GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Gaza Strip’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced on January 31 the discovery of the ruins of a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip. .
The discovery was made as bulldozers were digging for an Egyptian-funded housing project in the city.
In a statement, the ministry said its teams carried out preliminary examinations and seized items found at the cemetery, noting that the Ministry of Works and Housing has been ordered to halt construction work and cordon off the area.
The statement continued that a specialist committee has been formed to study the archaeological find, identify its historical value and make appropriate recommendations to deal with the discovered site.
According to local media, some people used donkey carts to loot many artifacts at the site, confirming that a week before the ministry’s announcement, many locals had found several relics such as lids of coffin and engraved bricks.
Al-Monitor attempted to contact the Tourism Antiquities Ministry for comment, but the ministry declined to issue a statement to the media until the review and assessment of the site was complete.
An eyewitness who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said several residents dug illegally after discovering ancient stones in the area.
It took two weeks of illegal excavations by citizens for the ministry team to arrive at the site.
“Many large archaeological stones have been removed from their original location and some items from the cemetery have disappeared,” the eyewitness said.
He noted that when the ministry team arrived on the scene, they seized the relics they found, and another team within the ministry attempted to recover the items that the citizens took.
“They [locals] also took a coffin lid with a cross engraved on it,” the source said.
According to the same source, the ministry did not want to attract any hype around the Egyptian-funded housing project that was being built on the land. He added that on February 6, three new graves were discovered and a pottery urn, but the ministry kept silent about it.
“The cemetery is on the outskirts of the Egyptian project under construction and where construction work is still ongoing. They were not arrested as the ministry announced,” the eyewitness said.
A source from the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor that construction works in the area were only suspended for one day and resumed after the Ministry of Tourism seized the relics discovered on the same day he released the statement.
“The uncovered cemetery is located on the outskirts of the city and not in the center,” the ministry source said, adding that it was unlikely to change the location for the housing construction. “There have been no discussions with government or non-government agencies about moving the project to another location.”
Journalist Amjad Yaghi lamented on his Facebook page that several people ransacked the archaeological site before the Ministry of Tourism had the chance to send its team there first, adding that this cemetery would be an extension of the city opposite the old port of Gaza. .
He asked why the Ministry of Tourism did not examine the site before it was awarded to the Egyptian housing project, explaining that the area is known for its archaeological finds with many indications that it was previously home to the first inhabitants. of Palestine and some of the civilizations of the region.
“The competent authorities should have had the area examined by experts before issuing the building permit,” Yaghi said.
Ghassan Wishah, a Palestinian historian and head of the department of history and archeology at the Islamic University of Gaza, told Al-Monitor: “The cemetery dates back to the late Roman Empire and the early Byzantine period. about 1,600 years ago, i.e. before the Islamic era,” noting that little information has been disclosed so far.
“According to the excavations and preliminary studies of the cemetery, about five graves were discovered as well as pottery objects. The inscriptions and the pottery and the nature of the rocks indicate that the relics belong to the Byzantine era, especially the coffin lids adorned with crosses,” he said.
Whishah noted that it was to be expected to find a cemetery in this area, especially since there was a huge commercial port nearby that connected Gaza to the world, believing that a Roman temple or a Byzantine church could be discovered in the region as well.
Although the cemetery covers only a small area, it indicates the presence of other relics or an entire neighborhood. In Byzantine times, cemeteries were usually built close to the community so that they could keep in touch with their dead, who were held in high esteem and had great importance according to the beliefs and culture of the time.
“Gaza is full of undiscovered antiquities. It requires huge projects and funding as well as special tools to reveal them,” Wishah said.
He added that Gaza is one of the oldest inhabited places on the planet and has been home to around 18 civilizations throughout history.
“In Roman times, Gaza was known as the ‘holy’ city,” he said.
Commenting on the looting of antiquities, Wishah pointed to the lack of awareness of the importance and value of heritage among Gazans, and that Gaza needs awareness campaigns to communicate information about it.
He noted, “The ministry lacks the necessary equipment and capacity for digging operations. The discovery of the cemetery was only a simple chance.
Wishah noted that the Islamic University of Gaza is ready to provide services, advice and assistance to the Ministry of Tourism to find out more about the cemetery.
On January 24, the Ministry of Tourism inaugurated the Byzantine church which dates from the 5th century, after its restoration. The church is considered one of the most important churches in the Levant with its valuable mosaic panels, inscriptions and pottery.