Endangered Museums and Cultural Heritage: Gaza’s Heritage in the Rage of Bombardment
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Abed Khaled / AP Photo
On October 19, Gaza bore witness to the shattering destruction of one of the world's oldest churches, intensifying our grave apprehensions about the ruthless erasure of Gaza's history and heritage. Amidst relentless bombardment, the city bleeds its historical and cultural essence, once a cradle of over eight civilizations—Pharaonic, Canaanite, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic. This catastrophic loss stands as a harrowing testament to the brutal annihilation of invaluable human history and cultural legacy.
The loss of Gaza's world oldest church intensified our concern for the erasure of its historical and tangible heritage amidst ongoing bombardment. This event not only led to the disheartening disappearance of centuries-old history and diversity but also raised our concern for the safety of other sites serving as gateways to numerous ancient and pre-modern civilizations.
Gaza hosts significant historical monuments and museums portraying its history and heritage, endangered by artillery. In 2011, Gaza's Tell Umm-Amer and Anthedon Harbor (Gaza's Old Harbor) were recognized as World Heritage by UNESCO after the Palestinian Authority's request.
"Across Gaza lie many historical sites, including 150 houses, 20 mosques, and three churches. There are found an old souq (souq) and a fountain (sabil)." (Al-Monitor, 2016)
As the strip endures the continuing barrage of heavy bombardment since October 7, the uncertain condition of endangered museums has become a pressing concern. A day after the destruction of the ancient Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius, an emblem of 15 centuries of prayers, another tragedy befell the Rafah Museum- Gaza's Museum of Palestinian Heritage - now lying in ruins in Southern Gaza. Opened to visitors in December 2022, after 30 years of painstaking collection, the museum represents a Palestinian woman's dedication and cultural awareness. Suhayla Shahin, a Professor of Technology and Education, also in charge of the "Khawater" humanitarian initiative for Gaza's children, invested more than $60.000 in curating cultural and archaeological artifacts. Standing before the rubble and remnants of her museum, Shahin mourns the irretrievable loss of a significant portion of Gaza's cultural heritage. Her poignant expressions, shared via social media and news channels, echo the profound lamentation over the profound loss. Still optimistic, Shahin says, "Children of Gaza will rebuild it."
"It hasn't been a year yet since the opening. The museum was not only nationally oriented but also had a universal message. I wanted to keep the generations connected to the history and culture of Gaza and Palestine, but the war destroyed it. They destroyed it. They targeted the museum. They're targeting our heritage." (Suhayla Shahin/ainkisar.ps, 2023)
Suhayla Shahin. ainkisar.ps/Abdulla al-Attar, 2023
Gaza’s Museum.ainkisar.ps/Abdulla al-Attar, 2023
The Qasr al-Basha (Pasha Palace Museum; Radwan Castle and Napoleon's Fort), a historical public museum tracing its origins to the Mamluk period, is situated in al-Wehda Street in the Old City of Gaza, only ten minutes walk from al-Ahli Baptist Hospital and Church of St. Porphyruis. This 13th-century palace served as a residence for Mamluk and Ottoman governors, later used by Napoleon during the French campaign in the 19th century, operated as a girls' school in the 20th century, and ultimately was turned into a museum in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the museum has reported partial destruction caused by Israeli bombshells. It is not the first time al-Wehda Street, where the palace is located, has witnessed destruction. In May 2021, after an Israeli airstrike, the street lived a catastrophe (called the massacre of al-Wehda) left the city in sorrow, and Gazan saying: "the street has died." Now, after 44 days of bombardment, we learn that al-Wehda faced yet another leveling that eventually affected the museum.
Qasr al-Basha (interior) - Ultra Palestine, 2022
A satellite image showing the level of destruction in Gaza. New York Times, November 20, 2023/Location of Qasr al-Basha
In the wake of the current conflict, Khalid 'Azb expressed to al-Jazeera the sorrow felt by the damage inflicted upon the Gaza Strip's private museums. His message underscores the deep value Gazans place on their tangible heritage and awareness of the significance of its preservation. 'Azb elaborated on the substantial efforts undertaken by the Palestinians in establishing and maintaining different museums dedicated to safeguarding the strip's abundant material legacy. Notably, most of these museums are in Northern and Southern Gaza.
After the distressing loss of significant archaeological and cultural heritage, serious concerns arise regarding the uncertain fate of these museums under siege and bombardment. Families in Gaza, such as al-Khudary, al-‘Aqqad, al-Shahwan, Abu Lehya, Abu Alian, and others showed remarkable efforts by establishing private home museums. These families expressed their concern about the imminent threat posed to Gaza's heritage to news channels even before the current conflict unfolded. Each museum acts as a custodian of heritage and embodies the memories and aspirations of its founders.
Now, amid the ongoing turmoil, the vulnerability of these repositories accentuates the urgent need to safeguard these vital connections to the past and present. These museums remain poignant reminders of the foresightedness and dedication of Gazans in preserving their heritage in the face of adversity. In the challenging conditions of Gaza, a group of private museums stands as anchors of cultural resilience.
Among these museums is Gaza's Museum or Mathaf- al-Funduq (The Hotel's Museum), established by Jawdat al-Khudari, a renowned Palestinian businessman. Within the confines of the al-Muthaf Hotel in Northern Gaza, this unique establishment not only harbors historical relics dating back to the Bronze Age (3500 BCE) but also fosters cultural events, engaging children and adults, painting a vibrant portrayal of the strip's rich heritage. Before the blockade, serving as a gateway for visitors, a guest could relish a stay at the hotel, savor cultural experiences at the restaurant, and embark on a historical tour at its museum. On November 3, the news reported severe impact due to Israeli strikes on al-Rasheed Street, described by Gazan as the strip’s most beautiful street, leaving us in the dark about the condition of the museum.
Mathaf al-Funduq, Museum Hall, almathaf.ps
Al-Rasheed Street before and after Israeli bombardment (2023), Khalil Hamra and Abed Khaled/AP Photos
Nestled among olive trees in an old house at al-Qarara village in Khan Younes, Southern Gaza, Al-Qarara Cultural Museum (or Khan Younes Museum) reflects the creative efforts of artist couple Najla and Mohamed Abu Lehya. Housing artifacts of a six million years timespan, this museum put togehter the strip's history from the Canaanite period to the modern era. Beyond conserving relics, this museum fosters cultural craftsmanship. The museum comprises distinct rooms, each designated to a different theme. A unique room showcases cultural artifacts, including Palestinian embroidery and tools used by farmers and villagers throughout history. On November 2, Mohammad Nahla told us that the al-Qarara Museum was amongst the many cultural centers affected by the recent Israeli bombardment.
Al-Qarara Museum, Cultural room, The Christian Science Monitor, 2021
In the heart of Khan Younes, Waleed al-'Aqqad has reverently preserved a five-millennia-long of Gaza's history at the Al-'Aqqad Cultural Center of Heritage Archeology. This collection of ancient and premodern antiquities, paintings, and cultural masterpieces is a testimony to the endurance of the Palestinian cultural heritage. As an anxious guardian of history, al-'Aqqad told al-Jazeera that he sleeps in the museum to safeguard a 35-year-old dream. We last heard about the museum on February 22, 2020, in al-Ayn news.
Waleed al-‘Aqqad -Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, 2016
Marwan al-Shahwan's Underground Museum in Khan Younes stands tall as a home of over 10,000 artifacts from several civilizations. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Al-Shawhan recalled his grandfather's dream of establishing a museum to narrate and preserve ‘the history of the people and the city.’ The dream became a reality after 30 years of journey. Unfortunately, recent attacks on Gaza have jeopardized the safety of Al-Shahwan's repository. The partial damage that affected this Gazan museum was last reported on October 21, 2023, by Khalid 'Azb to al-Jazeera.
"I hope this museum will find a bigger home" Marwan Al-Shahwan, 2016.
An angle of al-Shahwan Museum, Diya al-Kahlout, Al Jazeera, 2011
These private museums not only demonstrate a vision and commitment that subtly reflect Gazan’s resilience but also play a paramount role in protecting Gaza's cultural legacy. They echo the sentiments of their founders and their inherent significance.
Unfortunately, many family-owned museums remain unfamiliar to the broader world. Most of the available material is in Arabic, limiting accessibility through popular search engines. Nevertheless, it is notable that each museum’s founders have taken the initiative to establish an engaging social media presence, ensuring interaction with those interested in their exhibits.
Despite the thorough review of the list detailing the civilians killed by the Israeli bombardments provided by the Ministry of Health, the information about Suhyala Shahin, Jawdat al-Khudari, Najla and Mohamed Abu Lehya, Waleed Al-'Aqqad, and Marwan Al-Shahwan could not be confirmed. Their well-fair remains uncertain amidst the extensive airstrikes.
Also, the current state of the mentioned museums, and others laying throughout Gaza from the North to the South, remains uncertain. Likewise, the level of harm inflicted upon historical landmarks such as the Roman Cemetery and the Byzantine Mosaic floor, which Salman al-Nabahin discovered on his farm and worked to preserve, remains unknown.
As nations prioritize saving lives over buildings, it might be challenging, at this stage, to have a discussion on the tremendous loss of heritage infrastructure in Gaza. However, we need to draw the attention of the absent international organizations that are currently not actively involved in protecting these sites—concentrated in the Northern and Southern provinces, especially Khan Younes.
In an opinion article published by Oxford University commenting on the invasion of Ukraine, Timothy Clack underlines that wars decimate people and identities by destroying cultural heritage. Clack asserts that wars typically launch systematic destruction of heritage that he calls 'culturicide.' According to the Hague Convention of 1954, cultural and historical heritage is a universal responsibility to protect.
"Buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a) such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives, and refuges intended to shelter, in the event of armed conflict." (The Hague Convention, 1/C, 1954.)
Under the zenith of bombardment, the cultural and material heritage of a Mediterranean Palestinian city that is home to a diverse blend of ethnic and religious groups faces a grave threat. It is imperative to catalyze global action aimed at preventing such calamities and conserving the multifaceted and historically rich Gazan heritage. While calling the international communities' attention to Gaza's severely damaged urban infrastructure, there's a genuine concern that these crucially important private museums and several more might be buried in the haze of destruction and bombshells.
November 9, 2023/Al Jazeera. (map modified and museums’ information added)
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