Gold coins give new insights into the Byzantine Golan
While conducting a salvage excavation at the Banias Nature Reserve, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) discovered a Roman coin hoard dating to the final years of Byzantine control in the southern Levant. The hoard consists of 44 pure gold coins minted under the Byzantine emperors Phocas (r. 602–610 C.E.) and Heraclius (r. 610–641 C.E.). Although an incredible discovery on their own, the coins also help illuminate the transition from Christian to Islamic rule at Banias (biblical Caesarea Philippi).
Concealed within the base of a stone wall, the Roman coin hoard was likely hidden for safekeeping before its Byzantine owner fled the city in the face of the advancing Arab forces who conquered the region in 635 C.E. According to excavation director Yoav Lerer, “The discovery reflects a specific moment in time when we can imagine the owner concealing his fortune in the threat of war, hoping to return one day to retrieve his property. In retrospect, we know that he was less fortunate.” The sheer quantity and quality of the gold, weighing approximately 6 ounces, also sheds light on the economy of the city in the final years of Byzantine control.
Of the 44 coins, most date to the reign of Emperor Heraclius, who spent much of his reign fighting against the Sasanian Persians and Arab forces. During this time, the Levant and Egypt changed hands between the three powers several times, before finally being taken by the recently united Arab campaign. Despite his losses, Heraclius is remembered as a successful emperor who reorganized the Byzantine government following the chaotic reign of Emperor Phocas.
The coins minted under Heraclius are interesting for another reason as well. According to IAA numismatist Gabriela Bijovsky, in Heraclius’s early years as emperor, “only his portrait was depicted on the coin, whereas after a short time, the images of his sons also appear. One can actually follow his sons growing up—from childhood until their image appears the same size as their father, who is depicted with a long beard.”
The Roman coin hoard was discovered by excavators in the northwest residential quarter of the ancient city of Banias, along with the remains of buildings, water pipes, a pottery kiln, bronze coins, and fragments of ceramic, glass, and metal artifacts. While the other finds date from the seventh to 13th centuries, the hoarded coins all date to the early seventh century, a time when the Byzantine Empire still controlled the region.
According to IAA Director-General Eli Eskosido, “The coin hoard is an extremely significant archaeological find as it dates to an important transitional period in the history of the city of Banias and the entire region of the Levant.”
The area around the natural spring at Banias was first settled by the Canaanites who built a temple to Baal at the site. During the Hellenistic period (c. 332–37 B.C.E.), the site and its spring became associated with Pan, the Greek god of the wild, from whence it received its Greek name, Panias. During the early Roman period, the site was greatly expanded under Herod the Great, who built a palace and temple there. His son, Philip II, entirely rebuilt the city and renamed it Caesarea Philippi in honor of Emperor Augustus.
According to Christian tradition, Banias was the site where the Apostle Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah and received the keys to heaven and hell (Matthew 16:13–17). In the Byzantine period (c. 324–634 C.E.) a large church was built near the spring, possibly associated with the events mentioned in Matthew.
The archaeological site of Banias, where the Roman coin hoard was found, is now part of the Hermon River (Banias) Nature Reserve. According to Raya Shurky, Director of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, “The Banias Nature Reserve, endowed with its unique nature and landscape, does not cease to surprise us from a historical-cultural point of view. The gold coin hoard is on a par with the Byzantine Church, possibly the Church of St. Peter, that was recently discovered.”
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