The Past Is Being Destroyed in Palestine — As Well as the Present

Amid widespread damage to historical sites, images of Israeli soldiers posing with ancient artifacts in Gaza highlight the risk to heritage beyond the bombs

The Past Is Being Destroyed in Palestine — As Well as the Present
Archaeologists excavating at St. Hilarion in al-Zawayda town in the Gaza Strip in 2023. (Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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It is nearly impossible today to imagine Gaza as a thriving port on the sparkling Mediterranean, where a rich socioeconomic exchange took place over thousands of years of human history. Yet for millennia, Gaza was an essential stopping point on the overland route between Africa, Asia and Europe. Rich archaeological treasures found in the area indicate that trading was brisk throughout the Bronze Age — including finds indicating a close relationship with Ancient Egypt — to Hellenic and Roman times, and it remained important for both Byzantine and Islamic rulers. Ships loaded with amphorae carrying grains, dried fruit, vegetables and wine set sail from the ancient port of Anthedon, while caravans bearing incense and myrrh from Yemen and Oman transited through Gaza. Silk from as far away as China and scented woods and spices from India passed by on their way to the Greco-Roman world. Gaza was a unique meeting point between civilizations.

Fast forward to today, when we see a broken Gaza, its people battered in a cataclysm following decades of continuous tragedy. Since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Israel has reportedly dropped more than 65,000 tons of bombs on the 140-square-mile territory, killing over 25,000 Palestinians, with 7,000 still buried beneath the rubble, and injuring over 63,000. The United Nations estimates that 1.9 million people have been displaced, and more than half of the area’s buildings have been destroyed according to an analysis of satellite data. Infrastructure necessary for daily life has been demolished.

Amid the devastation, an estimated 200 cultural and ancient historical sites have been damaged or destroyed in this territory that French archaeologist Rene Elter, who has been working in Gaza since 2001, describes as one “enormous archaeological site.” Last weekend a video and stories on Instagram showed that pillaging on the ground might be taking place too: Israeli soldiers were rummaging in a warehouse where Elter and his team stored archaeological artifacts.

Elter has been the only archaeologist working in Gaza full time since he moved there permanently in 2019, having shuttled back and forth for nearly 20 years. He came to Gaza at the behest of French archaeologist and Dominican priest Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. Shortly after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Humbert began working with the Palestinian Authority and its Department of Antiquities on several excavations in Gaza, which marked the beginning of a relationship between the French Biblical and Archaeological School and Gaza that has lasted until today. Its work in Gaza with local teams has revealed extraordinary sites — most recently a mammoth Hellenistic or Roman necropolis, which was still being excavated in October 2023.

Both Humbert and Elter describe their experience in Gaza as a great human adventure that altered their way of working, going above and beyond field archaeology and becoming a collective experience shared with the local people.

I met with Elter in Paris last December following his evacuation from Gaza via Egypt, having spent a month under Israeli bombs, constantly moving from area to area. Since then, he has been in contact with his team in Gaza every few days, connection permitting, and for the moment what is most important to him is that the entire team is alive.

Even though the Gaza Strip is incredibly rich archaeologically, it is relatively unexplored because of the enormous social and political problems it has experienced since 1948. The year the state of Israel was created, nearly 80,000 Palestinian refugees streamed into the Gaza area, at the time inhabited by 50,000 people. Gaza has steadily become one of the most densely populated regions in the world, with two-thirds of the population registered as refugees who, for the most part, live in camps. The burden of urbanization and coastal erosion, combined with decades of Israeli occupation, repeated bombings and the siege, has led to internal political strife, extreme poverty and overcrowding, which in turn has meant that buildings were often erected on top of historical sites.

Humbert said in an interview in 2008 that he chose to work in Gaza because no one else had expressed an interest in going there and that the lack of competition would be salutary. “People said that I was crazy, that Gaza was difficult, far from Jerusalem and that the Israelis wanted to close the area, which would make it difficult to get in and out. But I chose it anyway. And in the end, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful archaeological experiences of my life.”

But long before Humbert and then Elter arrived in Gaza, the British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie had excavated a major site called Tall al-Ajjul several miles south of Gaza City between 1931 and 1934, during the British Mandate. His discoveries showed that Gaza had been a northern frontier for Egypt as far back as the third millennium BCE. Petrie published his findings in a two-volume set called “Ancient Gaza.”

Petrie’s work was halted by the advent of World War II, and excavations only began again after the Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1967. Israeli archaeologists excavating in Gaza between the 1960s and 1980s discovered, among other rarities, 50 unique clay sarcophagi in a necropolis not far from where Petrie had excavated that showed both Egyptian and Phoenician influences. Marc-Andre Haldimann, former head of the archaeology department at the Museum of Art and History of Geneva and co-curator of an exhibition of Gaza archaeology in 2007, noted in an interview in 2008 that the sarcophagi, among other artifacts, were carted off to Israel, never to be returned.

When Humbert first arrived in Gaza, he began working on a site near a hospital in the Jabaliya refugee camp, which revealed a fifth-century Byzantine church. In 1995, the next important site that was discovered was Blakhiyah, along the coast next to the Al-Shati refugee camp. The famous Hellenistic harbor and city of Anthedon were uncovered there, revealing layers of civilizations such as an Iron Age rampart, Hellenistic houses with painted walls, a Roman water fountain with mosaic decorations and large Roman houses with Nabataean influences.

This same port of Anthedon, which had been painstakingly excavated for nearly 30 years despite damage from both coastal erosion and Israeli bombings, was surveyed just two years ago by the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture, in close collaboration with Humbert.

Forensic Architecture investigates state and corporate violence, human rights violations and environmental destruction using, among other methods, 3D animations and digital and physical models. Led by the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, author of the groundbreaking 2007 book “Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation,” the team presents their investigations in courtrooms and truth commissions; they are also part of the Technology Advisory Board of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Forensic Architecture’s analysis of satellite images revealed a number of large craters and damage to the Anthedon site caused by Israeli bombings in 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2021. In 2022, Forensic Architecture and the Ramallah-based nongovernmental organization Al-Haq called on the prosecutor of the ICC to consider the ongoing Israeli destruction of cultural heritage as amounting to war crimes and “to evaluate their potential contribution to apartheid as a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute.”

In an update from December 2023, the Forensic Architecture investigation concluded that most of the Anthedon site has been destroyed.

There have been attempts to hold Israel to account, most recently from Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, which has claimed that the destruction amounts to systematic military attacks against heritage sites. Whether the damage to archaeological sites was intentional or collateral damage in the effort to destroy Hamas, the fact remains that huge amounts of Gazan history have been destroyed, more than we can ever really understand.

Fadel al-Otol, who works closely with Elter, spoke directly from Gaza on Jan. 23, 2024, in a Zoom webinar organized by the Critical Ancient World Studies Collective and Everyday Orientalism. The connection was spotty at times, with planes and drones audible and a baby crying in the background. Al-Otol said he hadn’t slept for three days since the Israeli army had occupied their storage facility. “I would need days to talk about all the destruction of the archaeological sites that we are witnessing. We are documenting every form of assault on these sites,” he said, adding that he had photographed more than 30% of these areas, in particular in the old part of Gaza City.

Back in 1997, Humbert and his team discovered the vestiges of a fourth-century paleo-Christian monastery south of Gaza City. Umm el-Amr, as it is called, is spread over 25 acres of the coastal dune. Sensing that the site could be exceptional, Humbert called Elter for backup. Elter, who had worked in France for 20 years for an archaeological research institute before co-directing a site in Jordan for the French Institute of the Near East, says that he wasn’t very enthusiastic at first, “but then I simply fell into it.”

In fact, he fell headfirst into his work in Gaza because in 2003, very soon after arriving on the Umm el-Amr site, Elter and his team discovered a tomb and inscription affirming that the monastery was founded in 329 by St. Hilarion. St. Hilarion is recognized as the father of Palestinian monasticism, and the fourth-century biblical translator and priest St. Jerome wrote about him: St. Hilarion was born 5 miles south of Gaza, studied in Alexandria and became a hermit before establishing his monastery, which is considered the oldest in Palestine and is the largest ever found in the Middle East.

Field archaeologists work inch by inch; it requires exacting labor, utmost patience and care, and a dedicated team. Gaza kept revealing extraordinary vestiges of the past, and training for Palestinian workers was needed. Humbert’s findings had become so important that an exhibition was organized in 2000 at the Arab World Institute in Paris called “Mediterranean Gaza,” which presented research and artifacts from digs going back to 1994.

When Gaza became his focus, Humbert began organizing training for the local people working on the archaeological sites. One day, at the Anthedon port location, a shy but curious teenager from the nearby Al-Shati refugee camp approached the team and asked if he could work with them. It was al-Otol. Humbert took him under his wing and eventually arranged for him to travel to France and Switzerland to take part in archaeology-related seminars.

Today, al-Otol is in his early 40s and has five children. He began working with Elter early on, and over the years they have developed a strong relationship. Elter says of al-Otol: “He is my left and right hand. He is self-taught and it is he who best knows archaeology in Gaza. He knows how to restore mosaics, metal objects and do stonecutting. He carries on my work when I’m not there.”

Fifteen to 20 years ago, excavations had been progressing on the various sites, but internal Palestinian politics, lack of funding for the projects, and the Israeli “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008 and 2009 slowed progress. Funding came in fits and starts until al-Otol linked up with Jehad Abu Hassan, field coordinator for the Gaza Strip for the French NGO Premiere Urgence Internationale.

Abu Hassan, whose parents were refugees in Gaza, is also a French citizen. He spoke to New Lines from France, where he was evacuated with his wife and triplets a month after the Israeli onslaught began. He still remembers the exact number of days he spent under Israeli bombings in the past: eight days in 2012, 51 days in 2014 and 11 days in 2021. In the 1980s Abu Hassan studied relief work and development in France and worked in Africa for several years before returning to Gaza in 2011 to be close to his family.

Premiere Urgence’s mission is to help civilians affected by natural disasters, war and economic collapse. In Gaza they have helped farmers, fishers, people injured by snipers and shelling, and upgraded substandard housing, but they had never worked in cultural heritage. When they met in 2013, al-Otol told Abu Hassan about his work, including how he had learned restoration work, and to train others. “I thought this was interesting and that we should stay in touch,” Abu Hassan says.

Things came together in 2017, when Abu Hassan learned of a grant from the British Council Cultural Protection Fund. “I thought we could put two and two together, linking the humanitarian aspect with the archaeological heritage,” Abu Hassan says.

Abu Hassan for Premiere Urgence and Elter representing the French Biblical and Archaeological School worked on a proposal that brought together cultural heritage preservation with long-term economic, cultural and social development: Premiere Urgence would provide training for unskilled or semiskilled people on labor-intensive projects in exchange for cash (a program called Cash for Work). Elter drew up professional training programs. They submitted a three-pronged proposal that included restoration, training and public awareness.

“We didn’t think we would get the grant,” Abu Hassan says. “But we were hopeful. We had experience in coordination and logistics and the humanitarian aspect, and Rene had the expertise. Then in December 2017, surprise! We got a grant for £1,755,000 [approximately $2 million]. It was the biggest grant given that year.”

Besides professional training and Cash for Work projects, the grant covered two sites: St. Hilarion and the Byzantine church near the Jabaliya refugee camp, which had over 4,000 square feet of extraordinary mosaics that needed to be renovated and protected.

Getting the projects off the ground in 2018 wasn’t easy, Abu Hassan says. They had to get Israeli permission to bring Humbert, Elter and other specialists to Gaza via the Erez Crossing, and the French Consulate was nervous. They eventually succeeded, and their presence provided an opportunity for new archaeology or art history graduates to get a taste of fieldwork. Short training courses lasting a week or two had been available in Gaza, but, Abu Hassan says, “in the university curriculum they didn’t have the opportunity to get practical training, and often ended up as professors.”

Local teams began working on both sites, which in St. Hilarion’s case consisted of restoring the ecclesiastical complex with churches, a crypt, a chapel, a baptistery and accommodation for the monks, as well as a hospice reserved for travelers and pilgrims, which included baths. The mosaics in the Byzantine church revealed images of shrimp, smoked fish, a string of sausages, a plucked chicken, bunches of asparagus, pigeon eggs, chicken eggs, pomegranates and an apple from the Garden of Eden. In 2022 a shelter protecting the site was inaugurated, with aerial walkways that allowed the public to visit the vestiges of the church, the diaconicon, the large baptistery and the restored mosaics. Part of this structure is now thought to be damaged.

Elter focused on developing an entire chain of operations including a learning center with community activities — children could work on a pretend excavation, for example. All the while, a team of 40 people was being trained. Elter took care, despite Gaza’s traditional society, to have both young men and women learn multidisciplinary crafts necessary for the safeguarding and restoration of the sites. Some learned 3D modeling and recorded 3D images of every excavation — 110,000 3D photographs of St. Hilarion were taken. They mastered stonecutting or mosaic restoration to be able to choose the sector that interested them. “I wanted to encourage team building and to bring sensitivity and a certain gentleness to their daily life. There is no other team like this in Palestine,” Elter says. “Hamas accepted us; there was a feeling of trust, and that meant that we could move forward. It was a win-win situation for everyone.”

The ultimate aim was for Palestinians in Gaza to manage the sites.

Besides visits from students from the University of Palestine, Al-Quds University and the Islamic University of Gaza (apparently at least two of these universities have been destroyed), school trips became a large part of the activity at St. Hilarion. Each month 1,000 children visited the site and were shown around by male and female guides whom Elter had trained. Elter explains that because of Gaza’s particular situation, society is unstructured, and young people have trouble feeling like they are part of something. “I was surprised and then comforted by the fact that the groups were exactly like groups in Europe. You had the studious ones and the rowdy ones. They were just like my children, like other children. These children are tomorrow’s decision-makers, and archaeology is part of their heritage.”

The next round of funding for St. Hilarion came in 2022. The French Development Agency, linked to the French Foreign Ministry, invested approximately $12 million, which Elter says would have allowed them to work until 2028. Responding to a local lack of skills, 15 young women and men were learning French, and the best students were to be selected to study in France. Following their return to Gaza, they were guaranteed two years of work on the St. Hilarion site. The trained team was then to take charge of the sites, which would become financially autonomous.

That same year, as the ground was being cleared for a housing project in Beit Lahia, near Anthedon, a Hellenistic or Roman necropolis was discovered. Construction on the housing project was halted. The entire team moved over to the burial site, where 150 tombs were uncovered. Nabataean pottery from Petra was found, proving commercial trading within the Arab world, as well as objects in metal and clay, which, Elter explains, can provide information about funerary rites. “It’s interesting to compare with other rites in the Roman world or find Egyptian or Eastern influences,” he says.

“We were so lucky that the cemetery had not been destroyed or pillaged. It was totally intact,” Elter says. “What’s interesting is that this was not a prestigious burial site; it was the common man’s cemetery. There were some more elaborate tombs with sarcophagi that perhaps belonged to wealthy merchants or traders. One grave had painted walls decorated with garlands and wreaths made with laurel leaves.”

Elter called in Swiss anthropologist Tobias Hofstetter to examine the skeletons so they could understand the hygiene of this population. They were curious: Was it the same as in Rome, Athens or Jerusalem? “It’s very important to understand these mechanisms,” Elter says.

The team had been particularly moved by the discovery of an adult couple clasped together in an embrace. “We hadn’t had an example like this before,” Elter says. “It allowed us to talk about it with the team, to talk about feelings with people who are usually very discreet.”

Elter says they were waiting to hear from Hofstetter about the sex of the couple and then wanted to bury them again, “to leave them for eternity.”

Now, having spent nearly 60 years in the Middle East, much of it going back and forth to Gaza, the 84-year-old Humbert has heartbreakingly been recalled to France by his religious order. He told the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour that after seeing photographs of the Anthedon city and port site, “It appears to have been completely bulldozed in search of tunnels. … We prepare ourselves to accept the worst. But this is nothing compared to the genocide of the Palestinian people which is taking place before our eyes in real time.”

There have been numerous reports in the press about the destruction of most heritage sites in Gaza, and some, sadly, have been verified, such as Anthedon (which was on UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention Tentative List), the Great Omari Mosque, the Hammam al-Sammara and the Qasr al-Basha museum. While “the heart of historical Gaza has been very severely hit, given the chaos on the ground you have to be very careful about what you see in the media,” Elter says.

In October, the Israeli army admitted to damaging the 12th-century St. Porphyrius church. When asked about the heavy damage to the Great Omari Mosque, a military spokesperson responded that the “target of the attack was terrorist infrastructure which included a tunnel shaft, a tunnel and Hamas terrorists.” The spokesperson added that the army’s “actions are in accordance with international law.”

Elter tries to examine the damage from satellite photos but prefers to rely on firsthand accounts from those on the ground. Some of the younger team members have been venturing out to the sites and sending him photographs. For the moment, it seems that St. Hilarion has been spared, and in December he managed to get the St. Hilarion complex provisionally inscribed on UNESCO’s International List of Cultural Property Under Enhanced Protection.

St. Hilarion’s warehouse, however, where the team kept antiquities, supplies and tools, was robbed by Palestinians in need of daily necessities, Elter says. He specifies that people took anything that could be useful for building provisional structures or cooking utensils. Given the urgency of their situation, they left behind the archaeological objects as they didn’t see much use for bits of ancient pottery, he says. Perhaps, too, the work of Gazans to excavate and preserve their heritage, as well as the educational efforts of the St. Hilarion team, means they have a desire to protect these artifacts, even in the midst of extreme threats from violence and starvation.

But on Jan. 21, Elter saw his warehouse in a video posted on Instagram by Eli Escusido, the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The video shows Israeli soldiers walking around shelves of ancient amphorae or standing in front of opened boxes. Escusido has commented on the video: “Good week, the deputy director of the Antiquities Authority was rushed to Gaza to check a warehouse full of antiquities. Thank you to warrior Moshe Ajami.” It is unclear whether the objects in the warehouse, which come from the St. Hilarion site, are protected under UNESCO’s protocol for provisional enhanced protection, which would give St. Hilarion the highest level of immunity established by the 1954 Hague Convention. But the fact the video was posted by the head of the Antiquities Authority has added to fears about the official attitude toward the theft of heritage.

Instagram stories posted by Israeli soldiers that same day surfaced in which they were holding stone plaques with inscriptions on them from St. Hilarion.

Elter doesn’t know much about the fate of Gaza’s first archaeological museum, Al-Mathaf, either. The museum was built by Gazan engineer and businessperson Jawdat Khoudary, in 2008. Utterly passionate about Gaza’s history and archaeology, Khoudary developed a precious collection over his lifetime, which became the basis of the museum, reflecting his desire to share the heritage with his fellow Gazans. Over many years, Khoudary worked closely with Humbert and the Swiss archaeologist Haldimann, lending his artifacts for the exhibit in Geneva. Khoudary’s daughter Yasmeen had recently hoped to begin some underwater archaeology along Gaza’s coast. Elter has tried to find out the condition of the museum; there has certainly been some theft, but it’s hard to know what. For the moment, the only news he has is that Khoudary and his family have fled to Egypt.

“Everyone is in the same frame of mind. We keep thinking it will stop, and it doesn’t,” Elter says. He is keeping busy calling institutions and financial backers, including the British Council, the Aliph Foundation, the French Development Agency and the French Ministry of Culture’s National Heritage Institute, which works with the Louvre Museum. He says that all parties are supportive and understand the importance of continuing the project.

Elter is also working with UNESCO to plan an expert mission for the monuments that he has been responsible for until now. “People ask me how much this will cost. We need to assess the damage and estimate how much funding we’ll need. As soon as I have the green light, I’ll go to Gaza for an assessment. But first we need to give people time to recover. Most of my colleagues are at the end of their tether.”

People have gone through an incredibly traumatic time and are weak, ill and wounded, Elter says. He knows that the worst is yet to come and is anxious about maintaining the link that had been established with the public. “For the moment there are no schools. There will have to be temporary social and educational centers. We need to show that we are present and be reassuring, even if we often need to first reassure ourselves because we still know nothing.”

Elter is realistic about the possible outcomes — an Israeli occupation with a Palestinian administration, an unknown version of a Palestinian Authority or the absolute worst-case scenario, he says, which would be that Palestinians are chased from their land. Elter prefers to believe in the idea that Gaza will remain Palestinian.

Over the 30 years that Humbert and then Elter worked in Gaza, they uncovered objects that attested to the presence of numerous periods of human history. Only once the bombs cease will experts be able to assess the damage done to this tiny, beleaguered territory that contains such archaeological richness.

In a place where the continuous nature and severity of events has made the struggle for survival a priority, archaeologists in Gaza have diverged from the traditional methods of archaeological teams toward a more inclusive, community-driven approach, which also gives people a reason to be proud of their cultural heritage. This profound exchange gives archaeologists an impetus to keep working despite the destruction. During the Jan. 23 webinar, al-Otol said: “Gaza’s archaeology is a testament to religious tolerance and human shared culture. I didn’t cry over the destruction of my home as much as the complete destruction of the Old City of Gaza.”

After working in Gaza for 20 years you develop reflexes, Elter says. “First, we will adapt to the situation at hand and try to preserve the sites, we will bandage the wounds. Then we’ll begin the reconstruction surgery.”

In imagining reconstruction, he says that in Iraq and particularly in Mosul there are some good examples to follow, and even cites the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which conserved part of the damaged pre-World War II structure, integrating it with a modern one.

There is no question, Elter says, of letting down his team in Gaza. “We all need to keep moving ahead. I embody for them something that makes them dream and will be there as long as they want to go ahead with this adventure that we created together.”

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