The Latest Gaza Casualty (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. After the 22 days of fighting in Operation Cast Lead, experts lament that many of the Strip's archaeological treasures have been destroyed or damaged Jawdat Khoudary was afraid his life's dream "had been reduced to a pile of rubble." He paced his hotel room in Cairo, where he was stuck on a business trip because of the war in Gaza, as neighbors reported to him by phone that Israeli tanks were stationed 20 meters away from his privately-run antiquities museum in north Gaza. In the background, he could hear the war rumbling. All day, every day of the 22-day Israeli invasion, he called his wife and children, to check if they were safe. But at his museum - the only museum in Gaza - there was no one to call. The museum would have been easy for neighbors to reach, in the heart of a residential neighborhood by the Shati refugee camp, and near the historic beach, from where Alexander the Great conquered Gaza in 332 BCE. But they were afraid to venture out. Finally on the day of the cease-fire, Khoudary sent out a local photographer. At 8:26 p.m., Sunday, January 18, the photo file recording the fate of the museum was e-mailed to Khoudary and The Jerusalem Report. "It was like an earthquake," he said by phone that evening, describing the artillery vibrations that had damaged doors, windows and walls, leaving his archaeological collection under layers of broken glass and debris. Two dozen photos show bullet-pocked exterior walls; the wide glass entranceway reduced to a pile of green glass shards; glass display cases shattered; and objects of antiquity damaged or destroyed - amphorae, Roman and Byzantine pottery, and Islamic-age bronze objects, he tells The Report. "There was a lot of fighting nearby. Then the roof of the building took a direct hit." A two-meter-wide chandelier crashed to the ground. Sitting tall in a pressed suit in the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem a few weeks later, Khoudary, 48, stares into the distance and rubs his eyes, as if to wash the images of the devastated museum away. "I am so sad," he says. As the days pass and aid organizations and visitors come to assess the damage, nobody comes to see the world's only showcase of Gaza antiquities. "The killing and the destruction is the most important thing now. I feel hopeless; nobody is willing to hear or listen to or understand about [cultural heritage] anymore. I lost the chance to show people the other face of Gaza." Although the Gaza Strip does not have the religious significance of Jerusalem, it is as important archaeologically and historically as cities like Jerusalem and Jericho, explains Prof. Moain Sadeq, founder of the Gaza Department of Antiquities, a division of the Palestinian Ministry of Travel and Antiquities since 1994. "All of Gaza is an archaeological site. We appeal to the global community to invest and assist with preservation and restoration after the war," he tells The Report in a telephone conversation from the University of Toronto in Canada, where he is on sabbatical. More than a dozen civilizations have lived or ruled in the Gaza Strip over the last 6,000-plus years. But archaeologists worry that some of their remaining sites, buildings and objects of antiquity may now be the silent casualties of the latest war." Khoudary, a wealthy Gazan contractor, laid down much of his life-savings in building the museum, using salvaged local stone, tile, marble and wood, to build the 1,200 square-meter structure on the 4,500 sq m lot, surrounded by palm trees, manicured lawns, stone columns and benches. Building repairs alone will cost at least an estimated $250,000, he says. There will also be additional restoration costs for the damaged objects, although until scientifically-trained conservation experts can come to Gaza to assist him, he won't be sure how much. But Gaza's museum of antiquities and Gaza's ancient sites and buildings have not yet been scientifically assessed and getting information about the state of archaeology in Gaza since the war is challenging. There are no financial allocations for archaeological surveys now, with the humanitarian and infrastructure rebuilding needs continuing to be the urgent priority, explains Prof. Jean-Michel Tarragon of the 'École Biblique et Archeologique Francaise' in Jerusalem, one of the only international institutions to excavate regularly in Gaza, together with Palestinian archaeologists, in the last decade. "We are looking for information but we have to wait. The [non-governmental organizations] are burdened caring for people living in tents and we can't call farmers [who live near isolated sites] and ask them scientific questions," he says. There have never been large numbers of Palestinian archaeologists, especially in Gaza. Programs of study and professional excavations, documentation, and conservation, have been hampered by a lack of financial resources to build the institutions, train qualified staff, and have the appropriate tools and supplies. With the exception of Sadeq, who holds a PhD in archaeology, the half-dozen or so archaeologists based today in Gaza have BAs in archaeology, far less than the graduate level education usually required abroad. And those who are in place have varying experience in assessment and little experience in restoration. International archaeologists flowed into Gaza to dig and assist after the Oslo Accords, but most left after the second intifada broke out in late 2000, says Khoudary. Even archaeologists in the West Bank are not likely to help. Rivalry between the Palestinian factions translates into a lack of cooperation between archaeologists with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, affiliated with Fatah, and the department of antiquities in Gaza, affiliated with Hamas, according to knowledgeable Palestinian sources. Furthermore, adds Dr. Marc-Andre Haldimann, senior archaeology curator at The Geneva Museum of Art and History, "As long as borders are kept closed, [there is] no way to do anything of any practical value." In 2007, the Geneva museum hosted the first exhibition anywhere of Gaza antiquities, with 221 items from the PA Department of Antiquities and 309 items from the Khoudary Collection. Sadeq tells The Report that although he is certain there is widespread destruction throughout the historic medieval al-Zeitun quarter, where there had been heavy fighting, there needs to be careful documentation of the damage. Because of heavy bombing of tunnels along the Egyptian border, he also anticipates damage at the 1st century remains in Rafah, where Anthony and Cleopatra were purportedly married. But Hamas' uneasy relationship with Egypt complicates any assessments around the border, he says. After the cease-fire, Sadeq, anxious for information, asked friends and neighbors to check several antiquities sites, albeit not scientifically. According to their report, a Roman-era fortifying wall around a complex thought to be a palace or temple at the Anthedon Port was partially damaged by a large explosion nearby. Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.