In the spring, a Palestinian farmer was planting a new olive tree when his shovel hit a hard object. He summoned his son and over three months the couple slowly excavated an ornate Byzantine mosaic that experts say is one of the greatest archaeological treasures ever found in Gaza.
This discovery aroused great interest among archaeologists. It also stresses the importance of providing better protection for antiquities in Gaza. In addition to this mosaic floor, there are fragile sites threatened by the lack of knowledge and resources and the constant danger of conflict between Israel and local Palestinian militants.
The mosaic was discovered just one kilometer from the Israeli border. The floor, which contains 17 pictures of animals and birds, is well preserved and the colors are vivid. “Never before have mosaic floors been discovered with such ingenuity, such accuracy of images and such richness of color in the Gaza Strip,” said Rene Elter, an archaeologist at the French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem.
Elter says that the mosaic pavement dates back to the period between the fifth and seventh centuries. But he said proper excavations should be carried out to determine exactly when it was built and whether it was part of a religious or secular complex. The plot of land on which the mosaic is located has an area of about 500 square meters and three excavated areas reveal only a glimpse of the mosaic.
The Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, was a busy trade route in ancient times. The coastal strip is full of remnants of ancient civilizations, from the Bronze Age to the Islamic and Ottoman eras. However, treasures are rarely protected. They have been looted in the past. In recent years, some have been damaged or destroyed due to development projects or fighting with Israel.
Hamas itself pays little attention to maintaining the sites while trying to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. More than 2.3 million people are trapped in just 300 square kilometers of the strip. In 2017, Hamas bulldozers destroyed large swaths of a site containing the remains of a 4,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement to create housing projects for its workers.
Among the few remaining sites in Gaza are the monastery of St. Hilarion, which stretches from the late Roman Empire to the Islamic Umayyad period, and the site of a Byzantine church that was restored by international aid agencies and opened this year in the northern Gaza Strip. . While these sites also contain mosaics, Elter said the recent discovery in the town of El-Bureij is “exceptional.” The Hamas-led Department of Antiquities called the mosaic a “major archaeological find” but declined to comment, saying the official announcement would be made at a later time.
Elter said the discovery was in “imminent danger” because it was so close to Israel’s separation barrier. Such areas along the fence are often the scene of clashes or Israeli incursions. Just last month, Israel and Islamic Jihad fought a fierce three-day battle in Gaza.
Elter also fears that excavations by inexperienced people could damage the site. Hope a professional team can properly etch, restore and protect the mosaic. “It is necessary to organize a rescue operation quickly,” Elter concludes.
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