Palestinians overcome hurdles to unearth ancient treasures in Gaza

A few meters from the Mediterranean coast, archaeologists from Gaza unearth ancient wonders in the Palestinian enclave.

“There is a saying that Gaza is above the treasure,” said Nemaa El Sawarka, a guide and archaeologist working at Saint Hilarion Monastery.

The monastery south of Gaza City is considered one of the largest finds in the Middle East.

As students stroll around the site, admiring the baths and mosaics, Ms. El Sawarka laments the lack of awareness among Gazans of their rich heritage.

There are many sites to discover but the Palestinians do not have the means to make the most of them

René Elter, archaeologist and scientific director of the Saint Hilarion restoration project

“People come to me without knowing this place,” she said, alongside a collection of numbered mosaic fragments.

“They talk about the stones and that this place is Christian, but we say it’s our heritage,” Ms El Sawarka said.

About 1,500 Gazans visit Saint Hilarion each week, staff say, a significant increase since before the pandemic when only 1,000 people visited the site each month.

Dating from the 4th century AD, it has a crypt and quarters where pilgrims stayed.

Gaza’s antiquities bear witness to the rulers who claimed the eastern Mediterranean in centuries past, but preserving such heritage is proving difficult.

The Palestinian territory has been under an Israeli-led blockade for 15 years and the entry of goods and people is strictly controlled.

Rene Elter, archaeologist and scientific director of the Saint Hilarion Restoration Project, said the team had been hampered by border restrictions.

“To complete the strengthening and restoration of the crypt, we had to make 3,000 blocks,” he said, of cut stones to recreate the vaulted ceiling that stood centuries ago.

“These tools exist in the West Bank. In Gaza, they don’t exist; there is no tradition of stone cutting in Gaza.

“It was impossible to import mechanical tools into Gaza, to cut stone, so what did we do? We have adapted. We made the tools ourselves.”

While huge parts of the site have been excavated since the monastery was discovered in the 1990s, some areas have not been recovered due to lack of resources.

Next to the baths, a striking mosaic stands under a roof, protecting the panoply of animals delineated in stone.

But elsewhere, the mosaics hide under pebbles or sand, because nothing protects them from the bleaching sun.

Archaeological work in recent years has been funded by the British Council, the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Aliph Foundation, which focuses on heritage in conflict zones.

While such investments are welcome, Ms El Sawarka, 27, said the nature of such project funding means there can be gaps during which work stops.

“The thing we fear the most is that between contracts, in the period between signing a contract, there will be a gap period,” she said.

As a student, she completed three months of training on the site in 2018. She returned two years ago to work on the project, led by the French organization Première Urgence Internationale.

The NGO has trained dozens of young Gazans, who Elter hopes will represent the future of archeology in the territory.

“There are many sites to discover but the Palestinians do not have the means to take full advantage of them,” he said.

This year a 5th-century Byzantine church was opened to visitors in northern Gaza, while in February builders stumbled across a tomb believed to be 2,000 years old.

“Our job is to build a team that can manage their wealth for years to come,” Mr. Elter said.

The French Development Agency announced last month that it would fund a canopy to cover the site, paving the way for the hidden mosaics to be revealed to the public.

Ms. El Sawarka imagines the site becoming “the best place in Gaza”.

But as long as the Palestinian territory remains under blockade, few outsiders will have the opportunity to see the ancient site unearthed.

For Mr. Elter, who has worked in Gaza on and off for the past two decades, conducting excavations at the site is unlike anywhere else in the world.

“Everything is difficult here and you have to adapt,” he said. “We adapt, we work with people who have the will to do something great.”

Updated: April 05, 2022, 2:30 a.m.