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Rich heritage buried under impoverished Gaza Strip

The Saint Hilarion Monastery is one of the heritage sites in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian area where wealthy albeit underdeveloped

The Saint Hilarion Monastery is one of the heritage sites in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory with rich, if underdeveloped, archaeological treasures.

While workers were working at a large construction site in the Gaza Strip, a guard saw a strange piece of rock sticking out of the earth.

“I thought it was a tunnel,” said Ahmad, the young guard, referring to secret passages dug by the Islamist group Hamas to help it fight Israel.

In the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas and repeatedly ravaged by war, people are more familiar with burying the dead than digging up their heritage.

But what Ahmad found in January was part of a Roman necropolis from about 2,000 years ago — representative of the rich, if underdeveloped, archaeological treasures of the impoverished Palestinian territory.

After the latest war between Israel and Hamas left a trail of damage in Gaza in May 2021, Egypt embarked on a $500 million reconstruction initiative.

As part of that project in Jabaliya, in the north of the coastal enclave, bulldozers were excavating the sandy soil to build new concrete buildings when Ahmad made his discovery.

“I informed Egyptian foremen, who immediately contacted local authorities and asked the workers to stop,” said Ahmad, a Palestinian who preferred not to give his full name.

With social media rumors of a major discovery, Gaza’s antiquities agency enlisted the French non-governmental group Premiere Urgence Internationale and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to evaluate the site’s importance and demarcate the area.

The latest war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 has left a trail of damage in the overpopulated Gaza Strip, whose population has grown in 15 years.

The latest war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 left a trail of damage in the overpopulated Gaza Strip, whose population has risen from 1.4 million to 2.3 million in 15 years.

“The first excavations allowed the identification of about 40 tombs from the ancient Roman period between the first and second centuries AD,” said French archaeologist Rene Elter, who led the team sent to Jabaliya.

“The necropolis is larger than these 40 graves and should have between 80 and 100,” he said.

One of the burial grounds found so far is decorated with multicolored paintings depicting crowns and garlands of laurel leaves, as well as jars for burial potions, the archaeologist added.

‘Treasures’ of Gaza

Archeology is a highly political subject in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and discoveries are used to justify the territorial claims of each people.

While the Jewish state has a number of archaeologists reporting on an impressive number of ancient treasures, the sector in Gaza is largely neglected.

Authorities regularly announce discoveries in the area, but tourism at archaeological sites is limited.

The Archaeological Site of Saint Hilarion in the Gaza Strip.  Gaza authorities periodically announce discoveries in the coastal zone

The Archaeological Site of Saint Hilarion in the Gaza Strip. Authorities in Gaza periodically announce discoveries in the coastal enclave, but tourism at archaeological sites is limited.

Israel and Egypt, which share a border with Gaza, are severely restricting the flow of people in and out of the enclave, which has been administered by Hamas since 2007.

“However, there is no difference between what you can find in Gaza and on the other side of the barrier” in Israel, Elter said. “It’s the same great history.”

“In Gaza, many sites have disappeared due to conflict and construction, but the area is an immense archaeological site that needs many teams of experts,” he added.

Poles and fences have been placed around the Roman necropolis, which is constantly guarded by guards as new buildings come close.

“We are trying to fight the trade in antiquities,” said Jamal Abu Rida, director of the local archaeological department in charge of protecting the necropolis and hoping to find investors for further excavations.

Since Hamas took power 15 years ago, Gaza has endured four wars and countless escalations of tension.

“The image of Gaza is often associated with violence, but its history is bursting with archaeological treasures that must be protected for future generations,” said Jihad Abu Hassan, director of the local Premiere Urgence mission.

Since Hamas took power 15 years ago, Gaza has endured four wars and countless escalations of tensions

Since Hamas took power 15 years ago, Gaza has endured four wars and countless escalations of tension.

Demographics increase the pressure.

Gaza is a small, overpopulated strip of land whose population has grown from 1.4 million to 2.3 million in 15 years. As a result, construction has accelerated.

“Some people avoid telling authorities if there is an archaeological find on a construction site for fear of not being compensated” for the resulting work stoppage, Abu Hassan said.

“We are losing archaeological sites every day,” demonstrating the need for a strategy to defend the enclave’s heritage, including training local archaeologists, he said.

In recent years, his organization has helped train 84 archaeological technicians. This also offers job opportunities, in an impoverished area where youth unemployment is over 60 percent.

Still chasing stones

A rare success is the preservation of the Byzantine monastery of Saint Hilarion.

The archaeological site of Saint Hilarion includes an atrium, baths and multiple churches - a testament to an era when Gaza was a

The archaeological site of Saint Hilarion includes an atrium, baths and multiple churches – a testament to an era when Gaza was a crossroads for Mediterranean pilgrims.

Opened to the public several years ago, it includes an atrium, baths and multiple churches, testifying to an era when Gaza was a crossroads for Mediterranean pilgrims.

“We receive about 14,000 visitors a year, including school students,” said Fadel al-Otol, 41, a Palestinian archaeologist whose early passion for ancient ruins was formalized with training in France.

As a child during the first Palestinian intifida, or uprising, Otol said he hunted stones to throw at Israeli soldiers.

“Today I’m looking for stones to prove to the military that we have a great history,” he said.

While wandering the site of Saint Hilarion, Otol reflected on his dream: “That we excavate all the archaeological sites of Gaza and that they be accessible to the public to show our history and culture to the whole world.”

If nothing is done, he said, “the sites would disappear forever.”


Gaza construction workers find 31 Roman graves


© 2022 AFP

Quote: Rich Heritage Buried Under the Impoverished Gaza Strip (2022, June 26) Recovered June 26, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-rich-heritage-impoverished-gaza.html

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