News » Gaza moves to preserve local antiquities from black market

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News » Gaza moves to preserve local antiquities from black market

A coastal door on the Mediterranean to the ancient world’s great empires, the Gaza Strip is home to both decades-long conflict and an enormous cache of archeological treasures. But now the Gaza government is working to stop the black market trade of its ancient treasures, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

The empires to have passed through coastal Palestine include the Egyptian, Romans, Persians, Ottomans, and Byzantines, their footprint leaving jewelry, weapons, and even fortresses. But, CS Monitor explains, “in the absence of solid laws or regulations, relics from as early as the Bronze Age are happened upon mostly by chance, poorly kept, plundered, or sold on the black market.”

Gaza Islamic University professor Salim al-Mubaid comments, “Gaza was for centuries the primary trade outlet of the hinterland of Jordan and the greater Arabian Peninsula. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mamluks, and Ottomans all ruled us. There are secrets of history under every square meter.”

Hamas tourism and antiquities minister Mohammad al-Agha elaborates:

“Gaza is very small geographically, but in terms of archaeology, it is very large. Gaza was at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and there is a great accumulation of human civilization here. But we don’t have our own specialists so we can’t manage the sites professionally.”

As with many colonial/occupied territories, many of Gaza’s archeological finds are housed in Israeli and British museums. And without the law and specialists, antiquities disappear quickly into the holds of Gaza’s dynamic black market. The antiquities ministry gives an example, explaining that a find of 25,000 gold and bronze coins in 1990 saw 14,00 stolen and sold illegally.

In a place where a functional economy is near impossible to effect as a result of the Israeli blockade, those who can pay for artifacts get them. CS Monitor says:

Construction contractors like Jawhdat Khodary, who opened a private museum in a beachfront space in 2008, would pay laborers and local fishermen for any artifacts they found, preserving at least 3,000 pieces.

Of course, the blockade has hurt the dealers as well. Underground antiquities trader Abu Ahmed says, “An ancient piece the size of a cellphone from the Pharaonic or Canaanite eras easily sells for $1 million on the black market. And I used to make a major deal every month.”

Travel restrictions at the Erez border have complicated the Gaza archeological trade, but Abu Ahmed says Israel is still the biggest buyer of relics he has, and that demand remains. CS Monitor says many Israelis consider Gaza to be built on top of ancient Canaan, which they believe is a precursor to the original land of Israel from the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE.

Hamas, among its many house-cleaning efforts since taking over the Gaza Strip in 2007, says it has made regulating and preserving historical sites and antiquity finds a government priority. Mr. Agha says the tourism and antiquities ministry plans to team up with Islamic university to expand existing archeology courses.

A 3rd-century CE monastery is the ministry’s latest find, and according to Mr. Mubaid, Gaza’s most important archeological site. Hamas has hired a guard for the site.

But for all Hamas’ moves to preserve the ancient history of Gaza, Mr. Khodary says Hamas officials have censored some of his findings – requesting that he put away found menorah figurines and a statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess’ gown “deemed too revealing.”

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