Gaza opens 1,700-year-old Byzantine church to public

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in the Gaza Strip inaugurated January 24 the Byzantine church as a public museum. The old church, located in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of the enclave, dates back to the 5th century.

The ministry has worked with several international partners to rebuild and renovate the church established some 1,700 years ago, with the aim of revitalizing domestic tourism.

Jamal Abu Rida, director general of antiquities at the Gaza Strip’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that the church ruins were accidentally discovered in 1988 while local workers were paving the Salah al-Din highway linking the northern and southern Gaza Strip. The site was silted up due to weather and climatic factors.

Abu Rida explained that the ministry also dug up the tombs of emperors and worshipers at the site. “They were identified after examination of their bones. We also found coins and pieces of pottery,” he said.

He noted: “This church is one of the most important churches in the Levant, as it was established during the time of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I in 497. It was located on the old trade route from Gaza to the Levant and was a rest stop for Christian pilgrims heading to the Holy Land.

Abu Rida said the site consists of three buildings, namely the church, the chapel and the baptistery, covering an area of ​​800 square meters (8,600 square feet). “This church is the only one in the Middle East with 17 Old Greek scriptures inscribed on mosaic floors, which proves that it has been extended and renovated many times over several eras. The floors of the church are ornate mosaics depicting scenes from the natural world, including fruits, birds and animals inspired by Greek and Roman myths.

He explained that many icons were destroyed during Byzantine Iconoclasm (726-876) and it was difficult to restore them. He said: “This church witnessed the reign of 24 Byzantine emperors, starting with Emperor Anastasius I and ending with Emperor Heraclius. It also survived the Islamic era, which was ruled by 14 Islamic caliphs, starting from Omar Ibn al-Khattab in 636 to Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur in 775.

He added: “The church was damaged during successive Israeli offensives on the Gaza Strip, which led to the destruction of parts of its mosaic floors. As part of emergency conservation efforts in 2012, the ministry installed temporary protective canopies for the mosaic floors, built a protective fence, and restored damaged portions of the mosaic floors.

The restoration project was overseen by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and carried out by the French organization Première Urgence Internationale and the British Council, in partnership with the French School of Biblical and Archaeological Research, between 2017 and 2021.

The project included excavation, restoration and maintenance work, the unearthing of tombs and the monks accommodation, and permanent work to cover and protect the mosaic floors. An exhibition hall, a meeting room and the entrances to the church have also been equipped.

Abu Rida said the church has now become a fully equipped tourist site to receive local and foreign visitors. “The restoration of Christian and Islamic archaeological sites encourages local and foreign visitors to visit the Gaza Strip,” he noted.

He stressed that the Byzantine church is only open to visitors as a museum, not a place of worship, pointing out that ministry-affiliated guards are deployed to the site to provide protection.

“All the artifacts discovered are on public display at the site. Wooden walkways have been installed to allow visitors to safely admire the mosaic floor,” he added.

The coordinator of First emergency in Gaza, Jihad Abu Hassan, told Al-Monitor that the restoration of the church was part of the Intiqal 2030 program which was launched by the organization in 2017. The program aims to rehabilitate heritage sites in the Gaza Strip, including Saint Hilarion Monastery (Tell Um Amer) and the Byzantine Church of Jabaliya.

He said that the monastery of Saint Hilarion in the region of Tell Umm Amer, in the village of tabatha, is one of the largest monasteries in the Levant and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site provisional list. “This site requires enormous restoration and preservation efforts,” he noted.

“The Byzantine Church houses many biblical texts and mosaic paintings that have been buried in the sand since the government of Gaza could not explore and restore them due to the poor financial situation. The restoration work took three years,” Abu Hassan continued.

Intiqal 2030 is a youth-led initiative aimed at supporting young people by providing training opportunities for graduates in architecture, history and archeology from Palestinian universities in Gaza, in the areas of heritage protection and antiquities restoration.

Abu Hassan said, “Many university graduates in these fields do not have job opportunities due to a lack of workshops and training programs aimed at developing their skills. The program aims to engage the Palestinian community and raise awareness of the importance of heritage, urging them to interact with their heritage and archaeological sites to build resilience and safeguard their identity and fundamental rights.

He added, “In addition to antiquities restoration work, the project offers six to 12 months of expert training for graduates in this field. About 84 graduates have been trained so far on the management and monitoring of restoration and reconstruction protection works.”

Abu Hassan explained that the project was supervised by six international experts from the French School of Biblical and Archaeological Research in several fields, including mosaics, excavations, pottery restoration, animal remains science and 3D imaging.

He also mentioned the difficulties encountered during the restoration work. “We faced a shortage and delayed delivery of some materials needed for repair and maintenance work during the Israeli blockade. It was also difficult to bring foreign experts to the Gaza Strip. Additionally, the closures imposed to curb the coronavirus outbreak in 2020 have affected the progress of restoration work,” he concluded.

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