GAZA CITY // It was perhaps fitting that when workmen came across a haul of 1,400 ancient Greek silver coins, some 2,500 years old, they should do so in Rafah, Gaza's southern border town. Rafah, after all, is the only place in the territory where international trade still takes place, albeit illicitly through hundreds of smuggling tunnels, the result of Israel's crippling siege on Gaza's 1.5 million people to which the international community has acquiesced.
And the poverty and isolation of present-day Gaza makes it easy to forget that this was once one of the most important places in the ancient world, a trade hub connecting the West and the East. Located on routes between Asia and Europe, Gaza was a strategic port of enough importance to be registered on a 6th-century mosaic floor depicting a map of the world found in Madaba, Jordan. The armies of the Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders and Ottomans all fought here. Gaza even had its own god, Marnas, possibly inspired by the Greek God Zeus. It is a rich history that ensures that plenty of treasures remain to be discovered.
The 1,400 coins discovered here last month were sealed in a pottery container that was shattered upon discovery by the workmen. The site at Tel al Zuroub where they were discovered has been closed to construction and taken over by Gaza's ministry of antiquities for further excavation. "The site was discovered by workers by coincidence, so we came and put our grip on it because it's considered an ancient ruins site," said Assad Ashour, a ministry official, at the time, adding that, "it still requires a lot of hard work and exploration".
Mr Ashour said the site contained a "narrow passage located underground, which is built in a sort of descending stairs" and included discoveries of black basalt rock, pottery shards, as well as rock inscriptions. The site is closed to the public for the time being. The coins are in almost mint condition and provide a reminder of Gaza's storied past. Their number, weight and condition indicate that they may have been stored in an emergency possibly shortly after being minted, said Father Jean-Baptiste Humbert, an archaeologist with the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem.
"To find a few coins is always interesting," said Mr Humbert. "But a haul of this size has great historical value because it provides a landscape of the economy of the time." The coins might even have been minted locally, another testament to Gaza's significance in the ancient world where the existence of a local mint was a rare privilege bestowed only on the more important cities. It is not the first time large hauls of coins have been discovered in Rafah. In 2001, 18,000 bronze coins from the late Roman/Byzantine era were found nearby while in 1990, 7,000 gold coins from the same period were also dug out of the ground.
Of those finds, however, all 7,000 gold coins have disappeared out of Gaza and only 4,000 of the bronze coins remain, in the hands of a private local collector. With little oversight and no Palestinian authority until 1994, many archaeological treasures have simply been sold for private gain, most ending up on black markets in Israel and further afield. Such plunder has raised fears that the largely unexplored history of Gaza may disappear forever if serious attention is not paid to preserving the impoverished strip's heritage. Experts estimate that while 30 years ago it may have been possible to preserve 95 per cent of Gaza's archaeological potential intact, that number is now down to as little as 50 per cent, as population growth has necessitated rapid urban development, and the lack of expertise and interest in addition to today's isolation and poverty pushes the past even further down the list of priorities.
Jawdat Khodary, a collector and proprietor of Gaza's Mathaf museum, until recently the only local exhibition space for Gazan archaeological finds, said that while Gaza's present-day problems could not be underestimated, the past should not be forgotten. "We have to understand our roots and know that we had a long history of civilisation in Gaza," said Mr Khodari. "We have to educate our people about their deep connection to this land."
Gaza's ministry of antiquity recently opened its own antiquities museum not far from the Omari mosque in what remains of Gaza City's old city. The Omari mosque, second in importance in Palestine only to the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, is itself a testament to Gaza's colourful history. Built on the site of a Crusader church that was itself built over an earlier mosque, the location was once home to a temple to Marnas, Gaza's own god.