It’s summer in Israel, and a group of teenagers are hard at work excavating the site of a new construction project. Then, suddenly, one hits the jackpot. Beneath the sandy earth they discover an incredible treasure, hidden from sight for more than 1,000 years. It’s every archaeologist’s dream – and a find that could shine a light on a period of history that is little understood.
Lured by the promise of a culturally rewarding experience, these teenagers had signed up to join the Israel Antiquities Authority in an archaeological dig. And as a break before their mandatory military service, it must have seemed like a fun way to spend the summer. But no one could have predicted just how fruitful the excavation would be.
On the side of a hill in the central city of Yavneh, the teenagers toiled in the hot weather, searching the soil for artifacts from another time. But when one stumbled upon a stash of buried treasure, they did not recognize it at first. Slowly, it dawned on them what they were looking at – a priceless find from the forgotten past.
Dating back to a time when vast empires vied for control of the world, the treasure could prove invaluable to scholars intent on unraveling the past. And even today, it’s worth its own weight in gold. But what did these teenage volunteers find buried beneath Yavneh – and what can it tell us about those who ruled the region centuries ago?
According to experts, the treasure dates back to the ninth century, a time when the Abbasid caliphate held dominion over vast swathes of the Earth – including what is now Yavneh. Since the foundation of Islam in the seventh century A.D., the religion had been spreading across the Middle East. And in A.D. 661, the Umayyad caliphate stepped up to rule over this new empire.
For almost 100 years, the Umayyad caliphate stood at the head of the Islamic Empire, overseeing its expansion across North Africa, India and Spain. At its peak, it laid claim to some 62 million inhabitants, which was around one-third of the global population at the time. But despite their numbers, these diverse communities and cultures began to come together as one.
Like their rivals the Byzantines, the Umayyads established a sophisticated system of government, introduced Arabic as a common language and embarked on several ambitious building projects. But as the empire expanded, unrest in the region began to grow. To some, the caliphs had strayed too far from their Islamic roots.
Eventually, certain groups within the Islamic Empire began to rebel against their leaders. And in the middle of the eighth century A.D., another dynasty rose up to challenge the Umayyads. This time, it was a clan descended from the uncle of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, known as the Abbasids.
Using propaganda to undermine their rivals, the Abbasids managed to win the support of many citizens, including the Persians and Shiʿi Arabs. And in A.D. 747, their leader Abū Muslim led a revolt against the Umayyad caliph, Marwān II. Ultimately, the rebellion was successful, leading to the foundation of the Abbasid caliphate in A.D. 750.
Previously, the Umayyads had strived to expand their territory to the west. But now, under the Abbasids, the Islamic Empire began to march eastwards. Moving their capital to Baghdad in what is now Iraq, they ushered in a period of prosperity and peace that saw the caliphate rise to the height of its power.
Between 790 and 1258, the Abbasids ruled over a thriving empire. And today, this period is referred to as the Islamic Golden Age. Under a succession of rulers, the caliphate promoted education, science, mathematics, and the arts, prizing learning and bringing the Muslim world to the forefront of human knowledge.
In Baghdad, non-Muslim scholars worked alongside their Islamic counterparts, seeking to gather and catalogue all of the knowledge in the world. Meanwhile, the empire became a melting pot of different cultures, drawing influences from Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, African, and Greek civilizations. And in almost every field, the caliphate’s scholars and scientists excelled.
At the same time, the Islamic Empire was also a hub of creative and philosophical ideas. Iconic works of literature such as The Book of One Thousand and One Nights emerged from this period, as did a vast array of crystal, glass, and pottery ware. Meanwhile, great Abbasid minds expanded on the works of thinkers such as Aristotle.
For almost 500 years, the Abbasids guided the Islamic Empire through its golden age. But then, in the ninth century A.D., Caliph al-Muʿtasim expanded his army to include non-Muslim soldiers. And even though they were required to convert, the troops lost the religious unity that had been so vital to their power.
As such, power within the Abbasid caliphate was already imbalanced when the Būyids from what is now Iran marched on Baghdad in A.D. 945, demanding their autonomy. And for the next 100 years, the caliphate was largely split into a number of different dynasties. Then in 1055 the Seljuks arrived and took control of the floundering empire.
Ousting the Abbasids from power, the Seljuks initially restored authority to the head of the caliphate, continuing the Islamic golden age. But towards the beginning of the 12th century, the Mongol Empire began to rise. After conquering China, its troops marched westwards, arriving in Baghdad in 1258.
Convinced that Baghdad would not fall to the invaders, the caliph at the time refused to yield to Hulagu Khan, the Mongol leader. And before long, the city was under siege. Within weeks, the eastern empire had conquered the city and slaughtered the head of the Islamic Empire. And with that, the golden age was over.
Despite its rather unceremonious ending, however, the Abbasid caliphate is considered one of the most influential to ever rule over the Islamic Empire. But even though it left a significant historical and cultural legacy behind, it remains an era that we know surprisingly little about. And for archaeologists, uncovering more about this fascinating period is a rare treat.
Over the years, a scattering of artifacts have offered clues to what life was like under the Abbasid caliphate. In 2018, for example, archaeologists in Jerusalem discovered a 1,000-year-old amulet buried beneath a parking lot. Likely designed to provide the wearer with protection, the artifact was forged from clay during the golden age of the Islamic Empire.
That same year, archaeologists also announced that they had uncovered evidence of the Abbasid glass industry in the Iraqi city of Samarra. However, relics from this prosperous era have generally been very few and far between. Which is what made it all the more exciting when, in August 2020, a group of teenagers stumbled upon an incredible find.
That month, archaeologists from the IAA were excavating a site at Yavneh, checking the earth for relics before the construction of a new community. In Israel, it is required by law to excavate historic locations before building work can start. And on this occasion, teenage volunteers from the Tarbut Movement were assisting with the dig.
An Israeli organization dedicated to social change, the Tarbut Movement promotes cultural activities for young people and adults around the country. In Yavneh, the teenagers were conducting archaeological work as a precursor to their compulsory military service, which typically lasts for at least two years. But what they uncovered turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime find.
One morning, two teenagers, Oz Cohen and Yuval Yaniz, arrived at the site in Yavneh, ready to get to work on the archaeological dig. And while they were excavating the ground, they spotted something sparkling beneath their feet. However, they did not immediately realize that they had stumbled across a priceless treasure.
“It was amazing,” Cohen told U.K. newspaper The Guardian in August 2020. “I dug into the ground and, when I excavated the soil, saw what looked like very thin leaves.” On closer inspection, however, the objects turned out to be an incredibly rare and valuable discovery: a cache of shimmering golden coins.
All in all, the team excavated some 425 coins from the site at Yavneh, each crafted from solid, 24-carat gold. And when experts examined the artifacts, they realized that they were minted by the Abbasid caliphate, some 1,100 years ago. According to IAA coin specialist Robert Kool, this makes them a unique discovery.
“This is one of the earliest known caches from this period (late ninth century A.D.) found in the country,” Kool explained in a statement released by the IAA in August 2020. In total, the coins weighed almost two pounds, making the hoard a valuable find in terms of monetary as well as historical value. In fact, the owner of the stash must have been very wealthy by Abbasid standards.
“For example, with such a sum a person could buy a luxurious house in Fustat, the enormous wealthy capital of Egypt in those days,” Kool explained. But how did such a valuable treasure end up buried and forgotten for hundreds of years? According to experts, the owner was likely hiding – rather than trying to dispose of – the hoard.
Reportedly, the coins were found stashed inside a jar made from clay, its lid sealed shut with a nail. And as such, archaeologists believe that the owner intended to return. In the statement, the IAA’s Eli Hadad and Liat Nadav-Ziv, who directed the dig, explained, “The man who planted his treasure 1,100 years ago must have expected to come back to get it.”
Something, then, must have prevented the coins’ owner from returning to retrieve them – although the archaeologists did not speculate on what that might have been. Seemingly forgotten, the treasure lay hidden beneath Yavneh for centuries, waiting to be uncovered. And because the metal used to forge the currency did not oxidize, the artifacts remained in perfect condition.
According to Haddad and Nadav-Ziv, such a discovery is considered very unusual. In the statement, they explained, “Finding gold coins, certainly in such a considerable quantity, is extremely rare. We almost never find them in archaeological excavations, given that gold has always been extremely valuable, melted down and reused from generation to generation.”
Interestingly, the hoard did not just consist of complete gold coins, also known as dinars. During the time of the Abbasid caliphate, experts believe, there was a shortage of currency made from less valuable material, such as copper and bronze. So people were forced to get creative when they wished to trade for smaller amounts – a practice that is evident in the Yavneh hoard.
“The hoard consists of full gold dinars, but also – what is unusual – contains about 270 small gold cuttings, pieces of gold dinars cut to serve as small change,” Kool explained in a separate statement. And that wasn’t the only unusual thing about the treasure trove found beneath Yavneh.
According to experts, one of the gold cuttings unearthed from the site was once part of a type of coin known as a solidus. Minted in the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Theophilus, the artifact is believed to date from between A.D. 829 and 842. And according to experts, nothing like it has ever been found in Israel before.
At the time that the solidus coin was minted, experts believe, the Byzantine Empire was a staunch rival of the Abbasid caliphate. However, this discovery suggests that the two civilizations were connected, exchanging currency through interactions such as trade and war. Considering that historians still understand little about this period in history, it’s a fascinating find.
In fact, Kool told The New York Times that the Abbasid era was one of Israel’s least-understood historical periods. But thanks to discoveries such as this one, that could all change. Speaking about the artifacts, the coin specialist explained, “You can read the name of the caliph in Baghdad. The name of the governor who rules in his name in Egypt is often included.”
Moving forward, experts hope that a closer study of the coins will yield even more details, such as the place and date of production. Meanwhile, Haddad and Nadav-Ziv revealed more about how the find might improve our understanding of the Abbasid era in Israel. And, in turn, uncover what life was like under this ancient empire.
“[The coins] may indicate that international trade took place between the residents of the region and remote areas,” Haddad and Nadav-Ziv explained in the statement from the IAA. Interestingly, it would not be the first time that an archaeological discovery has revealed more about Yavneh during the Abbasid era. In December 2019, for example, excavations in the city uncovered another cache of currency dating back to the great caliphate.
This time, the coins were of special interest because some had been issued during the reign of Haroun A-Rashid, the fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. Today, he is better known as one of the central characters in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of folkloric tales, which continues to resonate today.
But while historians have grown excited about the historical importance of such finds, the coins are also treasures in their own right. For example, the Abbasid hoard uncovered by Cohen and Yaniz is believed to be worth more than $52,000 in today’s money. Similarly, in 2015 divers discovered a huge stash of gold off the coast of Israel, which turned out to be worth around $240,000.
At the moment, it is unclear if any further excavations are set to take place at Yavneh before work begins on the new neighborhood. However, it seems certain that the teenagers involved in the excavation will not forget their experience in a hurry. Speaking to The Guardian, Cohen explained, “It was really exciting to find such a special and ancient treasure.” And given Israel’s age and rich history, it seems likely that there will be many more similar hoards waiting to be discovered.