The most precious relic preserved by the Byzantine church was the “True Cross”, claimed to be the actual cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Discovered in the 320s during the renovations of the pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem under Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the Cross had been venerated by generations of pilgrims by the seventh century. In 614 AD the unthinkable occurred: the Persians, in one of their periodic resurgences of military power, invaded the Byzantine East as avengers of the deposed and murdered emperor, Maurice Tiberius. They reached Jerusalem, besieged and took it, looting and pillaging the pilgrimage sites. As part of their triumph over the unbelieving (non-Zoroastrian) Christians they carried away the Cross to Ctesiphon: its capture was interpreted as a sign of Christ’s weakness against Ahura-Mazda.
The Cross remained in Persian hands for fourteen years. Meanwhile the emperor Heraclius, having disposed of the usurper Phocas, whose actions caused the problem, prepared his counterstrokes. In 628 AD his army, invading from Armenia, defeated and destroyed the Persian military might. Now the tables were turned; the Byzantines recovered what they had lost, with interest. The Cross was returned to its place of honor in Jerusalem. Tokens were issued as souvenirs of the celebrations accompanying the return of the Cross to Jerusalem in 630 AD. They are small clay or terracotta “medallions”, made by pressing a lump of clay into a (probably wooden) mould. It is said that a piece of the wood of the Cross was burned and the ash mixed with the clay; hence the tokens, themselves, became miniature reliquaries.
The tokens were produced in two main types. The classic design is the standard True Cross reliquary design: the Cross, with or without base, held by Constantine in imperial robes on the left side and Helena in robes and widow’s veil on the right. However, two subtypes are also known, one of which shows a Greek cross with the letters H N E I in the angles. Exactly what this Greek inscription means is not certain, though the most likely reading is ‘hn ei(dos)’, “behold the appearance (of the Cross)”.
N.B. Price is for each token. Pictures are for reference.