An unassuming silver coin found in Israel’s coastal city of Acre has tremendous historical value, both for the Crusader town and for a lost central European empire now relegated to rhapsodies and broke artists.

It had little intrinsic worth when it was minted in the mid-13th century, the dusk of the crusades in the Holy Land, yet the St. Chrisopher penny unearthed in a 2009 excavation in Acre is today the oldest known coin to refer to the king of Bohemia. Its discovery offers a unique insight into the dying days of the Crusader kingdoms.

The silver coin, a denier little bigger than a modern one-shekel piece, was found amid a hoard of marble slabs during excavations headed by Dr. Edna Stern of the Israel Antiquities Authority in the coastal city in 2009. The trove was stashed just before the city, the last toehold of the Crusader kingdoms, was put to the sword by the Mamelukes in 1291.

“On the face of it, we didn’t attach much importance to it,” Dr. Robert Kool, a medieval numismatist with the Israel Antiquities Authority said, “until we started trying to identify the coin and didn’t succeed.”

On the front of the coin appears a regal figure with a pointed crown and a scepter topped by a lily; along the edge reads a partially illegible inscription, “ZL REX BOEMO” — king of the Bohemians, a title bestowed upon monarchs for the better part of a millennium. Which king, precisely, remains uncertain. On the back is a bearded figure identified as St. Christopher. Kool said the silver penny didn’t match any local coin types, nor any of the usual suspects from France, England or Germany.

What followed was what Kool called a “scientific detective story” to decipher the provenance of the coin and the identity of the king. The IAA contacted experts at Oxford University, who referred the case to Dr. Borys Paszkiewicz, an expert in Eastern European coinages at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. The overarching question, Kool said, was what a Bohemian coin was doing in medieval Acre.

A 13th-century silver penny found in Acre, the oldest coin mentioning Bohemia (obverse). (photo credit: Clara Amit, IAA Photography Department)

A 13th-century silver penny found in Acre, the oldest coin mentioning Bohemia (obverse). (photo credit: Clara Amit, IAA Photography Department)

Modern day Acre — Akko in Hebrew, Akka in Arabic — is best known as a hotbed for religious tensions, crime and top shelf hummus. But in the High Middle Ages it was the capital of the rump Kingdom of Jerusalem and major entrepôt on the Levantine coast.

After Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187, the fortified port of Acre served as headquarters for the exiled crusader monarchy and the chivalric orders of legend, particularly the Knights Hospitaller, the Teutonic Knights and the Templars. In the century before its fall to the Mameluke armies, Acre was a hub for commerce between Europe and the lands of Islam and beyond.

In the 13th century it was home to a kaleidoscope of communities living cheek-by-jowl within the cramped city walls. Venetian, Pisan and Genoese traders carved out quarters of their own alongside French, English and German knights and merchants; a small population of Muslims, mostly traders, made the walled city their home. With the flood of incoming Occidentals, Acre expanded northwards and constructed the neighborhood of Montmusard, where the coin was found.

Kool explained that the coin supports other fragments of historical evidence of Bohemian pilgrimage and migration to the Holy Land, mirroring the trend in Western Europe, as early as the late 12th century. The bulk of the Bohemian migration to the Frankish East, however, occurred in the 1200s. Farther down the coast in Caesarea, archaeologists found a hoard containing five Bohemian coins similar to the silver denier found in Acre dating to the mid-1200s that bore no mention of rex boemo.

“We have here the earliest example of a coin naming the king of Bohemia,” Kool said, excitement audible in his voice, “which in itself was already a discovery.” Until the penny surfaced, the earliest known coin in existence mentioning the king of Bohemia was dated well after 1300, at least half a century later. The fact that St. Christopher, instead of national hero St. Wenceslaus, was on the coin’s reverse, made it additionally unique.

“The veneration of saints in the European Middle Ages was an important part of culture and politics,” Eastern European coin expert Paszkiewicz wrote by email. He explained that the Bohemians traditionally put Wenceslaus on their coins, and that ”the coin reverse was simply a completely new and surprising piece of historical evidence.”

Statue of King Ottokar II of Bohemia in Prague. (photo credit: Acoma, Wikimedia Commons)

Statue of King Ottokar II of Bohemia in Prague. (photo credit: Acoma, Wikimedia Commons)

Which king graces the coin remains uncertain, but Kool and Paszkiewicz have it narrowed down to King Premizl Ottokar II, described by a contemporary as “a lion in his bravery and an eagle in his kindness,” who ruled from 1253-1278. (For Tintin buffs out there, Ottokar II of Bohemia should not be confused for the fictional Syldavian leader of the same name.)

Ottokar II led a rebellion against his father King Wenceslaus I in 1248 and claimed the crown. A year later he was defeated by his father. After Wenceslaus’s death in 1253, Ottokar reigned as “lord of Bohemia” before being formally crowned king in 1261.

Paszkiewicz, Kool and Stern suggest in their soon-to-be published paper about the coin that the St. Christopher penny was minted either in 1248, when Ottokar II attempted to usurp the throne, or in 1262, just after he was at last crowned king of Bohemia.

“Both the unusual title and the unusual patron seem to speak for the earlier event,” they wrote.

Ottokar II’s kingdom stretched from the Sudeten mountains to the Adriatic, and Kool suggested that the penny “also expresses his ambitions to become an important territorial ruler” in a changing Europe.

What the bard who eulogized him failed to mention was that the king was rich as Croesus. Kool pointed out that virtually no coins from Eastern Europe have been found in the Holy Land from the period of the Crusades, except for the St. Christopher penny and the small batch of Bohemian coins found at Caesarea.  

“During this period large silver mines were discovered, and Bohemia became a very important producer of silver ore,” Kool said. He explained that silver was the standard currency in medieval Europe: “There was no gold in Europe. The European economy didn’t use gold [coinage] for almost 500 years, unlike the economies in the Muslim East.”

He said he could imagine how the coin — if it wasn’t brought by a Crusader — may have followed the medieval trade routes from Prague through Austria to Venice — “the most important merchant city in the world then” — and across the Mediterranean to Palestine.

“There was an enormous demand for silver in the East, not just for the Crusaders but more among the Muslim rulers,” Kool said.

Paszkiewicz mentioned another theory proffered by Dr. Roman Zaoral, an eminent Czech numismatist, who suggested that the coin was issued especially for pilgrims heading to Palestine to join Louis IX of France’s crusade because of the coin’s exceptional use of St. Christopher — the patron saint of travelers and pilgrims. While he is not wholly convinced by that explanation, he posited that it may have been kept by a Bohemian pilgrim “who recognized Christopher as a holy helper when traveling.”

“Why the only known piece of this coin was found in the Holy Land, the destination of Czech crusaders and pilgrims, remains a mystery,” Paszkiewicz said.