While workers were working on a large construction site in the Gaza Strip, a security guard noticed a strange piece of stone sticking out of the ground.
“I thought it was a tunnel,” said Ahmad, the young guard, referring to the secret passageways 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 used to burying the dead than digging up their heritage.
But what Ahmad discovered in January was part of a Roman necropolis dating from around 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 in May 2021 left a trail of damage in Gaza, Egypt launched a reconstruction initiative worth $500 million.
As part of this project in Jabaliya, north of the coastal enclave, bulldozers were digging the sandy soil to build new concrete buildings when Ahmad made his discovery.
“I notified the Egyptian foremen, who immediately contacted the local authorities and asked the workers to stop,” said Ahmad, a Palestinian who preferred not to give his full name.
With rumors on social media of a big find, the Gaza Antiquities Service called on the French non-governmental group Première Urgence Internationale and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to assess the significance of the site and delineate The area.
“Initial excavations identified around 40 tombs dating from the ancient Roman period between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD,” said French archaeologist Rene Elter, who led the team dispatched to Jabaliya.
“The necropolis is larger than these 40 tombs and should have between 80 and 100,” he said.
One of the burial sites found so far is decorated with multicolored paintings depicting laurel leaf wreaths and garlands, as well as jars for burial drinks, the archaeologist added.
“Treasures” of Gaza
Archeology is a highly political subject in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the finds are used to justify the territorial claims of each people.
While the Jewish state has a number of archaeologists who report on an impressive array of ancient treasures, the sector is largely overlooked in Gaza.
The authorities periodically announce discoveries in the territory, but tourism at the archaeological sites is limited.
Israel and Egypt, which share a border with Gaza, have strictly restricted the flow of people into and out of the Hamas-administered enclave since 2007.
“However, there is no difference between what you can find in Gaza and on the other side of the fence” in Israel, Elter said. “It’s the same big story.”
“In Gaza, many sites have disappeared due to conflict and construction, but the territory is a huge archaeological site that needs many teams of experts,” he added.
Pickets and fences have been erected around the Roman necropolis, which is constantly monitored by guards as new buildings are constructed nearby.
“We are trying to fight antiquities trafficking,” said Jamal Abu Rida, director of the local archaeological service responsible for protecting the necropolis and who hopes to find investors for new excavations.
Since Hamas took control 15 years ago, Gaza has endured four wars and numerous escalations of tension.
“Gaza’s image is often associated with violence, but its history is full of archaeological treasures that must be protected for future generations,” said Jihad Abu Hassan, director of the local Première Urgence mission.
Demographics add to the pressure.
Gaza is a tiny, overpopulated strip of land whose population has grown in 15 years from 1.4 million to 2.3 million. As a result, the construction of buildings accelerated.
“Some people avoid telling authorities if there is an archaeological find at a construction site for fear of not being compensated” for the resulting work stoppage, Abu Hassan said.
“We are losing archaeological sites every day,” which shows the need for a strategy to defend the enclave’s heritage, including training local archaeologists, he said.
In recent years, his organization has contributed to the training of 84 archaeological technicians. It also offers job prospects, in an impoverished territory where youth unemployment exceeds 60%.
Always looking for stones
One of the rare successes is the preservation of the Byzantine monastery of Saint Hilarion.
It opened several years ago to the public and includes an atrium, baths and several churches, bearing witness to a time when Gaza was a crossroads for Mediterranean pilgrims.
“We get around 14,000 visitors a year, including schoolchildren,” said Fadel al-Otol, 41, a Palestinian archaeologist whose early passion for ancient ruins was formalized through 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 am looking for stones to prove to the military that we have a great history,” he said.
Wandering around the Saint Hilarion site, Otol reflected on his dream: “That we excavate all the archaeological sites in Gaza and make them accessible to the public to show our history and culture to the world.
If nothing is done, he says, “the sites would disappear forever”.
Gaza construction workers uncover 31 Roman-era tombs
© 2022 AFP
Quote: Rich Heritage Buried Beneath Impoverished Gaza (2022, June 26) Retrieved June 26, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-rich-heritage-impoverished-gaza.html
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