JABALIA, Palestinian Territories: The story goes like this: At the end of January, workers are toiling on a construction site in the Gaza Strip when Ahmad, a guard, sees a strange piece of stone emerging from the ground, a remnant of a Roman necropolis dating back 2,000 years.
“I thought it was a tunnel”, as the Islamist fighters of Hamas are digging through this Palestinian territory in an attempt to thwart the Israeli army, launches the young man on the outskirts of this new archaeological site born from a strange sequence of circumstances.
After the last war between Israel and Hamas, in May 2021, Egypt financed the reconstruction of part of Gaza, an enclave of 2.3 million inhabitants under Israeli blockade for 15 years now.
In Jabalia, in the north of the territory, Egyptian bulldozers were digging the sandy earth to erect new concrete buildings for homeless Gazans, when Ahmad saw strange stones emerging from the ground.
“I alerted the Egyptian foremen, who immediately contacted the local authorities and asked the workers to stop (the work)”, says this Palestinian who prefers not to give his full name.
The rumor of a great discovery circulates. On social networks, Palestinians post photos of the site. Under pressure, the Antiquities Service of Gaza contacted the teams of the French NGO Première Urgence Internationale and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem (Ebaf).
Mission of these adventurers of the lost arks? Quickly assess the importance of the site, delimit it, to possibly protect it. A few days later, the team led by the French archaeologist René Elter disembarks to discover a Roman necropolis lost for centuries in the bowels of Gaza.
“The first works have identified around forty tombs dating from the ancient Roman period between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD”, explains the archaeologist to AFP.
“The necropolis is larger than these 40 tombs and must have between 80 and 100”, he estimates, noting having discovered a tomb decorated with “polychrome paintings representing crowns and garlands of laurel leaves” and ” jars intended for funerary libations”.
This necropolis was adjacent to the Roman city of Anthedon, the second port of Gaza at the time, on the road to Ascalon, which is today the Israeli city of Ashkelon, located at the exit of the Palestinian enclave.
“Treasures” of Gaza
In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, archeology is a highly political subject, many discoveries having been exploited to justify the claims of each of the peoples.
If the Jewish state has an arsenal of archaeologists who account for an impressive number of ancient treasures, this sector remains largely fallow in Gaza.
“Yet there are no differences between what you can find in Gaza and on the other side of the fence, it’s the same big story,” Elter said. “In Gaza, many sites have disappeared due to the conflict and construction sites, but the territory is a huge archaeological site that requires many teams of experts.”
Stakes and fences have been planted around the Roman necropolis, constantly monitored by guards while workers continue to push the concrete floors into nearby buildings under construction.
“We are trying to fight against the trafficking of antiquities”, explains Jamal Abou Rida, director of the local archaeological services which ensure the protection of the necropolis until January 2023, hoping to find donors to finance the excavations.
In Gaza, the population is more accustomed to burying the dead than digging them up. Since Hamas took control in June 2007, this impoverished micro-territory has experienced four wars and repeated tensions.
“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 Abou Hassan, local director of the NGO Première Urgence.
Another important challenge in Gaza: demographic pressure. In 15 years, the population in this territory of barely 362 km2 has increased from 1.4 to 2.3 million inhabitants, hence the frantic construction of new buildings.
“Some avoid reporting to the authorities if there is an archaeological discovery on a construction site for fear of not being compensated” in the event of a stoppage of work, explains Mr. Abou Hassan. Result: “we are losing archaeological sites every day”, hence the importance of a “heritage defense strategy” to preserve history and train local archaeologists, he underlines.
Over the past few years, his NGO has helped train 84 archeology technicians in order to prepare the next generation and offer job prospects when unemployment exceeds 60% among young people.
Stones vs. stones
One of the rare successes in this area is the preservation of the Byzantine monastery of Saint-Hilarion, the largest in the Near East, where archaeologists have identified an atrium, baths and a large ecclesiastical complex, including four superimposed churches.
Open to the public for a few years, this site bears witness to the time when Gaza was a land of passage, pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean stopping there on their way to the monasteries of Egyptian Sinai or Jerusalem.
“We receive around 14,000 visitors a year, including schoolchildren,” says Palestinian archaeologist Fadel al-Otol, 41, who fell in love with ancient ruins as a teenager while squatting a site at the foot of a refugee camp before furthering his research in France.
“As a child, during the Intifada, I was looking for stones to throw at the (Israeli) soldiers. Today, I am looking for stones to prove to the soldiers that we have a great history”, he says while strolling on the Saint-Hilarion site.
And there Fadel, what are you dreaming about? “That we do all the excavations at all the sites in Gaza and that they are all accessible to the public, in order to show the history and the culture of Gaza to the whole world (…) because if nothing is done with the sites will disappear forever”.
We want to thank the author of this short article for this awesome material
Record for a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Warhol, 195 million dollars at auction