Hoard of coins from 1,400-year-old Byzantine site tells story of Persian invasion
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Hoard of coins from 1,400-year-old Byzantine site tells story of Persian invasion

As Jewish and Sassanid troops marched on Jerusalem in 614 CE, Christian residents of village on main pilgrimage route hid their valuables; now, nine copper coins hidden in a niche have been recovered

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

A hoard of Byzantine coins found near Ein Nakuba by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists in 2016 and shown to the press on March 19, 2017. (Ilan Ben Zion/Time of Israel staff)
A hoard of Byzantine coins found near Ein Nakuba by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists in 2016 and shown to the press on March 19, 2017. (Ilan Ben Zion/Time of Israel staff)

As a Persian army supported by a horde of Jewish rebels marched on Jerusalem in 614 CE, Christians inhabiting a town on the main route inland to the city hid a hoard of valuables in the hope of returning in more peaceful times.

Fast-forward 1,400 years to the summer of 2016, when Israeli engineers were widening that same highway, running from the Mediterranean past Abu Ghosh west of the capital, and archaeologists were called in to excavate some Byzantine ruins. Beneath the rubble of a building they found a hoard of nine copper coins dating to around 614 CE, when a Persian empire briefly reigned in Jerusalem just before the rise of Islam.

The Byzantine site, located next to the modern town of Ein Nakuba, was a waypoint situated along the main Christian pilgrim route leading from the coast to the holy city, said Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Annette Landes-Naggar, who announced the discovery to the press Sunday.

The announcement was timed to precede the upcoming Easter holiday, which falls this year on April 16, as part of a push coordinated with the Tourism Ministry to boost Christian pilgrimage to Israel.

The IAA was brought in to excavate the site as part of the expansion of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. During the excavation last summer, archaeologists dug up the remains of a basilica, a monumental building and an adjacent winepress.

“The coins were found adjacent to the external wall of one of the monumental buildings found at the site, and it was found among the building stones that collapsed from the wall,” Landes-Naggar said. The manner in which the coins were found suggests they were deposited in a niche of the wall inside a purse for safekeeping before the building was destroyed, she said.

Excavations at a Byzantine-era site west of Jerusalem, near the village of Ein Nakuba, in 2016. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Excavations at a Byzantine-era site west of Jerusalem, near the village of Ein Nakuba, in 2016. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

The site was abandoned and forgotten, with the buildings’ stones later incorporated into the agricultural terraces constructed into the hillside.

The coins themselves, which bear the faces of Byzantine Emperors Justinian I, Maurice, and Phocas, were minted in Constantinople, Antioch and Nicomedia and helped date the find. Though they aren’t particularly rare or remarkable — nor were they particularly valuable — “they tell the story of the site,” Landes-Naggar told reporters.

Justinian I Mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna (Petar Milošević / Wikipedia)
Justinian I Mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna (Petar Milošević / Wikipedia)

“It’s the context of the coins that gives us the puzzle of what happened,” she said.

The newfound hoard dates to around the same event that prompted Jewish residents of Jerusalem to squirrel away a golden treasure at the base of the Temple Mount, which Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar’s team unearthed during excavations in the Ophel in 2013.

Jewish rebels supporting the Sassanid Empire revolted against Byzantium in 613 CE, and an army of Persian and Jewish troops marched on Jerusalem, which fell after a brief siege.

The Jewish leader installed in Jerusalem, Nehemiah ben Hushiel, prepared to built a third Jewish temple, but those plans were scuppered by a Christian counter-rebellion. Amid the subsequent Christian-Jewish slaughter, “in conjunction with the Persians, the Jews swept through Palestine, destroyed the monasteries which abounded in the country, and expelled or killed the monks,” the Jewish Encyclopedia writes.

The large two-story building found in the excavations may have been a Byzantine monastery, Landes-Naggar said, but she wasn’t certain, nor was it clear at what point exactly the site was destroyed.

“We don’t know exactly what the purpose of that building was. That’s one possibility,” she told The Times of Israel. “There are other possibilities.”

Two years after Persia and Byzantium struck a peace treaty in 628, Constantinople retook control of a depleted Jerusalem and massacred Jews who rose up against New Rome.

But Constantinople’s restoration to power was short lived. With both empires weakened, the armies of Islam swept north from the Arabian Peninsula and, in 637 CE, Caliph Umar’s troops captured the city.

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