“Fragments, reassembled.”

A Geneva exhibition about the archaeology of the Gaza Strip


It does not happen every day that the Geneva Musée d’Art et d’Histoire receives high ranked State guests. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived for this opening including an entourage of Ministers and high ranked officials. Exhibition visitors had to endure safety checks like at the airport. Palestinians, who had dressed up for the event applauded when Abu Mazen stepped out of the car and disappeared into a side door.

The occasion was raised by the first world-wide, large-scale exhibition on the archaeology of the Gaza Strip. A region of highest archaeological interest: more than five hundred objects illustrate six-thousand years of history, including a succession of Egyptians and Persians, Ptolemies and Seleucids, Romans, and Byzantines, as well different dynasties of the Islamic period. A la croisée civilisations the exhibition title is perhaps best translated as: at the intersection of cultures.

Caravan route to the Persian Gulf

In Gaza two important connection routes intersected since the earliest time: The coastal road, at various times, way of the Horus, to the country of the Philistines, called Via Maris or road of the Sultans, formed the only connection from Egypt to Asia. Of crucial importance was also the overland route to the east: the caravan route to the Persian Gulf and Yemen, well-known under the name, Spice Route. For the Nabataeans in the Jordanian desert city Petra Gaza was the Mediterranean port.

On the approximately thirty kilometers long Gaza Strip a rich find of pieces from all epochs has been preserved. The oldest, rather inconspicuous objects are followed by Scarabs, an early anchor made from stone, red and black figurined vases and a small Aphrodite in a transparent garb, resting on a ithyphallic hermes.

The objects originate from two sources: Since 1994, the Department of Antiques of the Palestinian Autonomous Authority conducts archeological research in co-operation with international partners. Parallel to this collection, since the beginning of the 1990s the building contractor Jawdat Khoudary saved a considerable collection of antiquities from its final destruction during building projects. About half of the Geneva exhibits belongs to his collection: whoever digs up the earth in Gaza, even if it is only to establish a house, discovers everywhere the traces of history.

At the beginning however stands a leitmotif, an amphora from the fifth century which surfaced hardly 100 meters away from the museum, from underneath the cathedral of Geneva: altar wine should be obtained from Gaza, as already the holy Gregory of Tours wrote. Marc-André Haldimann, the curator of the exhibition, had taken part in the excavation as a young man. After that section, a long row of amphoras mark the time periods.

The material of history

The American artist Fareed Armaly takes up the topic in a different way. He reconstructs the reconstruction of the Amphora: as a three-dimensional object, which consists only of seams and supplements. Following Haldimann, Armaly differentiates between diagnostic shards—handle, neck, profiles which provides a reference index for the archeologist—and the insignificant body fragments. These fragments Armaly lets arise, piece for piece, as recesseses engraved in paper weights made from crystal. The shards form something like the material of history: the everyday life, the population, which does not appear in the source material.

These fragments and blank spaces imply tacitly the central issue of the exhibition concept: How does one reconstruct history, wherein lies the connection between the traces of a great past and the precarious situation of the present? Gaza is a very specific case: despite the immense archaeological significance so far the history of the region never has been approached.

This certainly is also a question of perspective. Some Israeli archaeologists only looked obsessivly for traces of Old Testament history. The Occident was more interested in places of the New Testament. Jean-Baptiste Humbert, archaeologist to the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, in contrary saw a unique chance in Gaza to refrain from one-sided preconceptions. He excavated directly in front of Gaza parts of the antique port of Blakhiyah/Anthedon. At this place, after the will of the Palestinian Authorities, an archaeological museum should be established, for which the UNESCO already assumed patronage.

Past and present closely collide here: the two hectare large area borders hard on the Shati refugee camp. A future museum according to the model of the Geneva exhibition, would not tell only a partial history, but, in complete contrast to the current hopelessness, put emphasize on trade, exchange and the extensive international contacts.

Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva. To 7. October 2007. Catalog (Édition Neuchâtel).