The refuge that allows Gaza to reflect on past glories

It may seem an odd dilemma in a territory where more than half of families live below an internationally defined poverty line, but Jawdat Khoudary is wondering whether there should be museum charges in Gaza.

As the owner and creator of the Strip's first purpose-built archaeological museum, he has no doubt that the most prized patrons, the organised parties of schoolchildren already starting to flock to it, must come for free. And having sunk a small fortune – he won't say how much – into building this elegant and air-conditioned space overlooking the Mediterranean just north of Gaza City's Shati refugee camp, he certainly isn't trying to make money from it. But the 48-year-old owner of one of Gaza's biggest construction companies worries that if he doesn't charge a couple of shekels for individual entry, Gazans may not realise the value of their heritage as much as he does.

"I believe in the importance of our roots, the importance of history," he says. "The nation that forgot its history will not have a good future." And what a history. This cultured but repeatedly fought-over and serially occupied maritime civilisation on the route from the Levant to Africa, is many thousand years old, flourishing long before the blinded Samson pulled down the great temple of Dagon in the 12th century BC, killing himself and thousands of his Philistine captors.

The artefacts that Mr Khoudary has installed are only part of the personal collection he has built since telling his bulldozer drivers and labourers – and local fishermen – 20 years ago that he would pay for anything ancient they find in the course of their work.

But even Mr Khoudary's collection is only a small fraction of the dazzling archaeological treasures of the Gaza, those already dug up and dispersed among collections round the world, those plundered and stolen, and those still waiting to be excavated.

However, this half of that fraction is rich enough to make the trip worthwhile. It ranges chronologically from sun-dried clay pots and mud-brick wall fragments from 5,500 years ago to a single – relatively – modern curiosity: a confectionery tin decorated with the portrait of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In between are hundreds of objects that testify to Gaza's long and turbulent history from the early bronze age to the Ottoman Empire: heavy stone anchors and more recognisable Roman ones; ancient Egyptian alabaster plates; clay wine jars and Corinthian columns from the Byzantine period; oil, water and perfume pots, and a clay wheel from a [now reconstructed] child's toy cart from the Philistine period between 1600BC and 1200BC; glass bottles from the Hellenistic age and miniature sculptures in ivory. And "a very important piece", says Mr Khoudary, the clay coffin lid in the form of a man's head from the 11th century BC.

The museum is partly designed to shed a ray of cultural light in the gloom of a blockaded, impoverished and war-damaged Gaza.

Mr Khoudary's is the first attempt to establish a focal point inside Gaza to house treasures that would, in the past, have left it, which he points out, all started with the Ottomans and the huge, 10ft-high, 2nd century AD statue of Zeus from Gaza, which has pride of place in the Istanbul Museum. Then there were the stunning hoards of inlaid gold jewellery excavated during the pre-Second World War British mandate by Sir Flinders Petrie in Tell el-Ajjul. This was the old Canaanite capital, where Wadi Gaza is today, before it was overrun in the 15th century BC by the Egyptian Pharoah Thutmosis III and replaced with what is now Gaza City. The jewels, hidden from those Egyptian invaders, are now in the British Museum.

The story of Israeli archaeology in Gaza is complex, told in fascinating detail in a new book on the collection at the Israel Museum by Trude Dothan, its greatest practitioner, and the woman who between 1972 and 1982 conducted the scientific excavations at Deir el-Bala in central Gaza. These established that it had been, in the 14th and 13th centuries BC, a prosperous Egyptian or Egyptian-style settlement, including a large official palace with, in its later years, an artisans' village turning out the extraordinary, haunting, anthropoid coffins of the kind now in the Israel Museum.

Professor Dothan was not the first Israeli to excavate the treasures of Deir el-Bala. That was a privilege reserved for Moshe Dayan, after Israel's seizure of Gaza in 1967. The former defence minister is now acknowledged to have been a robber of antiquities on a spectacular and largely unchecked scale.

The professor describes how, knowing his "hobby", she turned to him after finding that ancient burial gifts were flooding the antiquities shops of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. Having noticed they were too ingrained with desert sand to be "from Hebron", as the dealers claimed, she asked Dayan if he had heard of an ancient cemetery in Gaza. Dayan insisted he did not. Three months later Dayan would arrange for Professor Dothan to visit Deir el-Balah under military escort – a trip that would start her on a decade of excavation.

She later discovered that he had already acquired not only a notable collection of scarabs from Deir el-Balah but also "enormous quantities" of anthropoid coffin fragments and nine complete lids, all of which he was restoring at his home in Tel Aviv. The coffins would be included in the large portion of his vast collection which sold for $1m to the Israel Museum after his death.

Much had been looted not only by Dayan but also local Bedouin by the time she finally began her dig. Professor Dothan's achievement was to excavate and catalogue professionally – and so protect for the future – many of its treasures. And for this Mr Khoudary – who worries that details of Israeli excavations in 1991 at the ruins of a Byzantine monastery near Nusseirat were not so published – is greatly appreciative. "What she did was to save part of our history," he says.

The Deir el-Balah treasures now in Jerusalem could one day become for the Palestinians what the Parthenon Marbles (Elgin Marbles) are to the Greeks. Professor Dothan herself muses that it would come as "no surprise if the Palestinians demand the return of all artefacts removed".

While this is Mr Khoudary's dream for his embryo national museum, he knows that Gaza would have to see some stability first. "One of the purposes of my project is to alert the international community to the need for our heritage to be protected from political disputes," he says. He cites, as an immediate example, the fact that the Jerusalem-based Ecole Biblique, which has given him much help with the museum, is inhibited from excavating in Gaza "because if they get permission from [the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority] in Ramallah they will be boycotted here and if they get permission here [from the Hamas de facto government] they will be boycotted in Ramallah".

Mr Khoudary will not be deterred in his long-term ambitions for the museum, to look "carefully after the history and heritage of Gaza, to protect it for the next generations".

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