The human cost of the bombardment of the Gaza Strip in the war with Israel is well documented. What is less well known is how many historic buildings and sites have also been destroyed.
Israeli military strikes on Gaza began on 7 October after the militant group Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking around 240 hostages, among them women and children, according to the Israeli authorities. Since a temporary ceasefire began on Friday 24 November, a total of 69 hostages have been freed by Hamas and 150 Palestinians have been released from Israeli prisons.
The bombardment of Gaza, which is around 41km long and 10km wide, roughly a quarter of the size of greater London, has led to an immense humanitarian catastrophe. At least 45% of housing is estimated to be destroyed or damaged, residents lack access to basic supplies and the vast majority are not permitted to leave the strip. At the time of publication, more than 14,500 Palestinians had been killed, including 4,600 children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Gaza has successively been under Egyptian rule (early 15th century BC), then Philistine (12th century BC), then Babylonian (around 601BC), until, after the conquest of Alexander the Great (332BC), it became a centre of Greek learning. The Romans conquered the area in 63BC and it was a flourishing trading city, particularly favoured by Emperor Hadrian, in whose time many temples were built. It was then part of the Byzantine empire, followed by various Islamic dynasties after the seventh century, until the Mongols seized control in the 13th century. The Ottoman Empire ruled from the 16th century until the British occupation in 1917.
Gaza is therefore a palimpsest of cultures, much of which has yet to be excavated. A preliminary report by a Spain-based NGO focused on safeguarding cultural heritage lists 104 sites as damaged or completely destroyed. Heritage for Peace’s data, released on 7 November, includes historic religious sites, houses, museums and archaeological sites. “The report shows the importance of Gaza’s heritage,” says Isber Sabrine, a Syrian archaeologist and president of Heritage for Peace. “It is a small area but with a lot of heritage.” That heritage may never now be known because the shelling will have destroyed both what is below and above ground.
Numerous historic mosques have been damaged in the ongoing air strikes. One notable casualty in Jabaliya, in the north of the strip, is the Omari Mosque, a structure with seventh-century origins that was completely obliterated shortly after the bombing of Saint Porphyrius church, believed to be the third oldest church in the world. Heritage for Peace also reports damage to Ibn Uthman Mosque, dating back to the 15th century, and Sayed Hashem Mosque, where prophet Muhammad’s great-grandfather is believed to be buried. The Art Newspaper was unable to independently verify these reports. Jabaliya has been under intense bombardment including strikes on its refugee camp and a UN-run school that has killed hundreds of people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
The Palestinian ministry of tourism and antiquities says that while it is gathering information, it is at present unable to carry out a full assessment given the conditions on the ground. “We cannot ask [staff in Gaza] to check on the sites during this time,” Jehad Yasin, the ministry’s director of museums and excavations, tells The Art Newspaper.
Yasin confirms, however, that the 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery discovered last year in northern Gaza, containing dozens of ancient graves and two rare sarcophagi made of lead, was “almost completely destroyed” by bombardment. He says the ministry has no information on the condition of the artefacts or of one of the coffins that had been transferred to storage in Gaza. The second coffin was still on site. “If it’s [the store] still safe or bombed, we don’t know,” Yasin says. “If we lose this material, I think we lose a page from our history.”
Several of Gaza’s museums have also been destroyed or damaged. Rafah Museum, located in southern Gaza, published two videos on its Facebook page showing that the building has partially collapsed. Yasin says Palestinian officials have also received reports of significant damage caused to Al Qarara Cultural Museum and Deir Al Balah museum.
Mohammad Abulehia, who established Al Qarara Museum in 2016, confirms that the building and collection suffered significant damage when a missile struck an adjacent house on 12 October. The collection included antiquities from the Byzantine period while the free-entry museum also acted as a community hub. “I established the museum to protect and preserve Gaza’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage. I collected cultural assets threatened by theft and destruction due to the occupation, and made strenuous efforts in research, exploration and documentation,” Abulehia says. “Whatever remains of the collection is now in danger from the ongoing strikes. There is no place safe in Gaza.”
Anthedon Harbour, Gaza’s first known seaport, inhabited from 800BC to AD1100, has also been significantly impacted by the bombardment, according to Yasin. It is one of three Gazan sites on Unesco’s World Heritage Tentative List. A Unesco spokesperson tells The Art Newspaper that it is monitoring Gazan sites “remotely, using satellite data and information sent to us, due to the impossibility of carrying out on-site verifications”. This means that it is “too early to give a clear estimate of the damage to cultural heritage”.
Even before the war, Unesco held concerns about the state of conservation of sites in Gaza “due to the lack of local public policies on heritage and culture”, the spokesperson says. “Unesco is deeply concerned about the adverse impact this conflict could have on cultural heritage in Palestine and Israel, and calls on all actors to scrupulously respect international law,” they concluded.
Yasin explains that the preservation of heritage sites and collections of artefacts in Gaza has long faced considerable challenges. Operating in an area under stringent restrictions not only causes a demographic crisis, it can also limit simple tasks such as importing conservation material, which requires permission from Israel to enter Gaza.
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip after the 1967 war and remained until 2005 when it withdrew its settlements. In 2007 Hamas seized control of Gaza after it won Palestinian elections the previous year. Israel, citing security concerns, implemented a blockade that restricts the movement of Gaza’s population, leaving it reliant on Israel for basic necessities such as electricity, food and even potable water. The UN considers Gaza part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
In 2018, the British Council contributed funds to preserve the fifth-century Byzantine Church located in the Jabaliya refugee camp. A source close to the project tells The Art Newspaper that there are reports of substantial damage to the church, but they were unable to independently verify them. According to the Heritage for Peace report, the site is almost completely destroyed.
The British Council has also supported the preservation of Saint Hilarion Monastery, near Deir al Balah, 14km south of Gaza City and within North Gaza’s evacuation zone. Known as Tell Umm Ammer, it is one of the oldest and largest monasteries with substantial remains in the Middle East and is on the Unesco World Heritage Tentative List. Damage has been reported, but destruction of its surrounding areas and roads has blocked access.
In 2020 Aliph, the international alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas, conducted a project at the monastery. Sandra Bialystok, Aliph’s director of communications and partnerships, says that Aliph maintains regular communication with its operators on the ground, Première Urgence Internationale and Riwaq, and that their teams are safe, but obtaining precise information is very challenging. “First and foremost, Aliph expresses profound sadness over the tragic loss of all civilian lives in both Israel and Palestine,” she says. “There are reports of damage to the surrounding neighbourhood and, potentially, the monastery itself; but this is yet to be confirmed.” A source with close knowledge of the project confirmed the same.
Projects involving Gaza’s maritime archaeological sites have also been affected. One of the most recent initiatives is the Gaza Maritime Archaeology Project (Gazamap), part of the Maritime Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa Project (MarEA) run by the University of Southampton and Ulster University in partnership with the University of Oxford. Gazamap, which launched in 2022, set out to examine and survey Gaza’s coastal sites, which have important archaeological data but have been eroding fast, with a focus on Tell Ruqaish, an Iron Age site (1200BC-500BC) in the south, and Tell es-Sakan, the largest archaeological site in the strip, located 5km south of Gaza City. Additionally, its goal was to create cost-effective solutions for Palestinian archaeology students who lack access to essential working tools such as GPS devices. Tell es-Sakan and Tell Ruqiash have both been impacted by the bombardments; however, the extent of damage is not yet clear.
Coastal sites under threat
There were plans for further underwater surveys in October and training abroad next year. But the current conditions in Gaza have put the future of the project in jeopardy. One of the students and two media collaborators, including Rushdi Sarraj (an established photojournalist), who were taking aerial footage and trained the students in drone photography, were killed in the air strikes. Several other students have been displaced.
Georgia Andreou, the director of Gazamap and a senior researcher at the University of Southampton, says she is “extremely concerned” for the safety of the project’s students in Gaza. She praises them as “the hardest working students I have ever worked with”, noting that they are “working in the most impossible conditions and they delivered excellent results”.
“The urgent need right now is to stop this war and then we can find a way through the issues with the help of the international community,” Yasin says. “There are many ways to solve the problems that have occurred in Gaza. At a minimum, according to international law, we have to preserve this cultural heritage because it is not only Palestinian cultural heritage; it is world heritage.”