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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 October 2005, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
Gaza's ancient history uncovered
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Archaeologist unearth remains in Gaza
Gaza is said to be one of the world's oldest living cities
All through the heat of summer archaeologists dug and sifted through the dunes on the edge of Gaza City.

Gradually walls, homes, and the outlines of alleyways emerged from the sand.

These were the bones of the ancient Greek city of Antidon. And they were testimony to the extraordinary richness of Gaza's past.

Not only the Greeks passed this way. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the Persians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks, the British and many others left their mark on Gaza.

It has been described as one of the world's oldest living cities.

Layers of civilisation lie beneath its busy streets and crowded ranks of badly made apartment blocks.

Heritage 'overlooked'

It is a heritage almost entirely overlooked.

There is another face of Gaza - there is culture and archaeology and history
Khalid Abdul Shafi, UNDP in Gaza

Around the world, Gaza is seen only as a deeply troubled place - a bloody arena in the Palestinians' confrontation with Israel.

But efforts are being made now to present a fuller picture.

The Palestinian Authority has approved a plan to build a national archaeological museum in Gaza.

Land has been set aside, and the United Nations is helping to develop the project.

"People around the world have looked at Gaza through the TV as a place of violence and anarchy," says the head of the United Nations Development Programme in Gaza, Khalid Abdul Shafi.

"Yes there was violence. But there is another face of Gaza - there is culture and archaeology and history."

Shaped by location

Population pressure in the tiny Gaza Strip is intense, and no doubt numerous potential archaeological sites have been built over and lost.

"But still, according to specialists, what is under ground and under the sea is more, much more, than what has been discovered to date," says Mr Abdul Shafi.

Ancient ruins in Gaza
Gaza has been strategically important to regional powers

"There is an opportunity to discover things and put them in a place like a national museum, and this is what we're aiming for."

For more than 3,500 years Gaza's history has been shaped by its location.

It sits on the route linking North Africa with the greener lands of the Levant to the north.

This made Gaza strategically important first to the Egyptian Pharaohs, and then to many others who sought to wield power in the region.

"It's found itself the target of constant sieges - constant battles," says Gerald Butt, the author of the definitive history of the area, Gaza at the Crossroads.

"The people have been subject to rule from all over the globe. Right through the centuries Gaza's been at the centre of the major military campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean."

For example, anyone wanting to attack the magnificent Pharaonic civilisation on the Nile needed to take Gaza first.

It was the last place their troops would have easy access to water before the long hard march across the sands of the Sinai peninsula.

Centre of civilisation

A Palestinian rides his horse and carriage
Palestinians still use one of the world's oldest roads

Today on Gaza's main highway battered taxis go hammering past donkey carts - blaring their horns at pedestrians.

It looks unremarkable enough now, but it is actually one of the world's oldest roads.

The chariots of the armies of the Pharaohs and Alexander the Great, the cavalry of the Crusaders, and even Napoleon Bonaparte all rode this route, which is now named after the famous Muslim General, Salah al-Din.

Gaza has also known times of peace and prosperity.

In the age when Alexandria's famous library was earning it a reputation as a centre of civilisation, just across the Sinai, Gaza was also known as a place of learning and scholarship.

And Gaza used to be the port at the end of a trade route that connected the Arabian peninsula with the Mediterranean world.

The city did business in fish, slaves and highly valuable frankincense - produced in the mountains of what are now Yemen and Oman.

Gaza endures

Remains of a mosaic in Gaza
The UN is helping to develop an archaeological museum

But if the proposed new museum is built it will reveal a recurring pattern of invasion and conquest, long periods of occupation by foreign armies, and their eventual withdrawal.

And in the past few months, people here have witnessed one more turn of that historic cycle.

In line with Israel's plan to "disengage" from the Gaza Strip, it abandoned the settlements that it had built here in breach of international law.

The Israeli troops who had occupied Gaza for decades withdrew.

It was a reminder that for thousands of years, armies have come and armies have gone - and battered, ancient Gaza has endured.

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