Archaeologists Saving Gaza's Ancient Ruins

Article excerpt

St. Hilarion, Gaza Strip (AP) - The ruins of this ancient complex sit on dunes by the sea, a world away from Gaza City's noise and bustle. Up in the sky, birds compete for space with children's kites flying from a nearby farm.

St. Hilarion's monastery, a reminder of the time in late antiquity when Christianity was the dominant faith in what is now the Gaza Strip, is one of many archaeological treasures scattered across this coastal territory. But Gaza is one of the most crowded places on earth, and the rapid spread of its urban sprawl is endangering sites spanning 4,500 years, from Bronze Age ramparts to colorful Byzantine mosaics, experts say.

Archaeologists, short of funds and unable to find sufficient trained local staff, say they are scrambling to find and protect the monuments. Some are left open to the weather. Others are engulfed by new development projects. "Archaeology in Gaza is everywhere,'' says French archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Humbert, who excavated in the territory from 1995 to 2005. He says it was once a "very rich oasis, with gardens, cities and you have settlements, dwellings, fortresses, cities everywhere, everywhere.''

The strip of land on the Mediterranean, sandwiched by Israel and Egypt, is now largely isolated, but once was a thriving crossroads between Africa, the Levant and Asia. Today, about 1.7 million Palestinians are squeezed into about 360 square kilometers (140 square miles), an area roughly twice the size of Washington, D. …