Last spring, a Palestinian farmer was planting a new olive tree when his shovel hit a hard object. He called his son, and for three months, the pair slowly excavated an ornate Byzantine-era mosaic that experts say is one of the greatest archaeological treasures ever found in Gaza.
The discovery has set off excitement among ar-chaeologists, and the territory’s Hamas rulers are planning a major announcement in the coming days.
But it is also drawing calls for better protection of Gaza’s antiquities, a fragile collection of sites threatened by a lack of awareness and resources as well as the constant risk of conflict between Israel and local Palestinian militants.
The mosaic was uncovered just a kilometer (half mile) from the Israeli border. The floor, boasting 17 iconographies of beasts and birds, is well-preserved and its colors are bright.
“These are the most beautiful mosaic floors dis-covered in Gaza, both in terms of the quality of the graphic representation and the complexity of the geometry,” said René Elter, an archaeologist from the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.
“Never have mosaic floors of this finesse, this precision in the graphics and richness of the colors been discovered in the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Elter says the mosaic pavement dates back to a time between the 5th and the 7th centuries. But he said a proper excavation must be conducted to de-termine when exactly it was built and whether it was part of a religious or secular complex.
Elter, who has conducted research in Gaza in the past, has not been able to visit the site but viewed a series of photos and videos taken by local research partners.
The Gaza Strip, a Palestinian coastal enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, was a bustling trade route between Egypt and the Levant in ancient times. The coastal strip is full of remains of ancient civilizations, from the Bronze Age to the Islamic and Ottoman eras.
However, the treasures are rarely protected. In the past, they were looted. In recent years, some were damaged or destroyed by development projects or fighting with Israel. An Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the Hamas militant group took over Gaza in 2007 has ravaged the economy, leaving few resources for the protection of antiquities.
Hamas itself pays little attention to preserving the sites as it struggles to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. More than 2.3 million people are squeezed in the strip’s just 300 square kilometers (115 square miles). In 2017, Hamas bulldozers de-stroyed large parts of a site containing remains from a 4,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement to make housing projects for its employees.
Early this year, bulldozers digging for an Egyp-tian-funded housing project in northern Gaza un-earthed a Roman-era tomb.
Among the few preserved sites in Gaza are the St. Hilarion monastery, which spans from the late Roman Empire to the Islamic Umayyad period, and the site of a Byzantine church that was restored by international aid organizations and opened this year in the northern Gaza Strip.—AP