An ancient coin as a source for the history of Gaza City

By Stefan Krmnicek

In our series on ancient coins, an ancient coinage from Gaza City in the coin collection of the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Tübingen is presented in more detail today. Gaza City was one of the most important port cities in the region in antiquity and was conveniently located as the end point of the trade routes for the incense trade from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. The importance of the city is also underlined by the famous mosaic in the Church of St George in Madaba (Jordan), the oldest surviving cartographic representation of ancient Palestine. Dating to the 6th century AD, the mosaic shows Gaza as the second largest city in the region after Jerusalem, with public squares, a theatre, porticoes and a church.

Today, Gaza City is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. Well over 590,000 people live in just 45 square kilometres (Tübingen has 98,000 inhabitants in 108 square kilometres). It is therefore not surprising that archaeological investigations are hardly possible in the densely populated urban area and that we accordingly know little about the appearance of the city 2000 years ago. A special source for the city’s history, however, can be the images on the coins minted locally in Roman times. This is also the case with the present coin.

Rückseite einer Bronzemünze aus Gaza-Stadt aus dem Jahr 131/132 n. Chr., Tüb. Inv. Slg. Müller 1007. Foto: Stefan Krmnicek, Universität Tübingen.

The obverse shows the portrait of the Roman Emperor Hadrian with cuirass, cloak and laurel wreath in his hair facing right. Around the image of the bearded emperor runs an inscription. Although only a few letters can be made out, we can reconstruct the ancient Greek legend in its entirety. It names Emperor Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 117-138 AD. On the reverse of the coin we see a temple with two columns and a pointed pediment. Two figures are standing inside it facing each other. The figure on the left with bow, arrow and quiver and short robe is Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. Opposite her is a naked man who is also holding something in his hands, perhaps a bow. Below the depiction of the temple is the date of the minting in ancient Greek and one Phoenician letter. Around the image runs the legend ΓΑΖΑ (Gaza) ΜΑΡΝΑϹ (Marnas) in ancient Greek letters. With the naming of the city of Gaza, it is thus clear that we are looking at a coin from Gaza during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian from the year 131/132 AD, which shows an ancient temple on the reverse depicting the goddess of the hunt and another figure.

So far so good. But who is the other figure in the temple and why is this so important to the history of Gaza City? The figure is the cult image of the god Zeus Marnas; his name is also mentioned on the reverse of the coin. Zeus Marnas was not only a locally worshipped god of fertility and oracles – it was the most important religious cult in ancient Gaza. His sanctuary, the Marneion, was the largest and most magnificent temple in the city. The construction of the temple probably dates back to a visit by the Emperor Hadrian to Gaza in 129/130 AD. For this reason, immediately after the emperor’s stay in the city and after the construction of the sanctuary had begun, Gaza proudly displayed the image of the temple on its coins.

Unfortunately, no archaeological remains are known of what was once the largest and most important pagan cult building in Roman Gaza. With the biography of Porphyrios, the bishop of Gaza who was active around 400 AD, we possess a written source that only reports on the end of the temple. Under the leadership of Porphyrios, a church is said to have been built over the remains of the Marneion. Presumably, a mosque – the forerunner of today’s Great Mosque of Gaza – was built on the site of this church with the Islamic takeover of the land. The only reliable and thus most important source on the temple of Zeus Marnas and its significance for ancient Gaza City are therefore the coin images.

Those who are more interested in such exciting stories can view ancient coins from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in the Museum of Ancient Cultures of the University of Tübingen at Hohentübingen Castle. The present coin can also be admired virtually in times of corona and closed museums or for all interested people outside Tübingen free of charge at https://www.ikmk.uni-tuebingen.de/object?id=ID3260 in the Digital Coin Cabinet of the Institute for Classical Archaeology.

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Vorderseite einer Bronzemünze aus Gaza-Stadt aus dem Jahr 131/132 n. Chr., Tüb. Inv. Slg. Müller 1007. Foto: Stefan Krmnicek, Universität Tübingen.

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