A Small Find with Major Significance – The Tyrian Shekel

by Rose Ginosar

Time in Jerusalem is magical.  It can shift and change and the small things we find can suddenly take us back to a different era and another time.  

This happened at the Tower of David a few weeks ago when we accidently rediscovered a treasure that had been hidden away for almost 40 years.  But 40 years is nothing when you realize that the treasure itself had been hidden for 2000 years!

First, let’s go back to the years after the Six Day War when archaeological excavations were conducted in the citadel of Jerusalem and many huge and exciting finds were uncovered that offered a unique glimpse into the past. 

Restoration of the Tower of David Museum – circa 1980
Restoration of the Tower of David Museum – circa 1980

Among the finds were two magnificent pools with seventeen massive stone hewn steps built by King Herod the Great; the city walls constructed by the Hasmoneans during the time of Judah Maccabee; the water cisterns dug during Roman-Byzantine times – all these and more were revealed. The ancient and important objects and areas were catalogued and displayed in the newly opened Tower of David Museum and are still seen by millions of visitors.  Sometimes though, the smallest finds are filed away and sometimes, even…. forgotten. And sometimes, the smallest finds are among the most powerful. 

The “First Wall” – Hasmonean City Wall | Photo: Hamutal Wachtal

The new conservation and renewal project at the Tower of David, which will result in a renewed museum and accessible site, was launched in 2020. With the beginning of the new renewal project, a team of researchers, archaeologists, conservators and curators assembled and began to reimagine the renewed museum.  As they cleared storerooms, preserved artifacts and excavated new areas, they found a small carton that had been set aside by the earlier archaeologists and somehow, left behind.  They were stunned by the contents. 

Current Excavation and Conservation at the Tower of David | Photo: Ricky Rachman

Among many small objects of different periods, they found one small silver coin.  One small silver coin, hidden for 2000 years, that symbolized one of the most glorious and most tragic periods of Jewish history.  The coin was the Tyrian Shekel.

The Tyrian shekels held a prominant position among the best known coins of the ancient world. From 125 BCE  to 70 CE they circulated extensively in the Middle East, mainly in the regions of Phoenicia, Galilee, Judea, Syria and Transjordan.   But what makes our story unique is that the Tyrian Shekel was also customarily used to pay a half shekel head-tax during the Second Temple period.

Tyrian Shekel found at the Tower of David

This tax has its origin in the Biblical Book of Exodus which commands the people of Israel, both rich and poor, to make a half shekel donation in the service of “the tent of meeting” – community worship.  When the Temple was being constructed, every Jew was commanded to make an obligatory donation of a half shekel towards the building.  When construction was completed, the Jews continued to pay the tax for the upkeep of the Temple and they paid this tax with Tyrian shekels.

Diorama of pilgrims going to worship at the Second Temple – Tower of David Museum

In fact, many interpretate the Jewish Mishna (code of laws), as stating that the tax had to be paid with Tyrian shekels, making all other currencies unacceptable.  The shekel had the head of the pagan god Melqarth on one side and an eagle on the other and contained at least 94 per cent silver.  Despite the fact that the coins were engraved with forbidden images, the rabbis appear to have concluded that the consistency of purity and weight of the Tyrian coin outweighed the prohibition on images. The coins were minted in Tyre between 125 BCE and 18 BCE but the demand for Tyrian shekels in Jerusalem was so high that the coins continued to be produced until the year 66 CE even after they were no longer minted in Tyre.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews from throughout the Roman Empire made yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, each paying a tax and boosting the economy of the city by perhaps half a million shekels annually.  Scholars believe that these later coins were actually minted in or near Jerusalem to meet the requirements for paying the tax. These coins were cruder than their forerunners but still containing the same weight and purity and so conformed to the rules of the Temple.  

In 66 CE, production of the coin stopped.  The year 66 has no known significance in the history of Tyre but, the year exactly coincides with the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt against Rome in Jerusalem. With full control of Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities changed the coin iconography to a Jewish coin and minted silver, Jewish coinage.  However, by the year 70, Roman troops broke through the walls of Jerusalem, sacked the city and destroyed the Temple. Not only was Jewish sovereignty and the Temple lost but the use of almost 200 years of Tyrian shekels in Jerusalem had ended.

Coin from the First Jewish Revolt –Year 2 | Courtesy of David Hendin

Which brings us back to our small coin. Was the coin dropped by a Jewish pilgrim passing by the palace on the way to give sacrifice at the Temple?  Is it part of the enormous revenues that Herod amassed from his taxation?   Was it left behind by a Roman soldier who plundered the Temple and stole the treasures?  We will probably never know how the coin ended up at the Tower of David but we do know much about its history and its significance to us then, and now.  This silver coin commemorates the beliefs and faith of the past and the heritage that continues to this day. It triggers our imaginations about what once was and helps us see the connections to our own times.  

When the renewed Tower of David museum opens in 2022, the coin will be part of the permanent exhibition, once again playing a role after being hidden for 2000 years.