By Ethan Bronner – Gaza
It may sound like the escapist indulgence of a well-fed man fleeing the misery around him. But when Jawdat Khoudary opens the first ever museum of archaeology in Gaza this month, it will be an act of Palestinian patriotism, showing how this increasingly poor and isolated coastal strip ruled by the Islamists of Hamas was once a thriving multicultural crossroad.
The exhibit is housed in a stunning hall made up partly of the saved stones of old houses, discarded wood ties of a former railroad and bronze lamps and marble columns uncovered by Gazan fishermen and construction workers.
And while the display might be pretty standard stuff almost anywhere else – arrowheads, Roman anchors, Bronze Age vases and Byzantine columns – life is currently so gray in Gaza that the museum, with its glimpses of a rich outward-looking history, seems somehow dazzling.
"The idea is to show our deep roots from many cultures in Gaza," Khoudary said as he sat in the lush, antiquities-filled garden of his Gaza City home a few miles from the museum. "It’s important that people realise we had a good civilization in the past. Israel has legitimacy from its history. We do too."
The oldest Gaza site dates from the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., when Gaza became the head of all the caravan routes linking the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, via the Red Sea, to the Mediterranean.
History offers not only legitimacy, but a framework for coping with the present. Gaza is under an Israeli and international siege aimed at sapping strength from Hamas, widely viewed in the West as a terrorist group. But this is not the first time Gazans have faced such a squeeze.
"Gaza has suffered more than most cities," Khoudary said. "There was the siege of Alexander the Great and of the Persians and of the British. At the end of the day this siege will be a footnote."
Khoudary’s collection includes thousands of items, but some of the most extraordinary of them will not go on display just now, including a statue of a full-breasted Aphrodite in a diaphanous gown, images of other ancient deities and oil lamps with Jewish menorahs on them.
Asked why, Khoudary noted Hamas’ rule and the conservative piety of the population and said simply: "I want my project to succeed."
He did, however, bring a Hamas government minister to see the exhibit recently and pointed out two crosses on Byzantine columns to make sure the minister had no objections. The gap between the narrow-mindedness of Gaza today and the worldliness of the past is what most saddens him.
A prominent construction company owner, Khoudary, who is 48 and a believer in coexistence and global culture, has been collecting for 22 years, ever since he came across an Islamic glass coin and fell in love with its link to a bygone era. Since then, he has asked all his construction workers to save whatever is dug up so that he can go through it for treasures. Local fishermen know that anything old that washes ashore will fetch a decent price from Khoudary.
In 2005, he persuaded Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to let him set up a national archaeological museum with Swiss help. A site was picked and a show was developed at the Geneva Museum of Art and History; it brought in large crowds.
Then in June 2007, some months after Hamas won a parliamentary majority, Hamas and the Fatah party of Abbas fought street battles that ended in the banishment of Fatah and Abbas from Gaza.
So with the project stalled and Gaza’s borders closed, Khoudary decided to do it on his own. He built a restaurant and cafe (with space for a hotel) and on the same property added the museum. He dubbed the entire complex on the coast near the Shati refugee camp north of Gaza City "el Mat’haf," Arabic for museum, saying, "People here don’t hear this word. I want it to enter the vocabulary."
With so little to do in Gaza – factories are closed and the economy is stalled – el Mat’haf seems likely to attract huge crowds.
As it happens, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem has just published a catalogue on the Gaza dig of an Israeli team in the 1970s and ’80s. Led by the grand dame of Israeli archaeology, Trude Dothan, the dig at Deir el-Balah took place under army guard and uncovered gold jewellery, alabaster vessels and, most important, coffins, all of which are now in the Israel Museum. Some of it had been simply plundered by Moshe Dayan, the defence minister at the time who was an archaeology buff and something of a law unto himself. His collection is now in the Israel Museum as well.
Told of el Mat’haf, Dothan said she had long wished there was a museum in Gaza to house what she dug up. Khoudary said he had visited the Israel Museum and hoped that one day some of the Gaza collection could come back to Gaza "after we have a qualified government and the capability to protect the heritage of Gaza." Of Dothan he said: "She did us a favour, because it would all be gone or destroyed today."
James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, said that if there were a peaceable state in Gaza and a museum here, "I see no reason we couldn’t arrange a long-term loan."
Such warm talk between Israelis and Gazans is rare these days. Snyder said that under the current Israeli closing of Gaza, which bars all but humanitarian emergency cases from leaving here, "there is the perversity that Gazans today cannot see their own heritage in our museum."
-Ethan Bronner is deputy foreign editor of The New York Times. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. (Source: International Herald Tribune – www.iht.com– July 24, 2008. Copyright permission is granted for publication.)