a view of the archaeological site of Saint Hilarion in the centre of the Gaza Strip. AFP
While workers laboured on a large construction site in the Gaza Strip, a security guard noticed a strange piece of stone sticking out of the earth.
"I thought it was a tunnel," said Ahmad, the young guard, referring to secret passages dug by the Hamas to help it battle Israel.
In the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas and repeatedly ravaged by war, people are more familiar with burying the dead than digging up their heritage.
But what Ahmad found in January was part of a Roman necropolis dating from about 2,000 years ago -- representative of the impoverished Palestinian territory's rich, if under-developed, archaeological treasures.
After the last war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 left a trail of damage in Gaza, Egypt began a reconstruction initiative worth $500 million.
As part of that project in Jabaliya, in the north of the coastal enclave, bulldozers were digging up the sandy soil in order to build new concrete buildings when Ahmad made his discovery.
"I notified the Egyptian foremen, who immediately contacted local authorities and asked the workers to stop," said Ahmad, a Palestinian who preferred not to give his full name.
With rumours on social media of a big discovery, Gaza's antiquities service called in the French non-governmental group Premiere Urgence Internationale and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to evaluate the site's importance and mark off the area.
"The first excavations permitted the identification of about 40 tombs dating from the ancient Roman period between the first and second centuries AD," said French archaeologist Rene Elter, who led the team dispatched to Jabaliya.
"The necropolis is larger than these 40 tombs and should have between 80 and 100," he said.
One of the burial sites found so far is decorated with multi-coloured paintings representing crowns and garlands of bay leaves, as well as jars for funereal drinks, the archaeologist added.
Still hunting stones
One rare success is the preservation of the Byzantine monastery of Saint Hilarion.
It opened several years ago to the public and includes an atrium, baths and multiple churches, standing as testament to an era when Gaza was a crossroads for Mediterranean pilgrims.
"We receive around 14,000 visitors a year, including school students," said Fadel al-Otol, 41, a Palestinian archaeologist whose early passion for ancient ruins was formalised with training in France.
As a child during the first Palestinian intifida, or uprising, Otol said he hunted stones to hurl at Israeli soldiers.
"Today I look for stones to prove to the military that we have a great history," he said.
Wandering around the Saint Hilarion site, Otol pondered his dream: "That we excavate all the archaeological sites of Gaza and that they be accessible to the public to show our history and culture to the entire world."
If nothing is done, he said, "the sites would disappear forever."
More than 6,500 people have been shot by Israeli forces during a year of weekly mass protests along the Gaza border, according to Palestinian figures.
More than 125 have had amputations and many others are permanently disabled.
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