“The End of the Caravan Route.”

A Geneva exhibition presents the Gaza Strip’s archeological riches for the first time–Excavations in national identity


On their trip to Gaza in April 2005, it took Marc-André Haldimann and Marielle Martiani-Reber less than twenty-four hours to grasp the importance of the archeological findings which they set eyes on. At first, the conservators of the Geneva Musée d’art et d’histoire had visited the excavations conducted by Jean-Baptiste Humbert and Moain Sadeq in Gaza-Blakhiyah, at the very spot where in ancient times, the port Anthedon was located. Subsequently, Humbert, the archeologist of the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, had led them to Gaza-City, where the collections of Jawdat Khoudary are located.

Since twenty years, Khoudary operates as a building contractor in Gaza. In the course of his first assignment, a fish market at the seaside, he came across traces of history right away. He found an Umayyad seal made of glass which he wears like a charm around his neck ever since: very unusual though for a man from Gaza—but Khoudary is convinced that this find has altered his life.

Until recently, Khoudary had employed 300 workers, then Israeli bulldozers destroyed half of his company site. He committed his workers to deliver the entire findings they made during their work. Even if that meant delaying the construction work: in order to save archeological objects, he spared neither efforts nor costs. Khoudary had seen how precious antiquities had been destroyed or moved out of the country. He wanted to prevent further loss.

After having visited the Khoudary collection, on the very same day, Haldimann and Martiani-Reber started to make plans. By the end of 2005, it was all set: an archeological museum was to be installed in Blakhyia/Anthedon. The city of Geneva and the Palestinian National Authority signed an agreement treaty, the UNESCO took over the patronage. The museum in Geneva started to instruct Palestinian specialists—and as of today, it is there, at the Geneva Museum, that the worldwide first exhibition on the archeology of the Gaza Strip is taking place. 530 exhibits illustrate the enormous wealth that region is offering. Half of these exhibits goes back to Khoudary’s collection, the other half belongs to the department of antiquities which was founded in 1994 by the Palestinian National Authority.

The parcours starts off in the fourth millennium B.C., at a time where pre-dynastic Egypt had already begun to move into the region. Scarabs and an early anchor made of stone which date back to this Egyptian period are on display. Density of the inventory (assets?) increases during the Persian period, going back to the 6th century B.C. and on through the Hellenic, Roman, and Byzantine periods. Among those sculptures which at times are conserved only in fragments, an Aphrodite of forty-eight centimeters wrapped in a translucent garment, posing against a Hermes pillar, catches one’s eye. During Roman times, a sack of money had sunk to the ground of the sea near the Gaza coast. The cloth has eroded, but through the forces of corrosion, the coins are still held together. From the Byzantine period, there are respectable capitals, a floor mosaic, a bronze scale, and countless tiny oil lamps. This tradition continues during the Islamic period, with more capitals, fragments of sculptures and tomb slabs, as well as a marble column which in 1917 became a tombstone for a British Lieutenant.

This voyage through the millenniums is illustrated by a long row of Amphoras in the middle of both exhibition halls. The first one dates back to the fifth century and re-appeared in 1980 in Geneva, less than hundred meters away from the museum. The reason: wine from Gaza was famed at that time. Already Saint Gregory of Tours had advised that altar wine should come from Gaza.

The reason why the unique archaeological richness of the Gaza strip has never before been savored by an exhibition has obviously to do with the precarious present situation, which Khoudary outlines as follows: “How can one speak of archaeology and history, if no one is capable to offer playgrounds to the kids, and schools which are not overstaffed, and their parents regular jobs which allows them to earn their living?”

However, the department of antiquities under the direction of Moain Sadeq, in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Humbert, has conducted a number of excavations since 1994. The site Tell as-Sakhan from the Bronze Age documents the arrival of the ancient Egyptians. Over the course of many centuries, Anthedon used to be an important commercial center for the Mediterranean trade.

But there is another reason why Gaza does not figure more prominently on the archaeologist’s agendas: contrary to Greece, Rome or Egypt, Gaza was never the center of a civilization. Rather was Gaza at a crossroads of cultures. Since earliest times, a Gaza coast road linked Egypt with Asia, as the only land route existing. At the same time, the caravan routes coming from Yemen and the Persian Gulf ended there. Gaza was the port of the Nabateans, whose grandiose desert city of Petra today is Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction.

It happened often enough that archaeologists, especially in the Holy Land, were just looking for a particular history—be it the history of Egyptians, Romans, of the New or the Old Testament. But not so Jean-Baptiste Humbert, who calls Gaza as “a fantastic window towards the Arab world”—in order to add: “But which Arab world?” For, so says Humbert in a conversation with Fareed Armaly: “What we have forgotten is the fact that the contact between the Greek-roman world of the Mediterranean on the one hand, and the Indian Ocean, India, and China, on the other hand, was routed through Gaza.”

Fareed Armaly, former artistic director of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, participates in the Geneva exhibition with an artwork: he resurrects the very amphora which indicates the exhibition’s beginning and which was excavated by Haldimann (among others) as virtual, three-dimensional model. But he leaves out all the finds, shards of clay and instead reconstructs the seams and voids. History, says the artist, is always but a reconstruction, an assembling of shards.

Since more than ten years, Jawdat Khoudary propagates the idea of a National Museum of Gaza. Which history that museum is supposed to tell is described by the businessman as follows: “There is no historical figure, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was not transiting through Gaza. I would hope that this is what the museum can show: this beautiful pottery comes from Karthago, that one from Athens, the other from Cyprus, this here from Alexandria. In order to point to the many connections we had during different time periods.”

Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, until 7, October 2007.
Catalogue “Gaza à la croisée des civilisations” (Édition Neuchâtel).