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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 April 2007, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Gaza's ancient treasures revealed
By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva

A terracotta flask in the shape of a dromedary (Photo: Chaman atelier multimedia, S. Crettenand)
One of the riches: A terracotta flask in the shape of a dromedary
A new exhibition showing off the archaeological riches of the Gaza Strip has just opened in the Swiss city of Geneva.

The exhibition, called "Gaza at the Crossroads of Civilisations", contains more than 500 artefacts dating back more than 5,000 years.

They reflect the diverse civilisations which at one time or another all spent time in Gaza.

Curators at Geneva's museum of art and history, which organised the exhibition, say Gaza's modern problems have so overshadowed its rich past that most people today are completely unaware that Gaza has any archaeological treasures at all.

"Gaza was built up by many civilisations," explained curator Marc-Andre Haldimann. "Starting from Egypt, then Mesopotamia, then Greek and Roman civilisations, Persian and Arabic, all overlapping and mixing together."

The exhibits on show in Geneva come from private collections and from the Palestinian department of antiquities.

Many have never been seen in public before; they include delicate alabaster vases, a graceful and completely undamaged Roman statue of Aphrodite, and a stunning Byzantine mosaic from the 6th Century AD.

A tour of the exhibition reveals that Gaza survived, and indeed prospered from its many civilisations. In the 5th Century AD the region had become a major trading centre, wine from Gaza was exported right across Europe, including to Geneva itself.

Modern tensions

But the crowds gathered at the museum were not, at first sight, typical art lovers, rather they reflected Gaza's current tensions.

A marble statue of Aphrodite (Photo: Chaman atelier multimedia, S. Crettenand)
A 48cm marble statue of Aphrodite, the Greek love goddess, is on show

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, travelled specially to Geneva to officially open the exhibition.

As he viewed the treasures on show he was followed by dozens of security guards carrying automatic weapons, and scores of journalists more interested in the Palestinian government's fragile ceasefire with Israel than in ancient art.

But Mr Abbas kept his political observations low-key, describing the exhibition as a testimony to the importance of promoting cultural dialogue rather than seeking conflict between civilisations.

That is a view shared by Marc-Andre Haldimann, who believes Gaza's multicultural ancient history could serve as a positive example for the present.

"Here in essence are all the necessary elements for a different future, where an understanding of the past can lead to an understanding of the present and an acceptance for the future."

Ambitious goal

Optimistic words perhaps, but they reflect the ambitious long-term vision for the exhibition. With the help of the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, the plan is to move it permanently to Gaza itself.

A silver coin depicting a human head, from the 4th Century BC (Photo: Chaman atelier multimedia, S. Crettenand)
This silver coin showing a human head is from the 4th Century BC

"The idea is to build the museum on the site of the ancient harbour of Gaza," explained Mr Haldimann.

"It's fantastically well-preserved, there are the remains of ancient buildings up to 10 metres high, and the idea is to build the museum there, so visitors can see for themselves these remains, and on the upper floors we'll have a gallery with all the exhibits currently here in Geneva."

Ancient Jewish artefacts from Gaza are not on display, as these are now in Israel. But the curators say they are ready to include Jewish items in future, if the Israeli government makes them available for loan.

A museum on his home ground is the dream of Jawdat Khaudary, a Gaza businessman and art collector who loaned many of the exhibits on show in Geneva.

"You know many Palestinians aren't aware of this history," he said. "They don't know that Gaza had its own currency in the 4th Century BC. It's good that we try to show that we have a history and a civilisation.

"Kids in Gaza have the right to go to a museum like any other kids in the world, they have the right to see their own history, and learn that this (the current conflict) is a temporary phase and hopefully it will not continue forever."

It will be 10 years or more before the intricate stone relief of palm trees, the flask in the shape of a camel, or the oil lamp in the image of Poseidon finally find a permanent home in Gaza.

But until October of this year one small corner of Geneva at least will focus its attention on Gaza's ancient glories, rather than its present miseries.

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