Tag Archives: Great Revolt

Silver shekel coins

The silver shekel and half shekel are significant coins for both Jews and Christians as they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew word shekel refers to weight (a shekel is 11 grams or .35 troy ounces) or currency, in fact, it has the same root as the Hebrew to weigh, שקל. In practice, the weight fluctuated between 9 and 17 grams depending on the issuing government, location and time period.

Tyrian shekel

Obverse: Melkart/BaalHerakles. Reverse: Eagle on a ship’s rudder, Greek inscription “Tyre the Holy and Inviolable”

Although independent during the Hasmonean period (from 167 BCE), the Jews had no silver coins of their own and from circa 126 BCE – 66 CE relied on coins issued by the Phoenician city of Tyre. These coins, produced in large quantities, became the standard silver coinage in the areas of Phoenicia and Judaea, replacing the coins of Alexander the Great. The obverse features the representation of Melkart (Baal), the chief diety of the Phoenicians. The reverse shows an Egyptian-style eagle with its right claw resting on a ship’s rudder (referring to Tyre’s port), a club (Melkart is associated with Hercules), the Greek inscription “Tyre the Holy and Inviolable” and a date. The number on the coin is a Greek letter that is added to 126 BCE, Tyre’s independence from Syria, to give the date.

All  Judaean taxes were specified in shekels, for example, the annual Temple Tax for males over 20 was a half shekel. The Jewish leadership decided that the Tyrian coins were plentiful and of good silver quality, and so they prescribed that the various Judaean taxes would be accepted only in Tyrian coins even though the images on the coins went against the prohibitions of the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

In the New Testament there is the story of how Jesus and Peter paid the Temple Tax (of a ½ shekel) using a shekel coin. “Go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money. That take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matthew 17:27). When “Jesus went into the temple of God, and … overthrew the tables of the moneychangers” (Matthew 21:12), he was angry with those who exchanged the local currency for silver Tyrian shekels at exorbitant rates. When Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to the soldiers “they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver” (Matthew 26:15).

The mint in Tyre produced Tyrian Shekels and half shekels, of 95% silver purity, between the years 127 BCE and 19 BCE when Rome closed the mint in Tyre (this according to scholar and numismatic expert Yaakov Meshorer). Rome began to import an inferior silver coinage from the Far East consisting of 80% pure silver – because of this the coins did not have enough silver to make them a half shekel (of weight) so they were not useable to fulfill the commandment.

The Rabbis appealed to the Emperor for permission to produce a ceremonial coin of sufficient purity to fulfil their religious obligations. They received special dispensation on condition that they continue with the motif of the Tyrian Shekel, so as not to arouse objections within the Roman Empire that the Jews were granted “autonomy” to mint their own coins. These coins were inscribed with the letters KP to the right of the eagle, are dated 18 BCE – 66 CE and were minted in Jerusalem.

Coin issued by Jewish rebels in 68 CE Obverse: Chalice “Shekel, Israel. Year 3”. Reverse: 3 pomegranates “Jerusalem the Holy”

With the beginning of the First Revolt against Rome in 66 CE, the Jews began to mint their own silver coins for the first time to demonstrate sovereignty over their own country. These coins had Jewish symbols, chalice that was the measure of the omer and three pomegranate buds (one of 7 species) and Paleo-Hebrew text, struck over the Tyrian shekels from the Temple. With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE the minting of these coins was discontinued.

Coin issued by Jewish rebels in 135CE Obverse: Star above facade of Temple showing Ark of Covenant “Shimon”. Reverse: Lulav/palm branch & etrog “For freedom of Jerusalem”

During the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) against Rome, the last Jewish coins in antiquity wer issued. On the obverse, the name Shimon in Paleo-Hebrew, the first name of Shimon Ben Kosiba, the leader of the revolt; the star above the image of the Temple refers to the name given to him by Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kochba, son of a star. The silver coins were overstruck on the Roman provincial tetradrachms (mainly from Antioch).

Since 1980, the shekel has been the currency of the modern state of Israel, first the Israeli shekel which due to high inflation in the 1980s was devalued at a ratio of 1000:1 to become in 1986 a New Israeli Shekel (US $1=~3.5₪) in use to this day.

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Tour of Herodium and Herod’s Tomb

herodium mountain top palace fortress panorama

Panoramic view looking down into Herod’s palace-fortress

A guided tour of an archaeological site like Herodium can be a unique birthday present for a friend or family member. It was a hot and sunny day but there was a cool breeze on the mountaintop and you could understand one reason why Herod would have chosen this site.

When I guide Herodium I often start in the Old City to show people the remains of the buildings at the Wohl museum and the stones of the walls and streets from the Herodion period along the western wall below Robinson’s Arch. Also, the Herodion stones forming the base of the tower at the Roman Gate are impressive. Seeing examples of Herod’s architecture help people know what to look for when we get to Herodium.

Last summer, I participated for a few days in the latest excavations that Ehud Netzer is leading on the eastern side of the mountain, excavating the tomb area. We were working on the pool and besides many pottery shards we found some catapult stones (size of snowballs, not to be confused with the larger ones rolled down from the walls by the Jewish rebels) and some coins from the Great Revolt.

Excavations are continuing and they’ve excavated a much larger area now. More of the base of the mausoleum is now exposed. Additional stone architectural details of a very high quality can be seen. These are not of the local soft limestone but a more royal stone, called meleke, that would have been quarried some distance away and brought here. Netzer thinks that the base supported a nefesh or monument, cylindrical in shape, something like Yad Avshalom in the Kidron Valley.

Tomb area at HerodiumThe latest findings are changing our understanding of Herodium. For example, it seems that the earth that was piled up around the mountain palace/fortress is not from the time of Herod but later. Originally, there was a glacis, a sloping wall, that circumvented the mountain.

Glacis at Herodium

Also, the archaeological evidence suggests that the staircase that is described by Josephus “and provided an easy ascent by two hundred steps of the purest white marble” was built later, that originally there was a “snake path” like at Masada. Archaeologists are left with some interesting unanswered questions: When was it done, why and by whom?

I’ve uploaded additional photographs of Herodium to Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/27944012@N06/sets/72157615671440473/

Gamla, in the Golan

On a recent guiding trip we visited Gamla (from the Hebrew for camel/gamal), city in the Golan where there was fierce fighting between the Jews and Romans under Vespasian during the Great Revolt in 66CE, during which the city was destroyed and 9,000 people lost their lives. Today Griffin vultures make their home in the canyon and soar overhead. The flowers in the foreground are cyclamen (Hebrew rakefet).

I guided for an extended family of 8 (both sets of grandparents, parents and children, 11 and 13) for 5 days.
“A million thanks for being a great guide. Your high energy but mellow demeanor was perfect for our group and your deep historical knowledge kept it all interesting and in context for us.”
Here’s a copy of our itinerary:
Tuesday – Galil
  • aquaduct at Caesarea
  • Tsippori, Jewish village, mosaics, did not participate in Roman Revolt
  • Hamat Tiberia, hot springs and mosaic floor of 4th C synagogue

Wednesday – Golan

  • Gamla, Jewish town that fought and was destroyed by Vespasian
  • wind turbines providing alternative energy to Golan
  • Mount Bental, Israeli bunkers, 1973
  • lunch at Witch and Milkman mountaintop restaurant at Nimrod
  • Birkat Ram, crater lake, extinct volcano
Thursday – Rift valley to Jerusalem
  • Island of Peace, Rutenberg hydroelectric plant (1927-1948 )
  • Old Gesher
  • Belvoir Crusader castle “nest of eagles and dwelling place of the moon”
  • Judean desert, Wadi Qelt
  • Western Wall tunnel
Friday – Old City
  • American Colony (hotel where they were staying)
  • Hurva synagogue
  • Cardo and Madaba map
  • Herodion Quarter
Sunday – Around Jerusalem
  • Jerusalem envelope – the separation wall
  • water system, Armon HaNatziv
  • Peace Forest, Ramat Rahel
  • Herodium
  • Yad Vashem
  • Mahane Yehuda