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Rich heritage buried under the impoverished Gaza Strip

#Rich #heritage #buried #impoverished #Gaza #Strip

While workers were working on a major construction site in the Gaza Strip, a security guard noticed a strange piece of rock sticking out of the ground.

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

In the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas and ravaged by war, people are more comfortable burying the dead than digging up their inheritance.

But what Ahmad found in January was part of a roughly 2,000-year-old Roman necropolis — representative of the rich, if underdeveloped, archaeological treasures of impoverished Palestinian territory.

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

As part of this project in Jabaliya, north of the coastal enclave, bulldozers were excavating 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.

Amid rumors of a major discovery on social media, the Gaza Antiquities Service called in the French NGO Premiere Urgence Internationale and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to assess the site’s importance and delineate the area.

“The initial excavations enabled 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 tombs and should have between 80 and 100,” he said.

One of the burial sites found so far is decorated with multi-colored paintings depicting crowns and garlands of laurel leaves, as well as vessels for mourning drinks, the archaeologist added.

– ‘Treasures’ of Gaza –

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

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

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

Israel and Egypt, which share a border with Gaza, have severely restricted the flow of people in and out of the Hamas-administered enclave since 2007.

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

“In Gaza, many sites have disappeared due to conflict and construction, but the area is a huge archaeological site that needs many expert teams,” he added.

Stakes and fences have been erected around the Roman necropolis, which is constantly guarded by guards while new buildings are constructed nearby.

“We’re trying to fight the antiquities trade,” said Jamal Abu Rida, director of the local archaeological service tasked with protecting the necropolis and hoping to find investors for further excavations.

Since Hamas took control 15 years ago, Gaza has seen four wars and numerous escalations of tension.

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

Demographic factors add to the pressure.

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

“Some people avoid telling the authorities when there is an archaeological discovery at a construction site for fear of not being compensated,” 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. It also offers employment prospects in an impoverished area where youth unemployment exceeds 60 percent.

– Still chasing stones –

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

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

“We receive about 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 chased rocks to hurl them at Israeli soldiers.

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

As he wandered the site of Saint Hilarion, Otol reflected on his dream: “That we will excavate all of Gaza’s archaeological sites and that they will be open to the public to show our history and culture to the whole world.”

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

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#Rich #heritage #buried #impoverished #Gaza #Strip

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