Gaza's ancient ruins may be ruined forever

Bombing archaeological and cultural heritage sites shows the Israeli army’s disregard for humanity and ranks it alongside the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and IS for wanton historical vandalism.

Damage to the Al-Omari Mosque in Gaza City, which is the oldest mosque in Gaza, as a result of the Israeli bombing.
Damage to the Al-Omari Mosque in Gaza City, which is the oldest mosque in Gaza, as a result of the Israeli bombing.

Gaza's ancient ruins may be ruined forever

In all the wars that Israel has fought since 1948, its armed forces have had a policy of not targeting religious or archaeological treasures. However, hopes that sites of special historical or cultural significance in the Gaza Strip would not be targeted militarily were soon dashed after the onset of war in October 2023. Under the pretext of targeting Hamas in civilian areas, the Israelis have inflicted irreparable damage on sites of huge historical and symbolic value. Doing so with purpose ranks them alongside the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State (IS).

Precise and verified data on the damage inflicted on cultural heritage is not yet available because the Israeli bombing is ongoing, but bits of information have filtered out. The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism in Ramallah is reportedly working with international groups, including the United Nations’ cultural organisation UNESCO, to set up a team to assess the damage.

Level of devastation

According to the Hamas-run government in Gaza, Israel has destroyed or damaged at least 200 of the 325 listed cultural, archaeological, and heritage sites in the Strip, yet these figures do not provide specific details. Compiling violations is, therefore, difficult.

The Church of Saint Porphyrius, an Eastern Orthodox place of worship in the Zeitoun neighbourhood in the heart of Gaza, was bombed and badly damaged. The attack killed 18 people sheltering inside and injured many more. It is the oldest church in the city, with roots dating back 1,600 years, and is believed to be the final resting place of its namesake, the fifth-century bishop of Gaza.

A Chicago-based human rights organisation has submitted a legal file to the International Criminal Court (ICC) calling the church’s bombing a war crime in violation of the ICC’s Rome Statute—a 1998 treaty that establishes four core international crimes.

Saint Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City was destroyed by Israeli bombing.

It said Israel intentionally struck St Porphyrius Church, a non-military structure, which caused the loss of civilian life and world heritage, thus violating the statute’s Article 8. This criminalises the targeting of “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives”.

Destruction everywhere

Al-Balakhiya, an ancient port northwest of Gaza City, also came under attack. This site holds significant historical importance and was even included on the preliminary list of World Heritage Sites and the list of Islamic heritage, as reported by the Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Another casualty of Israeli shelling was Barquq Castle in the heart of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. It was named after Sultan Zahir Barquq, one of the eminent Mamluk sultans.

Similarly, the destruction extended to the al-Kamiliyya Madrassa, the ancient As-Saqqa House in the Shuja’iyya neighbourhood to the east of the city, which traces its origins back to the early Ottoman era, and the iconic Qasr al-Basha, a grand two-story edifice dating back to the Mamluk era, which suffered irreparable damage.

This palace housed a museum boasting hundreds of Byzantine artefacts and exquisite fountains, lauded by Jean-Baptiste Ombre from the French School of Bible and Archaeology in Jerusalem (EBAF), who said it was his “best discovery.” However, its fate is now uncertain after a video posted on social media showed soldiers surrounded by artefacts within the EBAF warehouse in Gaza City.

The historic Turkish bath before and during the war in Gaza.

Suggestions of looting

Jawdat al-Khudari, one of Gaza’s most renowned collectors, lost most of his extensive collection in his private museum, a long-standing attraction for archaeologists and tourists alike. His journey into antiquities began in the 1990s, with the construction boom that followed the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Thousands of artefacts dating back to the Byzantine era were unearthed during the building spree.

Marc-André Haldemann, curator of the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, was astonished by the findings and proposed that Khudari curate a major exhibition in Geneva. By the end of 2006, around 260 pieces of his collection were in Geneva.

When Hamas kicked the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in June 2007, Israel imposed its blockade on the Strip, which made the return of Khudari’s artefacts to Gaza virtually impossible. Undeterred, Khudari persevered with plans to build a museum in the Strip and constructed a site on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza City, resembling both a hotel and a museum, which he named Al Mat’haf. Here, he exhibited the remaining artefacts that had not been sent to Geneva.

After the Israeli invasion in October 2023, soldiers took over the Al Mat’haf site for several months. When they finally left, Khudari went back, only to discover the devastating loss of many artefacts and a fire that had ravaged the hall. He suspects that some pieces may have been buried in the museum’s garden after Israeli bulldozers flattened the area, potentially destroying marble columns from the Byzantine era. While the pieces in Geneva are safe, the fate of the rest is uncertain.

Israel has destroyed or damaged at least 200 of the 325 listed cultural, archaeological, and heritage sites in Gaza.

Extortion via antiquities

What happened in Gaza echoes similar tragedies seen in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq after 2003, and Syria since 2013. There, too, archaeological sites became battlegrounds and were often exploited for political or military gain.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban defied calls from the international community and pleas from Islamic neighbours such as Pakistan to destroy the fifth-century Buddha statues in Bamiyan, which had been carved into the rock.

In Syria and Iraq, groups like al-Qaeda and IS sought to bolster their image as "idol-breakers" among extremists while simultaneously profiting from illicit deals with treasure hunters for exploration rights.

The ancient city of Hatra, southwest of Mosul, exemplifies the extent of destruction. Renowned for resisting Roman and Persian forces, its temple facades were defaced, and statues were shattered under the pretext of removing polytheistic idols. Together with professional smugglers, these terrorist groups conducted haphazard excavations in search of burial sites and treasures, damaging the intricate decorations and statues of Hatra's temples in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Efforts to restore it have faltered, with restoration proving too difficult. What can be destroyed in seconds can take decades to repair, if indeed repair is possible. For much of Gaza's antiquities, history will have been lost forever.

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