Sunday, April 16, 2017

1,400-Year-Old Coins are the Forgotten Remnants of a Terrifying Siege on Jerusalem

Ancient Origins

Israeli archaeologists have announced the discovery of a hoard of rare Byzantine bronze coins from a site dating back to 614 AD. The coins were discovered during excavations for the widening of the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem highway.

 Persian Invasion and Siege of Jerusalem
The newly found coins are clear evidence of the Persian invasion of Jerusalem at the end of the Byzantine period. As the Persian army (supported by many Jewish rebels) marched on Jerusalem in 614 AD, Christians living in the town rushed to hide their possessions, including a hoard of the valuable coins, hoping that things would soon go back to normal.

Nine bronze coins dating to the Byzantine period were hidden in the remains of a settlement near a highway to Jerusalem. (Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Annette Landes-Naggar, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist and the one who announced the discovery to the press said, as The Jerusalem Post reports, “The cache was buried adjacent to an area of collapsed large stones. It appears that the owner hid them when there was danger, hoping to return to pick them up. But now we know he was unable to.” She continued, “Apparently, this was during the time of the Persian Sassanid invasion, around 614 AD,” noting that the invasion was among the factors that ended the reign of the Byzantine emperors in Israel. “Fearing the invasion, residents of the area who felt their lives were in danger buried their money against the wall of a winepress. [However], the site was abandoned and destroyed,” Landes-Naggar concluded.

The excavation area and the collapsed wall where the Byzantine coin hoard was found. (Maxim Dinstein, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Sasanian Empire – the last imperial dynasty in Iran before the rise of Islam – conquered Jerusalem after a brief siege in 614, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, after the Persian Shah Khosrau II appointed his general Shahrbaraz to conquer the Byzantine controlled areas of the Near East.

More than 20,000 Jewish rebels joined the war against the Byzantine Christians and the Persian army, reinforced by Jewish forces and led by Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias, captured Jerusalem without resistance. According to Sebeos, a 7th-century Armenian bishop and historian, the siege resulted in a total Christian death toll of 17000 and nearly 5000 prisoners, who were massacred near Mamilla reservoir per Antiochus.

Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, c. 1452. (Public Domain) Experts believe the coins were hidden while there was a siege on Jerusalem in 614, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628.

The Coins Tell the Story of the Site
Fast-forward 1,400 years to the summer of 2016, Israeli archaeologists excavating some Byzantine ruins in the area unearthed a cache consisting of nine bronze coins dating from the Byzantine Period around 324-638 AD. The announcement was scheduled 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 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 told The Times of Israel.

Byzantine coins found by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists in 2016 and shown to the press in March 2017. (Ilan Ben Zion/Time of Israel staff)

The coins depict the faces of notable Byzantine Emperors such as Justinian I, Maurice, and Phocas, and were minted in Constantinople, Antioch, and Nicomedia. Despite not being particularly rare or of great value they “betray” the story of the site as Landes-Naggar noted,

“It’s the context of the coins that gives us the puzzle of what happened. This site is situated alongside the main road from the entrance to Jerusalem and was used by Christian pilgrims to enter the city. Settlements were developed along the road.”

 Local authorities along with the Israel Pipeline Company are committed to working together to preserve the site for the public.

Top Image: The Byzantine coins found near Jerusalem have been dated to around the time of a 614 siege. Source: YOLI SCHWARTZ/IAA

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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