Gaza City is one of the world’s oldest cities—but these days, you’re likely not getting in to see it.
Israel tightly controls movement of people and goods in and out of the besieged Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas, a repressive and terror-designated group. At the Erez crossing in southern Israel, it’s only accredited foreign journalists, humanitarian workers, and the occasional diplomat and lucky Gazans getting through. Egypt also controls one crossing with Gaza, but you’re likely not coming through there either.
Yet if Gaza were open to tourism, Palestinians there will tell you, people would love all the history they could see.
“Outsiders don’t know Gaza well at all,” Fadel al-Outul, one of Gaza’s premier archeologists, tells me. Fadel, whose skin is tanned and weathered from his days excavating the rich history hidden underground, continues, “This is something very sad to me.”
Historians estimate that Gaza City is more than 5,000 years old. Waves of empires—the Pharaohs, Phoenicians, Philistines, Canaanites, Assyrians, Moguls, Byzantines, Alexander the Great, Romans, Persians, Ottomans, and British—all sought to conquer Gaza, coveting its ports and trade routes connecting Africa and Asia, as Jean Pierre-Filiu documents in Gaza: A History.
You may be more familiar with Gaza’s recent history. In 1967, Israel captured Gaza from Egypt (and the West Bank, another disputed territory, from Jordan) and placed it under military rule. The 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the newly established Palestinian Authority instated limited Palestinian self-rule in Gaza (and the West Bank). In 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew its settlements and soldiers from Gaza, but maintained control of borders. (Israel, in contrast, has continued expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.) Then in 2007, Hamas ousted the PA, dominated by the rival Fatah party based in the West Bank, and took over Gaza in a bitter civil war. Since then, Israel and Egypt have kept borders largely blocked, Israel and Hamas have fought three bloody wars, and the Palestinian split has deepened—all as a terrifying humanitarian crisis has pushed trapped Gazans to the brink.
It’s no surprise that with all the troubles facing Gaza there’s barely any money or resources for archeological excavation and preservation. Al-Outul trained in France and has received some French and international funding for his work, which he says comes and goes. Still, he sees a deeper, political significance to his field’s deficit.
“The problem in Gaza is that the politics dominates artifacts,” says al-Outul. “There isn’t any [financial] support given for archeology. But there’s support given for making wars. If it was the opposite, it would be better for Gaza.”
So in the meantime, here’s a tour of sorts of Gaza’s sacred and historical sites that you may, one day, get to see:
You can start off at Qasr [castle] al Basha, an old fortress converted into the only public archeological museum in the heart of Gaza City. A 13th century Mamluk Sultan supposedly built part of Qasr al Basha, legend has it as a home for one of his wives who he met in Gaza, while the fortress part dates to the 17th century after a Turkish Ottoman governor made it his home. The British next used it as police headquarters and the Egyptians as a girl’s school. Most recently it opened as a museum run by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques with the help of international aid.
One day there this June I met a 38-year-old woman who called herself Um Omar Sarsor. She was on her very first visit along with a group of other women and children.
“Great people founded Gaza,” she says after admiring ancient pottery. “Gaza is full of beautiful things. She has a present, a past, and inshallah [God willing], a future.”
Next, head over to Hammam al-Sammara (the Samaritan bathhouse) in Gaza City’s old Zaytoun quarter. The Turkish-style bath house still bears the name of the Samaritan community, an ancient offshoot of Judaism, which used to run it. (The Samaritans are now centered in Nablus, in the West Bank.) A plaque there dates renovations back to 1320 AD, during the Mamluk period. The hammam’s marble tiles, arched ceilings, and stained-glass windows have fallen in and out of repair over the years, but today it’s restored and a few hours in the steamy baths is truly one of Gaza’s last escapes.
Nearby is the Church of St. Porphyrius, Gaza City’s ancient 12th-century Greek Orthodox Church surrounded by crusader era walls. Inside, the chapel is adorned with stunningly bright fresco-style paintings and ornate decorations rarely seen these days in Gaza. The Church is named for a 5th century Bishop of Gaza, Bishop Porphyrius, who supposedly closed all pagan temples in Gaza and built the Church’s original foundation.
There are only around 1,100 Christians left in Gaza, among 1.9 million Muslims. Hamas’ repressive form of Islam has made life on edge for the remaining Christians; Israel’s restrictions on movement have in turn made it difficult for those looking to escape. But the many church remains found around the coastal enclave tell of a different Gaza.
“What’s different between the past and today is the politics,” says al-Outul. Otherwise, the archeologist muses, not much about people throughout history has changed.
Today the chapel is still used for prayer services and baptisms. Kamel Ayad, 46, who heads public relations for the Greek Orthodox community, tells me they “have no cooperation with the Hamas government,” which, among many things, complicates preservation efforts. Ayad wants an “independent Palestinian state” free of Israeli rule and “far from religion.” Protecting Gaza’s Churches, he says, is part of preserving the Palestinian people. During the 2014 war with Israel, Gaza City residents even fled there for protection from falling bombs.
Close by is the Al Omari Mosque, or the Great Mosque of Gaza, the oldest mosque in the Gaza Strip and still used daily. The site is believed to have first been a Philistine temple, followed by a Byzantine Church, and then, after the Muslim conquest of Gaza in the 7th century, a mosque, renovated many times in the centuries since.
Many more of Gaza’s ancient sites remained buried beneath the ground.
Al-Outul is currently excavating and restoring the St. Hilarion Monastery, which is Gaza’s oldest and largest known Christian monument, in an area called Tel Umm Amer near Nuseirat in central Gaza. Hilarion was the founder of Palestinian monasticism around 300 C.E. and is said to have built the original site. Then over the following centuries, from the late Roman to Ummayed empires, several different Churches were built there. The various monasteries included mosaics and marbled floors, a baptism complex, a large crypt, and over 120 rooms to house priests and visitors, in addition to bathrooms, a kitchen, dining hall, and a wheat and grapes press.
There’s more that al-Outul would like to excavate, but the international aid for the project is limited, while residents living on parts of the site don’t want to be displaced to find out what’s underneath.
Al-Outul is also overseeing excavations of a 4th century Byzantine Church in Jabalya. The site’s impressive mosaics are kept guarded under a layer of sand for now as they await a more secure way to preserve them for posterity.
There are many other historical places, though, that archeologists can’t uncover. Al-Outul is from the dense and impoverished Shati refugee camp (also known as Beach camp), which lies on the edge of Gaza City along the Mediterranean Sea. He says the layers of land underneath are a treasure trove of artifacts and history—but the people living there have no place else to go, so they can’t move them to excavate.
Then there are the cultural heritage sites that the Hamas government prefers to destroy or keep unexplored. Near Shati camp is the site of the ancient city of Al-Balakhia, which thrived three centuries ago. Some ruins found there include Roman temples, a Byzantine cemetary, and the foundation of Gaza’s old port Now it’s a closed military site, so cash-strapped al-Outul can’t access it and has no organization to back him if he tries, he says.
Al-Outul is most upset about what’s happened to Tel Es-sakan [Hill of Ash], a rare 4,500 year old Bronze age settlement that Hamas bulldozers destroyed last October after years of threats.. The extremist group doesn’t like this part of Gaza’s history because it included pagan worship, which they forbid; as the government of one of the densest places on earth, they are also more interested in using the land for construction projects and military bases. Tel es-saken was one of the earliest sites showing the move from farming to urban society in the Near East. Now, twenty years after excavations started, it’s gone.
Still, Gaza constantly surprises. Among the war-torn strip’s quietest and best-preserved places are two cemeteries funded by the British Commonwealth. Headstones here pay tribute to British soldiers who died during battles in Gaza in World War I and II. Now these green, open spaces are also a rare refuge for restless Gazans.
Then there are people to visit such as 50-year-old Marwan Shawan, whose personal collection of artifacts stretching from the Canaanites to the British occupation is hidden away in his private museum near his home in Khan Younis, close to the border with Egypt.
Shawan started collecting artifacts thirty-five years ago: as a young boy fascinated by history, he used to peruse the markets looking for any interesting finds. The father of seven is entirely self-taught and makes a living as a carpenter. But Gaza’s heritage is his passion.
Shawan is one of three men in Gaza with prominent personal collections of artifacts. He’s donated some of his treasures to Qasr al Basha. But his real dream is to showcase Gaza’s history somewhere abroad where they can be properly preserved, like America, Europe, or the new Louvre in the United Arab Emirates.
“If the museum was outside of here, it could be open all the time,” says Shawan. Now it’s mostly closed except when someone occasionally calls. He’s available anytime.