Ramla was for a time main district of Palestine. It is one of the oldest cities in Israel that has remained inhabited from the Middle Ages to the present. For most of the duration of Muslim rule Ramla was the largest and most important city in the country. Its geographical location is strategically situated along the crossroads of international transit which made it a necessary juncture for all those who wanted to travel between Egypt and Syria and from Jaffa to Jerusalem.
When constructing the interchange on Route 431 between Moshav Matzliach and Ramla, a contractor discovered signs of ancient remains during a routine ground test. After preliminary tests confirmed the find, extensive excavations were conducted on the site during 2004-2005 led by Alexander Onn and Fanny Vito. Further excavations continued until 2008 under the direction of Amir Gorzalczany. The site uncovered artifacts from the Early Islamic period including during the Fatimid Caliphate.
The Fatimid Shi’ite Caliphate ruled between 910-1171 CE in North Africa, Egypt and in the region of Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Under the patronage of the Fatimid Caliphate with Cairo as its new capital as well as its commercial and cultural center of the Islamic world, trade relations extended from the Maghreb countries to India, and from West Africa to Byzantium and Italy.
Many facilities were discovered in the excavation indicating that the site was operating in trade and crafts. Such finding included drainage systems and deep wells, storage warehouses of large pottery for liquids, and utility rooms used as shops. Within a few shops were rare finds such as weighing trays and an impressive amount of luxurious jewels made of silver and gold.
On a hot morning in mid July 2005 workers found in one of the shops located in the southwestern part of the site a small clay pot from which protruded gold. Recognizing a potentially rare find the directors of the excavation immediately intervened to fully extract the cache. Within a short period of time the cache was on its way to Jerusalem in the hands of the excavator Fanny Vito, who had the cache tested and photographed, and was part of the first team to document the discovery.
The discovery of a treasure of this magnitude is a rare event for typical excavations. Finding a treasure of currency is even rarer. And a complete trove within its original container is like a singular event out of an Indiana Jones movie and the dream of every archaeologist.
Fanny Vito explained: I immediately realized that we had something very special in hand, and if we were not careful we might miss the greatest moment – a moment of discovery! So I decided not to open the cache until we raised enough funds for a film that would document each step of the test, as well as the opening of the cache and its identification. One crucial question overshadowed the continuation of the project: Was the jar full of gold coins or was there a thin layer of gold covering dirt? Thanks to the cooperation between the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israeli Police, I was invited to the police explosives labs in Jerusalem where they typically use powerful X-ray photography to identify bombs. While reviewing the cache under X-ray, a sapper explained to me that the lack of change in shading inside the jar from top to bottom is an indication that the jar was in fact full of gold coins.
Archeology requires a lot of patience and perseverance. The same traits required for digging and discovery are necessary when reviewing and identifying a cache. After requisitioning the appropriate budget to build an adequate CT laboratory within the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a three-dimensional state-of-the-art X-ray machine was placed at our disposal for further X-ray photography and imaging. The jar was placed with the utmost care in the scanning facility.
With three-dimensional imaging we could clearly see that all the material in the jar was metallic and that the whole jar was in fact full of gold. I then opened the jar and took the cache of coins to the metals conservation laboratory for identification at the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem on Mount Hotzvim. The on-duty specialist at the time, Raya Vinitzky, separated the coins very delicately one by one, and recorded the order of coins extracted from the jar individually by their height and location in the jar. The coins were placed in a tray and properly numbered, and were then transferred to a preliminary identification facility. It was found that the coins were stamped with ancient Arabic Kufic script.
Apart from the name of the ruler and the type of minting, it was important at this stage to identify the date of the coins based on the year of the Hijra – the name of the year in Islam of the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE which is used for dating Islamic coins. The year stamped on the coins were written in very small typeface making it cumbersome and difficult to decipher, so I relied Ariel Berman, the veteran expert used to identify similar currencies found in the country.
The conclusion based on the examination was clear: the date stamped on the coins indicated that they were minted no later than 1078 CE, a period after the great earthquake that struck Ramla on May 29, 1068 CE during which large parts of the city were destroyed and more than 15,000 inhabitants were killed. It also represented the last years of the Fatimid period when the Seljuq Turks conquered the city in 1078 CE or by the Crusaders in the summer of 1099 CE. By the end we counted more than 300 coins, twice what I’d expected when we first opened the jar.
The total weight of the coins amounted to 400 grams, which is equivalent to 40 dinars. This is a veritable treasure trove given that a simple family in Israel or Egypt could then exist for more than a year on a sum of two gold dinars weighing four grams.
The cache is direct evidence that during this period a sophisticated financial system was used that included not only large gold dinars for the purpose of making significant payments, but much smaller coins with lesser values were in use as well. Most of the coins found are half, quarter and eighth dinars, and even ‘coins’ that were tiny pieces of cut gold that were likely used for everyday payments.
The treasure confirms what we know from documents of that period, such as documents from the Cairo Geniza, of the widespread use of such currencies among all populations throughout the Fatimid Caliphate. Names minted on the coins indicate that the coins came from all corners of the Fatimid Caliphate: from Tunisia and Sicily, to Ramla and Tripoli in northern Syria.
The coins illustrate diversity in design and calligraphy and were all made form excellent quality gold. Inscriptions on the coins include praising God, His Prophet, and the various rulers of the kingdom with specific names and titles. All this testifies to the remarkable and flourishing culture under the rule of the Fatimid Caliphate, which was one of the masterpieces of Islamic civilization.