antiquities down a dusty lane

Two years ago I wrote about Gaza’s antiquities, many of which were destroyed in the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza. But until a few months ago, I hadn’t had the privilege of seeing one of them.  Unexpectedly one day, while interviewing the Ministry of Agriculture on their many projects, I was taken by Tel Umm Amer,  an archaeological site preserving fantastic mosaics and the monastery of St. Hilarion (which I wrote about here, thanks to Abeer Jamal’s information):

Few outside of Gaza would consider its history much beyond the decades of Israeli occupation. But Gaza is a historical treasure house. Many of those treasures are now in Israeli museums, and those that remain are becoming difficult to preserve due to the Israeli siege. Gaza, set along the historical silk road and on the bridge between Africa and Asia, was host to civilisations, including the Pharaohs, Canaanites, Philistines, Crusaders, Mamluks, Romans and many following. Alexander the Great invaded Gaza; Napoleon Bonaparte passed through.

“Throughout Gaza, you find pottery and carved columns and capitals, and the remnants of civilisations past, including artifacts from early human presence like the iron and bronze ages,” says Asad Ashoor from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Gaza.

“There are visible relics in Gaza,” says Ashoor. These have survived civilisations and more recently, Israeli bombings.

In the Deir al Balah region, the vast excavated remains of the Monastery of Saint Hilarion, the first church in Palestine, include surprisingly intact floor mosaics and structural pillars.

Mosaics of great intricacy and surprisingly intact, given that so much in Gaza has been rendered rubble  by Israeli attacks.

One problem Abeer mentioned was the inability to protect these relics. In some places she said they’d resorted to simply covering up items with dirt anew in their efforts to preserve them. But areas like St. Hilarion’s ruins are open and being excavated, though an Israeli attack could at any moment erase more of Palestine’s rich history.

Among the attempts to provide some protection, Asad Ashoor from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Gaza says they’ve contacted UNESCO which has “refused to address” archaeological relics from Gaza.

Even though I had written about Gaza’s antiquities, it was strange to travel down Gaza’s worn out main highway Salah el Din, onto ruddy backgrounds, past donkeys and their carts, and arrive in a dusty field, beside which is the archaeological site.  Hidden in plain view.

We ended at the Pasha Palace, a place I had been before, but never inside.  The museum guide was keen to tell me every detail of history, but time wouldn’t allow it, so she shuttled me from room to room to room of antiquities, from wine urns to jewelery to old Palestinian coins.

*examples of Palestinian coins, photo taken at the home of a friend from Attatra

Abeer and Asad Ahoor a couple of years ago had told me about the difficulties in keeping these relics in good shape.

She said they have: a lack of specialised equipment and preservation chemicals needed to excavate and maintain relics. “We urgently need materials, particularly for cleaning and maintaining artifacts.”

“The occupation and siege prevents not only Devcon and Ethanol, the chemicals we need for maintaining our relics, but also outside expertise to help in excavation and restoration,” said Ashoor.

The museum itself is an amazing building, with various uses over its history, including a prison, school, and apparently hosted Napoleon for a night.

It would be brimming with artifacts, had many not been destroyed and many more not been, as Jammal says, taken by the Israeli occupation. She told me:

Most international visitors that enter Gaza enter via Erez and are given by the Israelis “a tourist guide to Israeli territory.”

Gerald Butt, an historian, also eludes to that in his book, “Life at the crossroads: A History of Gaza”:

The Israel Museum has among its collection a broad-based painted chalice taken from Tell al-Ajjul, [one of Gaza’s most important archeological sites]. Pottery manufactured by the Philistines during this period can be seen in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem [he notes that Philistine artifacts were largely unearthed in the Wadi Gaza region].

Asad Ashoor had pointed out that he’s pretty sure Israel’s actions in stealing Palestinian relics and whenever possible destroying historical sites is intentional.

Israel’s goal is a blackout on Palestine’s history and culture. Israel wants outsiders to think only that Gaza is a depressing, dangerous place devoid of culture, history and beauty, and that the main theme here is humanitarian aid.

He’s right in a way; many people only think of the crowded, under-serviced refugee camps and the still-in-ruins areas ravaged by the last Israeli war on Gaza.  But more people are becoming aware of Gaza, Palestine’s rich culture, history, and beauty, and the living witnesses to Israel’s Nakba and continuous, terrorist bombing campaigns, who will never allow the world to forget Palestine’s history.

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