History & Culture

Gazans struggle to protect antiquities

Walid al-Aqqad sits next to Palestinian heritage pieces and antiques piled up inside his private museum in town of Khan Younis, Southern Gaza Strip.

Walid al-Aqqad sits next to Palestinian heritage pieces and antiques piled up inside his private museum in town of Khan Younis, Southern Gaza Strip.   | Photo Credit: AP

Plundering and trafficking of artefacts is rampant in the territory under seige.

Walid al-Aqqad’s Gaza home would be the envy of many an antiquities collector. Pieces of Corinthian columns greet visitors in the backyard. Inside, hundreds of ancient pots and other artefacts hang on the walls or are arranged helter-skelter on shelves.

They are remnants of five millennia of Gaza’s history, from the Bronze Age to the Islamic caliphates and on down to the years of Ottoman and British rule in the 20th century.

A sliver of land on the Mediterranean, Gaza was a major trade route between Egypt and the Levant going back to ancient times. But decades of uprisings, war and political turmoil have inflicted a heavy toll on its rich archaeological heritage, exposing it to looting and destruction.

Excavations hindered

The Islamic militant group Hamas seized Gaza in 2007 from forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority. In response, Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza that has left the territory isolated and increasingly impoverished. The Palestinians say the closures have also hindered excavations and restricted experts’ access to new discoveries.

Ayman Hassouna, professor of history and archaeology at Gaza’s Islamic University, blames Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas equally for not protecting the territory’s cultural heritage. He says Israel confiscated artefacts from archaeological digs in the decades it occupied Gaza and did little to prevent antiquities trafficking. Palestinian authorities governing Gaza since 1995 have “attacked many archaeological sites either intentionally or not”, he said.

“When they find something, they would hide it or build over it,” he said.

Antiquities plundering and trafficking also remains a problem, said Heyam al-Bitar, an archaeologist with Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. She said the Ministry only learned earlier this year that dozens of ancient Greek silver coins were smuggled out of Gaza in 2016. “It’s difficult to track down the trafficking because everything happens in the dark,” she said.

Citizen spirit

Mr. Al-Aqqad is one of few trying to save antiquities in Gaza. He began his collection in 1975, buying from collectors or searching the beach and new construction sites. Now his house in the southern city of Khan Younis is an archaeological, heritage and cultural museum, welcoming school trips and history students.

“This museum was established by personal efforts and at the expense of my children’s bread... to protect the pieces,” Mr. al-Aqqad said. The Ministry keeps an inventory of all private collections to prevent artefacts from being sold or smuggled out, said Ms. al-Bitar.

Owners have received training from the Ministry and the Islamic University on how to preserve artefacts and restore clay objects when they fracture, she added.

The underfunded Ministry opened a public museum in 2010 at al-Basha Palace, a fort built by Gaza’s Mamluk rulers in the mid-13th century.

“The Ministry has plans to build a large national museum for all these archaeological pieces, but the political economic situation and the siege on Gaza are preventing this,” she said.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 8:29:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/gazans-struggle-to-protect-antiquities/article28872420.ece

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