Walid al-Aqqad’s Gaza home would be the envy of many an antiquities collector. Pieces of Corinthian columns greet visitors in his backyard. Inside, hundreds of ancient pots are arranged helter-skelter on and beneath shelves. Coins, carvings, and other framed items crowd the walls. They are remnants of five millennia of Gaza’s history. The contents of al-Aqqad’s home represent the work of craftsmen from the Bronze Age, the Islamic caliphates, and the years of Ottoman and British rule of the region.
Gaza is a sliver of land on the Mediterranean Sea. Going back to biblical times, it was part of a major trade route between Egypt and the Levant (now Palestine, Israel, and Syria). But decades of war have taken a heavy toll on Gaza’s rich archaeological heritage. It has been exposed to looting and destruction.
In 2007, the Islamic militant group Hamas seized Gaza. Hamas took it from forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. In response, Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza. That left the territory isolated and increasingly impoverished. Palestinians say the closures also hindered excavations and restricted experts’ access to new discoveries.
Hamas has done little to protect Gaza’s antiquities. In some cases, Hamas even actively destroys them.
Ayman Hassouna is a professor of history and archaeology at Gaza’s Islamic University. He is deeply concerned about the destruction and loss of historical sites and artifacts. Hassouna says none of the governing authorities in the area have done enough to protect the territory’s cultural heritage. He also blames a lack of awareness among Gazan residents of the importance of preserving ancient sites and artifacts. “When they find something, they would hide it or build over it,” he claims.
Antiquities plundering and trafficking is a problem, says Heyam al-Bitar. She is an archaeologist with Gaza’s ministry of tourism and antiquities. She says the ministry learned earlier this year that dozens of ancient Greek silver coins were smuggled out of Gaza in 2016.
Al-Aqqad is one of a few trying to save Gaza’s antiquities. He began his collection in 1975, buying from collectors or searching the beach and new construction sites. Now his house in the southern city of Khan Younis is an archaeological, heritage, and cultural museum. To help raise awareness that Hassouna says is so needed, Al-Aqqad welcomes school trips and history students.
“This museum was established by personal efforts and at the expense of my children’s bread,” al-Aqqad says.
His is one of five legally registered private collections in the Gaza Strip. Combined, those private efforts contain 10,000 objects of historical value, according to the ministry.
(In this July 14, 2019 photo, Walid al-Aqqad sits in front of old coins hanging on a wall inside his Al-Aqqad private museum in the town of Khan Younis, Southern Gaza Strip. AP Photo)