Gaza's heritage sites lie in ruins as war rages on

The latest Israeli strike hit a compound with a church built in 425 AD

Qasr Al Basha in Gaza City, where Napoleon Bonaparte slept for several nights during his campaign in Egypt and Palestine. AFP
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Gaza woke up to yet another devastating attack on a sanctuary for its internally displaced people, as the Israel-Gaza war entered its 14th day.

One of the oldest working churches in the Palestinian enclave, the Church of Saint Porphyrius was hit in the late hours of Thursday by an Israeli air strike, leaving at least 16 dead and dozens injured at the compound of the Greek Orthodox church. Many Gaza residents had taken refuge in the compound as the war raged in the enclave.

Witnesses told AFP the strike damaged the facade of the church and caused an adjacent building to collapse.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem expressed its “strongest condemnation” of the strike at the oldest church still in use in Gaza.

“Targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelter they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli air strikes on residential areas over the past 13 days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored,” the Patriarchate said in a statement.

Gaza City’s ancient Greek Orthodox church is surrounded by crusader-era walls, which housed about 2,000 people, mainly women and children, who slept in the courtyard and corridors of the church during the 2014 war with Israel.

The church is named for a fifth-century bishop of Gaza, Bishop Porphyrius, who supposedly closed all pagan temples in Gaza and built the church’s original foundations in 425 AD.

It has been confirmed as the third oldest church in the world according to the church's official website. It was renovated in 1856.

The church is just metres from Al Ahli hospital, the site of an Israeli strike on Tuesday that resulted in the killing "of hundreds of innocent Palestinians”, said Ramzy Khoury, the head of the Higher Committee for Churches Affairs in Palestine.

It was converted into a mosque in the seventh century, but in the 12th century Christian forces restored its use as a church.

Some of the building's most notable features are its half-domed roof and its three entrances, which are supported by marble columns.

There are about 1,100 Christians left in Gaza, living alongside 1.9 million Muslims.

The hospital hit on Tuesday is one of the oldest operating hospitals, founded in 1882, according to the Jerusalem diocese’s website.

With Gaza so close to the birthplace of the world's three largest religions, it is no surprise this war-plagued region is rich with historically significant sites.

Here are a few sites recognised by the Unesco and regional archaeologists:

St Hilarion Monastery

On the 2012 World Monuments Watch list and Unesco's tentative list is Gaza’s oldest and largest known Christian monument, in an area called Tel Umm Amer in central Gaza. Hilarion was the founder of Palestinian monasticism about 300 AD and is said to have built the original site.

Over the centuries, from the late Roman era to the Umayyad empire, several different churches were built there. The various monasteries included mosaics and marbled floors, a baptism complex, a large crypt, and more than 120 rooms to house priests and visitors, in addition to bathrooms, a kitchen, dining hall, and a wheat and grapes press. The site is in Al Nusairat village on the coast, east of the shore rifts, and on the south bank of Wadi Gaza, 8.5km south of Gaza City.

Anthedon Harbour

Anthedon is the first known seaport of Gaza, mentioned in Islamic literature with the name Tida. The city was inhabited from 800 BC to 1100 AD, and housed a myriad different cultures from the Babylonian through to the early Islamic rules of the Umayyad and Fatimid empires. The archaeological site of the ancient harbour city of Anthedon is on the Mediterranean, in the north-west corner of the Gaza Strip.

According to Unesco, which has placed this site in its tentative list, the site consists of different elements spread over an area from the seashore, including underwater archaeology, and inland. Ruins of a Roman temple and a section of a wall have been uncovered, as well as Roman artisan and living quarters, including a series of villas. Mosaic floors, warehouses and fortified structures are found in the area.

Qasr Al Basha

This old fortress was converted into the only public archaeological museum in Gaza City. A 13th-century Mamluk Sultan supposedly built part of Qasr Al Basha, legend has it, as a home for one of his wives who he met in Gaza, while the fortress part dates from the 17th century after a Turkish Ottoman governor made it his home.

The British next used it as police headquarters and the Egyptians as a girl’s school. Most recently it opened as a museum run by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques with the help of international aid.

Hammam Al Sammara (the Samaritan bathhouse)

In Gaza City’s old Zaytoun quarter, the Turkish-style bath house bears the name of the Samaritan community, an ancient offshoot of Judaism, which used to run it.

A plaque on the ancient structure dates back to 1320AD. The hammam’s marble tiles, arched ceilings and stained-glass windows have fallen in and out of repair over the years.

Al Omari Mosque, or the Great Mosque of Gaza

The oldest mosque in the Gaza Strip, Al Omari is still used to this day to perform the Islam's five daily prayers. The site is believed to first have been a Philistine temple, followed by a Byzantine church, and then, after the Muslim conquest of Gaza in the seventh century, a mosque, renovated many times in the centuries since.

Wadi Gaza Coastal Wetlands

Unesco has identified this series of wadi banks as a strategic location for migratory birds.

The location of the Gaza Strip at the corner of the land bridge connecting the continents of Africa and Eurasia, makes it a passage for many migratory birds Thousands of ducks, herons, storks, cranes, flamingos, waders, raptors, quails, passerines and other birds have been reported passing through the Gaza Strip.

Unesco cites studies that show an urgent need to protect Wadi Gaza and it’s surrounding vegetation. The wadi faces many environmental problems because it is used as a sewage collection point for the middle area refugee camps and as a dumping ground for solid waste.

Many of Gaza’s ancient sites remain buried because of the limited international aid for excavation projects, such as that of a fourth-century Byzantine church in Jabalya in the north of the Gaza Strip.

Over the summer, a UN committee voted to list prehistoric ruins near the ancient city of Jericho in the occupied West Bank as a World Heritage Site in Palestine.

The decision, which has been criticised by Israel, was made at a meeting of the UN World Heritage Committee in Riyadh under the auspices of Unesco.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with Gaza and East Jerusalem, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Updated: October 20, 2023, 10:43 AM