities, eventually becoming a small Mediterranean fishing village in the later 1800s.
But this discovery of coins has changed that picture, according to Sharvit, the director of IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit. It seems that Caesarea stayed as a hub of commerce and trade while it was under the control of Muslim caliphates; so it did not revert to a remote backwater.
“Before finding the coins, we had no idea that the community in Caesarea at that time was so large or so rich," Sharvit said. “So it changed what we believed about that time.”
These small coins, known as dinars, tell us what Caesarea was like at that time. The dates on them indicate that they were made during the rule of Caliphs al-Hakim, 996–1021 AD, and his son al-Zahir, 1021–1036 AD, when Caesarea as part of the Fatimid Dynasty, which at the time controlled the Eastern Mediterranean.
The coins were minted in Cairo, Egypt, as well as the Sicilian capital, Palermo, telling us that the currency was circulating around an empire. There are teeth marks on the coins. This was how people tested coins to make sure they were gold.
So Caesarea was still prosperous and busy at the turn of the 11th Century.
“Those coins were a lot of money for the people who lived there,” Sharvit said.
Every coin was about a month’s salary for a soldier, which means enough to hire a force of 2,000 men for a month. The hoard was probably lost because of an accident on a ship. There were probably many such money ships going in and out of the harbor.
Possibly the money was being sent to Cairo, the Fatimid capital. In 1095, the First Crusades began. Caesarea would have been preparing itself for these attacks.
Historians will likely never know the whole story, but even a glimpse of what life was like so long ago is exhilarating, Sharvit said.
"When you see something that old, you can feel that it's telling you a story of what used to be there before. That’s especially true when you find it under the sea. Most of the time, no-one had touched those things since they were lost 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000 years ago – from when they were dropped into the sea until you found them… that’s the part that’s exciting to me.”
“For me, that discovery was never about the money behind it,” Zvika said. “It was about the history and what the coins said about the area and what it was like so long ago.”