'A war on Palestinian narrative and memory': Israeli strikes leave Gaza heritage in ruins

Territory's oldest mosque and 14th-century Turkish bathhouse among more than 200 historical sites reported destroyed

Al Omari Mosque in Gaza city in 2020, left, and in December 2023 with only its minaret still standing
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Al Omari Mosque, the oldest in Gaza, has survived damage from conquests and earthquakes in its 1,400-year history, being rebuilt each time, but it might never recover from the destruction wrought by Israel's latest military offensive on the Palestinian enclave.

With only its famed minaret still standing amid piles of rubble, the mosque resembles the many historical sites lost since Israel launched its campaign against Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups on October 7.

Israeli attacks have destroyed 207 archaeological and heritage sites in the Gaza Strip, the Culture Ministry said in a statement on January 1.

According to the government's media office, Gaza has a total of 325 registered historical sites that include mosques, churches, schools, museums and houses.

قصفت طائرات الاحتلال الإسرائيلي حمام السُمره وسط مدينة غزة ودمرته بالكامل. وهو الحمام الوحيد المتبقي في غزة وعمره يصل...

Posted by ‎وزارة الثقافة الفلسطينية The Palestinian Ministry of Culture‎ on Friday, December 29, 2023

The Palestinian Minister of Culture, Atef Abu Seif, accused Israel of waging a “systematic and targeted” campaign against the territory's “culture and heritage sector with its material and intangible components, through which it seeks to erase national memory, promote distortion of facts, and fight the Palestinian narrative”.

Like Al Omari Mosque, the majority of these sites are located in four historical neighbourhoods of Gaza city – Tufah, Zaytoun, Daraj and Shujeiya – that have been heavily targeted by Israeli strikes, Mr Abu Seif told The National.

Not far from the mosque, in the Zaytoun district, are the ruins of Hamam Al Sumara, a Turkish-style bathhouse that had a plaque dating it back to 1320AD.

Hamam Al Sumara, where many residents ventured for a day of relaxation, was the only functioning bathhouse left in Gaza after others were dismantled to make room for the territory's growing population.

Zaytoun, like many areas of Gaza city and across the territory, has been reduced largely to rubble by Israeli air strikes, shelling and ground fighting.

More than 22,600 people have been killed in the offensive launched by Israel to eradicate Hamas after Palestinian militants from Gaza killed more than 1,100 people and took about 240 hostages in southern Israel on October 7.

The Israeli offensive initially focused on Gaza city and other northern areas before being extended to the centre and south of the narrow coastal strip.

While global concerns about the war have been focused on the high death toll and scale of human suffering in Gaza, the destruction of its heritage has not gone unnoticed.

In November, the independent, Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor condemned Israeli strikes on Gaza's “cultural and religious sites”, citing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict as well as the Second Protocol to the Convention of 1999.

The watchdog said Israel was “relentlessly chipping away at the humanitarian and cultural heritage of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, violently targeting landmarks that represent Gazans’ basic values” as part of its war in the territory.

The destruction includes Christian sites, among them one of the buildings in the compound of Gaza city's Church of Saint Porphyrius in Shujeiya. Originally constructed in around 407AD, it is Gaza's oldest functioning church and the third oldest in the world.

The ruins of the St Hilarion Monastery, also known as Tell Umm Amer, are under threat from heavy fighting in central Gaza.

The ruins span more than four centuries, from the late Roman Empire to the Umayyad period, according to the World Monuments Fund, which placed the site on its watch list in 2012.

“Characterised by five successive churches, bath and sanctuary complexes, geometric mosaics, and an expansive crypt, this Christian monastery was one of the largest in the Middle East,” it said.

Israeli has been conducting air strikes and shelling of the Al Nuseirat camp nearby, but the extent of damage to the monastery is unclear due to a lack of access to the site. It was granted “enhanced protection” status by Unesco in light of the continuing war.

Gaza's oldest market, Souq Al Zawiya has been wiped out from existence, and its Central Archives building, which contained documents that were more than a century old, has also been destroyed, the Gaza city municipality said.

“This is a war on human beings and their place and their story in that place,” Mr Abu Seif, the Culture Minister, said.

Updated: January 06, 2024, 6:21 AM