Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
July 25, 2008 - 1:55pm

It may sound like the indulgence of a well-fed man fleeing the misery around him. But when Jawdat N. Khoudary opens the first museum of archaeology in Gaza this summer it will be a form of Palestinian patriotism, showing how this increasingly poor and isolated coastal strip ruled by the Islamists of Hamas was once a thriving multicultural crossroad.

The exhibition is in a stunning hall made partly of stones from old houses, discarded wood ties of a former railroad and bronze lamps and marble columns uncovered by Gazan fishermen and construction workers.

And while the display might be pretty standard stuff most anywhere else — arrowheads, Roman anchors, Bronze Age vases and Byzantine columns — life is now so gray in Gaza that the museum, with its glimpses of a rich outward-looking history, seems somehow dazzling.

“The idea is to show our deep roots from many cultures in Gaza,” Mr. Khoudary said as he sat in the lush, antiquities-filled garden of his Gaza City home a few miles from the museum. “It’s important that people realize we had a good civilization in the past. Israel has legitimacy from its history. We do, too.”

The oldest archaeological site in Gaza dates from the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., when Gaza was part of the caravan routes linking the Arabian Peninsula with the Horn of Africa via the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

History offers not only legitimacy, of course, but also a framework for coping with the present. Gaza is under an Israeli and international siege aimed at weakening Hamas, widely viewed in the West as a terrorist group. But this is not the first time Gazans have faced a squeeze.

“Gaza has suffered more than most cities,” Mr. Khoudary noted. “There was the siege of Alexander the Great and of the Persians and of the British. At the end of the day this siege will be a footnote.”

His collection includes thousands of items, but some of the most extraordinary will not go on display now, including a statue of a full-breasted Aphrodite in a diaphanous gown, images of other ancient deities and oil lamps featuring menorahs.

Asked why, Mr. Khoudary noted Hamas’s rule and the conservative piety of the population and said simply, “I want my project to succeed.”

He did, however, bring a Hamas government minister to see the exhibition recently and pointed out two crosses on Byzantine columns to make sure he had no objections. The gap between what he calls the narrow-mindedness of today’s Gaza and the worldliness of the past is what most saddens him, he said.

A prominent construction company owner, Mr. Khoudary, who is 48 and a proponent of coexistence and global culture, has been collecting for 22 years, ever since he came across an Islamic glass coin and fell in love with its link to a bygone era. Since then, he has asked all his construction workers to save whatever they dig up so that he can search it for treasures. Local fishermen know that anything old that washes ashore will fetch a decent price from Mr. Khoudary.

In 2005, he persuaded Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to let him set up a national archaeological museum with Swiss help. A site was picked and a show was developed at the Geneva Museum of Art and History. It brought in huge crowds.

Then, in June 2007, more than a year after Hamas won a parliamentary majority, Hamas and the Fatah party of Mr. Abbas fought street battles that ended in the banishment of Fatah and Mr. Abbas from Gaza.

So with the project stalled and Gaza closed off by Israel, Mr. Khoudary decided to do it on his own. He built a restaurant and cafe (with space for a hotel) and, on the same property, added the museum. He called the entire complex on the coast near the Shati refugee camp north of Gaza City El Mat’haf, Arabic for museum. “People here don’t hear this word,” he said. “I want it to enter the vocabulary.”

With so little to do in Gaza — factories are closed and the economy is stalled — El Mat’haf seems likely to attract crowds.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem has just published a catalog on the Gaza dig of an Israeli team in the 1970s and 80s. Led by the grande dame of Israeli archaeology, Dr. Trude Dothan, the dig at Deir el Balah took place under army guard and uncovered gold jewelry, alabaster vessels and, most important, anthropoid coffins, all of which are now in the Israel Museum. Some of it had been plundered by Moshe Dayan, the defense minister at the time, who was an archaeology buff and something of a law unto himself. His collection is now in the Israel Museum as well.

Told of El Mat’haf, Dr. Dothan said she had long wished there had been a museum in Gaza for what she dug up. Mr. Khoudary said he had visited the Israel Museum and hoped that one day some of the Gaza collection could come back here “after we have a qualified government and the capability to protect the heritage of Gaza.” He said Dr. Dothan “did us a favor because it would all be gone or destroyed today.”

James S. Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, said that if there were a peaceable state in Gaza and a museum here, “I see no reason we couldn’t arrange a long-term loan.”

Such warm talk between Israelis and Gazans is rare these days. Mr. Snyder said that under the current Israeli closing of Gaza, which bars all but humanitarian emergency cases from leaving, “there is the perversity that Gazans today cannot see their own heritage in our museum.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017