Gaza at the Crossroad of Civilisations: Two Contemporary Views

by The Editorial Team Published on: 24th January 2009

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Gaza, this tormented part of Palestine, land of suffering and resistance, is also a land of long history. This article presents two recent attempts to recover the ancient and medieval history of Gaza: a book by Gerald Butt (Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza, 1995) and an exhibition displayed in 2007 at the Musée d'art et d'histoire in Geneva: Gaza at the Crossroads of Civilizations. Aiming to illustrate the long history of the Gaza region and its daily life over the centuries, the book as well as the exhibition emphasize the status of Gaza as a meeting point at the intersection of crossroads of cultures and civilizations.


Table of contents

1. An engaged history of Gaza
2. At the crossroad of civilizations
2.1. The history and archaeology of Gaza in Geneva
2.2. Towards an archaeological museum in Gaza
3. References and further reading
A. History of Gaza
B. Resources on the book Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza
C. Resources on the exhibition Gaza at the Crossroad of Civilizations

* * *

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Figure 1: Map of Palestine (1849). From A Classical Atlas, to Illustrate Ancient Geography by Alexander G. Findlay, (New York, 1849; reprint Harper, 1954) (Source).

Events in Gaza have brought it into central focus. Since decades, this tiny strip, squeezed along the Mediterranean coast between historical Palestine and Egypt and packed with 1,5 million Palestinian inhabitants, became the focus of politics, war and resistance. With the recent unjust and inhuman war on Gaza, this small Palestinian territory (only 25 miles long, the most densely populated piece of land in the world) symbolizes more than ever the tragedy of Palestine and its people in this beginning of the 21st century. Whilst humanity tends towards more mutual understanding, the criminal forces of oppression and barbarism still use the unqualified language of collective punishment and mass murder against a whole people.

To understand those events, one needs a lot of historical, economic and demographic information, not easily available between two covers. Gerald Butt, a distinguished British correspondent, born and brought up in the Middle East and educated in London, has provided considerable information in his slim but incisive book. He has used classical historical research, a tool most newsmen neglect these days, to connect Gaza’s long and turbulent past to its more familiar present.

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Figure 2: A shuttle aerial view of Palestine (Source).

Likewise, a major exhibition was displayed in 2007 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Museum of Art and History) in Geneva: Gaza at the Crossroads of Civilizations (from 27 April 2007 to 7 October 2007). The exhibition displayed hundreds of archaeological and historical objects drawn from the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and the private collection of Gazan entrepreneur, Jawdat Khoudary. The exhibition aimed to illustrate the multicultural nature of the tiny region’s daily life over the centuries. Egyptian scarabs, sculptures of Poseidon and Aphrodite, mosaics from Byzantine churches and Muslim gravestones suggest the vast range of archaeological objects that illustrate the long history of this part of Palestine.

1. An engaged history of Gaza

Nowadays, the Gaza Strip is a name synonymous with an image of occupation, resistance, political turmoil, poverty, unrest and violence. This is Gaza’s lot since several decades. Since the middle of the 1990s, Gerald Butt had alredy published a small book that revealed in a direct and informative style how the scenes of violence and human suffering were taking place in a land rich in history. This book is Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza; it was published in 1995 in Cyprus and United Kingdom by Rimal Publications and Scorpion (Hardcover, 188 pp., ISBN: 1-900269-03-1 – 220 x 146 mm).

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Figure 3: Map showing Palestine’s topography (Source).

In the book Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza, Gerald Butt presents the first comprehensive history of Gaza. The author describes the rise and fall in the fortunes of this narrow strip of coast which, for over four millennia, has been a meeting place of European, Asian and African empires and civilizations, a crossroads for conquerors and a major Mediterranean trading port.

In this admirable “biography”, Butt shows the modern reader, who thinks of the Strip as a vast refugee camp housing 1,5 million Palestinians in slum conditions, that Gaza was once a robust city state which survived invasions by the armies of Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Israelites and Byzantium, the Arabs, Seljuks, Mamlukes, Turks and Crusaders. The waves of invaders brought to Gaza their cultures and technologies and fostered trade with the known world. Under the Greeks Gaza boasted a great library, under the Romans an efficient administration and some fine buildings, under the Byzantines a grand church raised by the Empress Eudoxia, a school of rhetoric, a forum, colonnaded streets and a municipal council. Butt quotes an Italian pilgrim who visited the city in 570 CE and found it “a lovely and renowned city, with noble people distinguished by every kind of liberal accomplishment”.

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Figure 4: View from Gaza City (Source).

Thus, Butt demonstrates the West’s unfairness in characterizing citizens of Gaza, generally known as the Philistines, a people of “material outlook indifferent to culture”. This wrong characterization was probably adopted from the Old Testament, in the aftermath of the wars between the Philistines and the Hebrews.

The original Philistines were one of the mysterious “Sea People” who arrived on the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean in the 12th century BCE, settling in Gaza in 1175 BCE. The Philistines were taller than the local people, they wore kilts and ribbed helmets, drove chariots, smelted iron and traded with Aegean islands. They established five city states along the southern Levantine coast, with Gaza as their capital. Though given an evil reputation by the Old Testament, the Philistines were certainly more akin to culture than their local Semitic antagonist. Philistia did not become a cultural backwater for another 2,000 years, and then only because the Seljuk conquerors devastated the area so extensively that it never recovered. Whatever was left of Gaza’s rich history was lost during the fighting in World War I or looted after its occupation in 1967.

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Figure 5: Front cover of Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza by Gerald Butt (Rimal Publications, 1995).

Butt has done a service to truth by exploding this myth. His book is an important contribution to our understanding of the Middle East since it gives us perspective on a location deluged by history, a place which is now a cul de sac rather than a crossroads but could once again come to thrive if the regional peace process succeeds.

Continuously inhabited for more than 3,000 years at a key strategic crossroads of the region, the Gaza territory has been a palimpsest of influences throughout its existence. As well as considering the early period, the age of the Pharaohs and Philistines of the Bible, accounts were given of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras. The coming of Islam, the interlude of the Crusades and the long period of Ottoman domination bring the story up to the First World War.

The crucial history of Gaza in the 20th century is discussed in the period of the Mandate and the conflicts with Israel. It culminates with the intifada and the prominence of Gaza in the struggle of the Palestinian national movement for the recovery of independence and the emergence of the Palestinian state.

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Figure 6: The Great Mosque of Gaza, also known as the Great ‘Umari Mosque (Al-Jami’a al-‘Umari al-Kabir), is the largest and oldest mosque in the Gaza Strip (Source).

Butt begins almost every one of the 15 chapters in the present and then uses a peg to take readers to an appropriate historical period, thus creating links and frameworks for the present to the past. His message is largely that we have been here; Gaza was not only at the crossroads of civilizations but a part of it. Almost half the book is dedicated to Gaza’s pre-Islamic and indeed pre-Christian past, emphasizing the often forgotten traditions of the animists and pagans, the Canaanites, the Philistines and, of course, the many invaders.

A rich tradition of trade and economic self-sufficiency is unthinkable to the average Gazan today, but as Butt points out, it was the norm, both hundreds and thousands of years ago. The once vibrant life of Gazan philosophers, musicians and theologians stands in sharp contrast to today’s apparently bi-polar society, pitted into two camps of political and social ideology.

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Figure 7: Coptic Church in Gaza City Suburbs (Source).

Butt maintains that Gaza was burned to the ground so often and managed to re-group and reinvent itself so tenaciously that it is bound to survive and bloom again, in spite of all efforts to keep it down. The recent and ongoing abuse that Gaza was subjected to can be understood better with the words of another Gaza scholar, Sara Roy of Harvard University, who speaks of the “de-development” of Gaza as a result of its occupation. These words can be understood more fully in the light of a long historical perspective. Keeping Gaza’s history in mind makes its state of being today all the more shocking.

The lesson brought about by the long history of Palestine in general and Gaza in particular is that, despite the unqualified suffering inflicted upon Gaza and its people, it will certainly once again be a gem along the Mediterranean. To appreciate it more fully, Butt’s Life at the Crossroads is key to understanding just what a fabulous gem it is.

Table of Contents

1- ‘Land of Many Battles’
2- A City on the Boarder
3- The Roots of Palestine
4- Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians
5- The Rule of Greece & Rome
6- Under the Byzantine Cross
7- The Arrival of Islam
8- The Crusaders
9- Ottoman Domination
10- The First World War – ‘A Scene of Sad Desolation’
11- The British Road to Disaster
12- Egyptian Rule and the First Israeli Occupation
13- Arab Defeat and Israeli Military Rule
14- Intifada – ‘A Mass Expression of Outrage’
15- The End of the Wilderness Years?

The author

Gerald Butt was born and brought up in the Middle East. After graduating in Arabic and Middle East Studies from London University, he worked for the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) before joining the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). He was the BBC’s Middle East correspondent from 1982 to 1990. He has previously written four books on aspects of the region. After that he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Middle East Economic Survey in Nicosia, Cyprus and works at present as a freelance writer and broadcaster.


“The greatest value of Life at the Crossroads is that it gathers into one enjoyable book, a history with Gaza as the star.”

Martha Myers Eleiwa, Journal of Palestine Studies

“This reader found herself drawing together background from biblical studies, history, and archaeology. In the history of Gaza, they are interwoven and the separate fields of study gain clarity in relationship to each other.”

Nancy G. Scudder, Middle East Council of Churches

2. At the crossroad of civilizations

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Figure 8: Views from Napoleon’s Fort (Qasr El-Basha) located in downtown Gaza, an imposing stone building dating back to the Mamluk period. Napoleon is believed to have spent a few nights in it on his way through the town in 1799 (Source).

The Gaza Strip is in the headlines with tragic regularity, masking the fabulous archaeological riches under its soil. Pharaonic, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic sites fill the territory, an essential relay point on the overland road between Africa and Asia and an important port at the outlet of the trade routes between East and West.

To show this, a major exhibition was displayed in 2007 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Museum of Art and History) in Geneva: Gaza at the Crossroads of Civilizations (from 27 April 2007 to 7 October 2007). Curated by Marielle Martiniani-Reber and Marc-André Haldimann, the exhibition displayed the multiple facets of Gaza’s archaeological heritage that reflects the multiplicity of civilisations that have permeated the region. The event was held in the framework of a UNESCO-sanctioned project to create an archaeological museum on the site of the ancient port of Gaza. Funded by a board of Palestinian civilian trustees, the future museum’s development would proceed with scientific and technical support from the Museums Division of the City of Geneva.

The exhibition Gaza at the Crossroads of Civilizations gathered 531 archaeological finds drawn from the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and the private collection of Gazan entrepreneur Jawdat Khoudary. The exhibition aimed to illustrate the multicultural nature of the tiny region’s daily life over the centuries. Egyptian scarabs, sculptures of Poseidon and Aphrodite, mosaics from Byzantine churches and Muslim gravestones suggest the vast range of archaeological objects that illustrate the long history of this part of the Palestinian land.

2.1. The history and archaeology of Gaza in Geneva

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Figure 9: Four objects illustrating the ancient history of Gaza: a. dagger handle with incised geometric decorations, Early Bronze Age, 2700-2350 BCE (bone, length 19.5 cm); b. Egyptian scarab, Iron Age or Second Intermediate Period (enamelled steatite, length 1.4 cm, width 1 cm, thickness 0.6 cm); c. figurine: woman with drum, Iron Age, 8th-7th century BCE (ceramic, height 10 cm, width 5.2 cm, depth 5.2 cm); d. figurine: head with pointed hat (probably a horseman), Persian, 6th-5th century BCE (hand-modelled ceramic, height 3.2 cm, width 3 cm). © Antiquities Department of Gaza (Source).

The large exhibition organized in Geneva about the rich past of Gaza city and its neighbourhood land displayed the multiple facets of the archaeological heritage that reflected the multiplicity of civilisations that had permeated the region. It was the first ever public show of Gazan antiquities. Its 530 artefacts, drawn chiefly from the vaults of the private Palestinian collector Jawdat Khoudary and the Palestinian National Authority’s Department of Antiquities, depict a Gaza that was once at the nexus of trade routes and a meeting point of cultures. This is a good lesson of history to remember today. Indeed, what a significant contrast with the present prevalent situation of Gaza!! Nowadays Gaza is connected only with violence. But in the past, Gaza’s early inhabitants were prosperous, practiced multiculturalists. On show are objects from several empires unearthed during the past two centuries, with some dating back nearly 5,000 years. Egyptian stone scarabs are displayed alongside Greek statues, Byzantine mosaics, Syrian oil lamps, French coins, Roman amphora jugs, along with Islamic objects from all the periods of Islamic history: an oil lamp decorated with arabesques from the Umayyad era in the 7th-8th century, a funerary stele with Arabic inscriptions from the 12th-13th century-Ayyubid Gaza, a decorative plate with palm tree motif belonging to the Mameluk period, etc.

No wonder then that the exhibition’s organizers aim, with the support of UNESCO, to repatriate these treasures by 2016 to a museum they hope to build atop the ruins of the ancient Gazan port of Anthedon. Curator Marc-André Haldimann sees the project laying a foundation for a future of tolerance. “It reminds us that Gaza is not the deadlocked prison that it is today,” he says, “but, as it was—the window of the world.”

The objects revealing the antiquity and greatness of Gaza’s past emerged in the frame of many archaeological campaigns undertaken since the 19th century in Gaza. The last two decades of the 20th century have been particularly fertile thanks to the ample size of the digs, jointly conducted by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. The tens of thousands of objects unearthed from the excavations, in addition to those from the private collection of Jawdat Khoudary who for more than twenty years has been preserving the sometimes monumental relics that have appeared in Gaza’s building sites, illustrate the diversity and continuity of the civilizations that have succeeded – and intermingled with – each other on this now exiguous territory. Some 530 objects were selected for display in Geneva exhibition to discover the daily, civil and religious life of the people dwelling in the Gaza Strip since 3500 B.C.

The last perennial water source before the Sinai desert crossing, Gaza – located along the only overland route between Africa and Asia – has been known since time immemorial for its bountiful orchards, its pleasant climate and its abundant water resources. The region was held to be of major strategic importance since early Antiquity: the demand for Palestinian raw materials (copper and bitumen, as well as olive oil and wine) led predynastic Egypt to establish in 3500 BCE the citadel of Tell Sakan on the banks of the Wadi Ghazzeh, some twelve kilometres from the modern city. The Egyptian predominance dwindled in the second millennium BCE in front of the growing influence of the Syro-Palestinian populations known as the Hyksos. They gave to Gaza the exceptional site of Tell al-‘Ajjul which was the first to be methodically excavated, an operation conducted from 1931 by Sir Flinders Petrie. The Gaza settlement however soon fell once again under the domination of Egypt, an event that entered the realm of history as the conquest by Thutmose III on 25 April 1468 BCE was duly recorded in Egyptian archives. The territory of Gaza became dotted with other Egyptian fortresses, such as Deir-el-Balah which became famous for the discovery of a 14th-13th century BCE necropolis comprising some fifty anthropomorphic sarcophagi made of baked clay.

In 734 BCE the Assyrian empire took control of the region and made Gaza its southern border; a border that would disappear before the unprecedented expansion of the Persian empire in 539 BCE. Gaza’s commercial expansion from then became exponential: as a relay point between the incense and pepper caravan routes from Hadhramaut (Yemen) and the one opening the way to the raw materials of Palestine, the city and its territory harboured several ports at that time of intensely busy activity.

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Figure 10: Archaeological vestiges from Gaza ancient history: a. Aphrodite or Hecate with infant Pan, Hellenistic or Roman (marble, height 48 cm); b. bottle (alabaster), Low Period, 4th-3rd century BCE (calcite, height 14.5 cm); c. spherical phial, Roman, 1st century CE (glass, 6 x 4cm); d. Anthropomorphic jar, Roman, 1st-2nd century CE (glass, height 9cm, width 4.5 cm). © Jawdat Khoudary Collection, Gaza (Source).

The Hellenistic world, always in the forefront with regard to maritime exchanges, wasted no time in founding a port and settlement four kilometres from Gaza. The Greeks, probably originating from Boeotia, established Anthedon of Palestine around 520 BCE, which was revealed from 1996 thanks to the joint excavations by the Palestinian Authority and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. Gaza’s vocation was then set for more than a thousand years; it became in effect a crossroads of civilisations between the Arabian caravan culture of the Nabateans, Egypt, the Levant, Syria and the Greek world, whose artistic influence profoundly permeated this privileged territory.

Neither Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BCE nor the utterly decimating one by Alexander Janneus in 96 BCE were able to doom the fate of the land which rose from its ashes under the protection of Pompey in 57 BCE. Already sumptuous under the Romans, Gaza would recover its status as a major port under the Byzantine Empire. From the 5th century CE its products were exported as far as England and Western Europe while its School nurtured such leading theologians as Barsanuphius, John of Gaza and Mark the Deacon, whose writings profoundly influenced Christian literature both in the Orient and the Occident. The arrival of the Muslims in 637 CE would not change the aura of the city; it remained a pivotal crossroads and from the 8th century sheltered a highly celebrated school of law in the Islamic civilisation, founded by Muhammad al-Shafi’i. Attacked by the Crusaders in the 11th century, Gaza was reconquested by Muslims and later on was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire while remaining a central stop on the pilgrimage route.

The exhibition Gaza at the Crossroads of Civilizations hosted in Geneva’s museum was exceptional for both its magnitude and for the nature of the objects displayed. Official bodies and a private collector united to present a genuine archaeological anthology to the public of Geneva. The Department of Antiquities of the Palestinian National Authority lent two hundred twenty-one objects found during the many joint Franco-Palestinian excavations undertaken since 1994. Parallel to this, Jawdat Khoudary made available three hundred and nine pieces from his private archaeological collection, which is now registered in the official inventory of Palestinian cultural assets.

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Figure 11: Islamic objects from Gaza: a. Oil lamp decorated with arabesques, Umayyad, 7th-8th century (ceramic, 8.5 x 6.5 cm, height 4 cm); b. funerary stele with Arabic inscriptions, Ayyubid, 12th-13th century (white marble, height 39 cm, width 33 cm, thickness 5.5 cm); c. decorative plate with palm tree motif, Mameluk (limestone, height 33 cm, width 26 cm, thickness 10 cm); d. half dirham, Bahri Mameluks, Al-Mansour Nour al-Dîn ‘Ali, Cairo, 1257-1259 (silver, 2.047 g). © Department of Antiquities, Gaza and Jawdat Khoudary Collection, Gaza (Source).

From five thousand five hundred year old jars to refined Egyptian alabaster vases, from a hoplite’s helmet to Byzantine mosaics, from a zestful Menad to an Ayyubid period stele, from the painstaking reconstruction of a sumptuous Hellenistic dwelling to ornate Ottoman lintels, the diversity of civilizations that were cradled in the Gaza Strip were presented to the visitors through the rooms of the exhibit like a common theme that was both familiar yet surprising, given the dramatic situation linked to Gaza during the second half of the 20th century until today. An amphora from Gaza, found under the Saint-Pierre cathedral in Rome in 1980 by the Canton of Geneva’s archaeological office, was placed at the threshold of the exhibition; there it served as a testimonial to the ancient links between Geneva and Gaza, as it was imported in Europe in the 5th century already.

As the documents of the exhibit show, this exceptional display was intended as the concrete manifestation of a hope, an aspiration founded on the – perhaps decisive –role played by a cultural initiative to explore the Palestinian identity with its many facets of such diversity.

The exhibition was accompanied by the publication of a book in French which played the role of catalogue of the exhibit, in the form of a survey of the archaeological and historical context of the display: Gaza à la croisée des civilisations. Tome 1: Contexte archéologique et historique (Chaman édition, 2007, 24×22 cm, 256 pages, with 162 illustrations in colour, including maps and architectural plans).

2.2. Towards an archaeological museum in Gaza

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Figure 12: Front cover of the catalogue of the exhibition Gaza at the Crossroad of Civilizations: Gaza à la croisée des civilisations. 1. Contexte archéologique et historique, edited by M.-A. Haldimann et al. (Neuchâtel: Chaman Edition, 2007).

The exhibition on the archaeology and history of Gaza organized in Geneva was held in the framework of a UNESCO-sanctioned project to create an archaeological museum on the site of the ancient port of Gaza. Funded by a board of Palestinian civilian trustees, the future museum’s development will proceed with scientific and technical support from the Museums Division of the City of Geneva.

The perfect state of preservation of the ancient harbours unearthed in Gaza-Blakhiah, in conjunction with the number and quality of artefacts recovered, have fostered a project aimed at building a major archaeological museum on the actual site of the antique ports. Under the patronage of UNESCO, the future museum will protect the archaic buildings as well as the archaeological collections and is being planned with the technical and scientific assistance of the City of Geneva, particularly with respect to the requisite architectural competition and the training of the Palestinian workforce. The presentation of the Geneva exhibition will constitute in this sense a possible forerunner for the future display in Gaza.

The Gaza Museum of Archaeology (Mat’haf Gaza) was originally projected for opening in late 2008 in the Gaza Strip. According to museum director Jawdat N. Khoudary, the idea is to show Gaza’s deep roots from many cultures: “It’s important that people realize we had a good civilization in the past” (see [Wikipedia], Gaza Museum of Archaeology and Museum Offers Gray Gaza a View of Its Dazzling Past, Ethan Bronner, New York Times, July 25, 2008).

Khoudary, a construction company owner, instructs his employees to save whatever they dig up so that he can search it for treasures. He also pays fishermen who bring him archaeologically interesting objects.

The project of the museum, sponsored by UNESCO, is funded by a board of Palestinian trustees. It receives scientific and technical support from the Museums Division of the city of Geneva. Although the Gaza Strip has been the site of many archaeological digs since the 19th century, there has been no museum to this day allowing the general public to view the findings. As a consequence, tens of thousands of unearthed objects remain unknown. In the aftermath of the Geneva exhibition, the UNESCO-sponsored project of an archaeological museum on the actual excavation site of the antique port of Anthedon, now known as Blakhiah, to the north of Gaza City will fill this gap. To a certain extent, the Geneva display can be considered a precursor to the museum.

The Palestinian National Museum of Archaeology will be funded by the citizens of Palestine with scientific and technical support, through the provision of training internships, from the City of Geneva’s Cultural Affairs Department and Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. Other museums, such as the Benaki Museum in Athens, are also potential partners in this training programme, notably with regard to art restoration work.

A letter of intent that clearly established the framework and conditions for this collaboration was signed on 10 December 2005 in Bethlehem by Ziad al-Bandak, the Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities at the time, and Patrice Mugny, Executive Councillor in charge of the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Geneva. The future Palestinian National Museum of Archaeology, already ratified by a decree signed by President Mahmoud Abbas on 28 May 2006, would be built on a plot of 18 hectares at Blakhiah, near the Shatti refugee camp. Situated on an archaeological site, the historical vestiges will naturally be taken into consideration and be presented in the best possible manner.

The archaeological specimens to be shown originate mainly from excavations undertaken in the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. Also on display will be items from private Gaza collections, in particular that belonging to Jawdat Khoudary from which a selection of pieces were presented in the Geneva exhibit. The museum building should include, in addition to the exhibition rooms, a library, a multimedia room, restoration work spaces, storage rooms, workshop areas (for interior designers and decorators, locksmiths, cabinet-makers, etc.), as well as office spaces for conservation or public reception purposes. The edifice should have a surface area of some 20,000 square metres and is scheduled to be completed in 2016.

3. References and further reading

A. History of Gaza

B. Resources on the book Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza

C. Resources on the exhibition Gaza at the Crossroad of Civilizations

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