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Gaza's ancient ruins

Archaeologists race against time to save Gaza's ancient ruins

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A plethora of archaeological treasures lie scattered across the territory of what is now known as the Gaza strip, a stretch of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea that borders Egypt and Israel which is de-facto governed by Hamas, a Palestinian faction claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian National Authority and the Palestinian People.  But the ancient relics of this trouble-stricken land are at risk of destruction.

The rapid spread of Gaza’s urban sprawl, combined with an on-going conflict between Hamas and Israel, which has raged on for years, is threatening sites spanning 4,500 years, from Bronze Age ramparts to colourful Byzantine mosaics.  Archaeologists, short of funds, say they are scrambling to find and protect the monuments. Some are left open to the weather. Others are engulfed by new development projects.

The need for housing is in Gaza greater than that for preserving ancient artefacts, said French archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Humbert, who is affiliated with the Ecole Biblique, a French academic institution in Jerusalem.

According to Humbert, archaeology in Gaza is everyone as the area was once a "very rich oasis, with gardens, cities and you have settlements, dwellings, fortresses, cities everywhere, everywhere."

St Hilarion’s Monastery is just one example of an ancient site at risk. The ruins of this complex sit on dunes by the sea, a world away from Gaza City's noise and bustle. It is a reminder of the time in late antiquity when Christianity was the dominant faith in the Gaza Strip.

The two-hectare (five-acre) monastery complex, known in Arabic as Tel Umm Amer, is believed to mark the birthplace of St. Hilarion, a fourth-century Christian monk considered to be one of the founders of monasticism in the Holy Land. The site includes walls and foundations that are the remains of two churches, a cemetery, baths, a baptism hall and mosaic pavements.

However, St. Hilarion illustrates the challenges of saving Gaza's ancient treasures as local authorities lack the capability, the support and the proper materials for preserving it.

UNESCO has given some money, but "funds needed to complete the emergency measures to put the site in safety are not available," said Junaid Sorosh-Wali, from the Ramallah office of UNESCO, the office responsible for the works in Gaza.

Humbert estimated that several dozen more archaeological sites are "buried under the sand" in Gaza. New discoveries are made all the time as buildings are being constructed, but a shortage of staff and funding has meant they are rarely followed up.

By April Holloway

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