A construction crew working at a residential building site in northern Gaza in Palestine unearthed a most unexpected and historically significant find. While digging deep into the bedrock, the construction workers uncovered the remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery , which had been used during the time when the lands of modern-day Israel and Palestine were part of the Roman province of Judea.
So far, archaeologists who’ve come to examine the excavated cemetery have discovered about 100 graves in total. Approximately 20 have been opened, all within a 538-square-foot (50-square-meter) site. Two of these graves contained skeletal remains, along with an assortment of clay jars. “We have made several discoveries in the past, [but] this is the most important archaeological discovery in the past 10 years,” the director-general of Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Jamal Abu Rida, told Reuters.
Adding to the significance of the find is the apparent status of the individuals who were buried in the ancient graves. Abu Rida explained that the shape of the tombs, their elaborate decorations, and their east-to-west orientation all indicate that “senior ranking people” from the first century Roman Empire were entombed in the Roman cemetery in Gaza.
Excavations at the Roman cemetery in Gaza. ( Gaza Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities )
Finding Roman Cemetery in Gaza During Construction Work
The construction work occurring at Gaza had already gained some international attention, because of its connection to Israel’s controversial shelling of the Gaza Strip during an 11-day period in May 2021. More than 450 buildings were destroyed in Gaza during that prolonged aerial assault, which allegedly targeted the ruling group Hamas but caused an enormous amount of damage to civilian structures of all types.
In response to the destruction, the Egyptian government announced it would spend $500 million to build new residential complexes in Gaza, and it was during the earliest stages of this project that the Roman cemetery was found. Because of this stunning discovery, construction work on the Egyptian-funded housing project has been temporarily halted, announced Naji Sarhan, a spokesperson for Gaza’s Ministry of Public Works. Sarhan said the project would remain on hold until experts from the Gaza Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities have had the chance to inspect and excavate the site more thoroughly.
Experts from the French School for the Antiquities have been assisting the professionals from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities during their excavations, Jamal Abu Rida acknowledged. The ruins and artifacts unearthed so far show that the cemetery dates back to the first century AD, when the Gaza and the rest of Judea were ruled by Roman representatives.
Construction workers at a building site in northern Gaza have uncovered old tombs dating back to the first century AD. https://t.co/W97GtXXlPG
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) February 23, 2022
Gaza: A Rich and Fascinating History Left Largely Unexplored
With its strategic location on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, Gaza was an important crossroads in the ancient world (and in the centuries beyond). Europeans, North Africans, and people from throughout the Levantine region all passed through the area at various times, as would be expected at a busy seaport on an easily accessible coastline.
One result of all this activity is that present day Gaza contains an impressive number of archaeological sites that have been explored to varying degrees. Some of these sites feature ruins associated with Alexander the Great’s successful siege of the area in 332 BC, which turned Gaza over to the Macedonians and helped Alexander secure access to Egypt.
A 2,000-year-old #Roman cemetery containing at least 20 ornately decorated graves has been uncovered near the shoreline in the northern #Gaza Strip, with the antiquities ministry calling it the most important local discovery of the past decade. https://t.co/FiwGX9rmSm
— The Jerusalem Post (@Jerusalem_Post) February 17, 2022
The Crusades of the medieval era also left their mark on ancient Gaza, as did the various Islamic campaigns of later centuries. Traces of a Mongol invasion have been found in Gaza, highlighting just how diverse the cast of characters who tread across the region’s history actually was. “Gaza is rich with uncovered antiquities, as it has been vital trading passage for many civilizations due to the seaport that attracted Roman and Canaanite civilizations, in addition to its gate with the ancient Egyptians,” Abu Rida stated.
It is clear that Gaza should be prime territory for the archaeological community. But international access to these important sites have been severely restricted for the past 15 years, as security in Gaza has deteriorated because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian ruling group Hamas. Israel’s blockade of Gaza has further restricted access to outsiders, making archaeological work even more difficult to carry out. Funding for excavations and restorations of historical monuments in the area is hard to come by, and the situation is not likely to improve in the foreseeable future.
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus. (Public domain )
Searching for Answers about a Troubled Past in a Troubled Region
Roman rule in the province of Judea in the first century AD was not overly authoritarian in its early stages. Tensions mounted over time, however, as the Jewish residents of Judea became more and more resentful of foreign control and taxation, and Roman intolerance for their religious traditions. This led to the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 to 73, an ultimately futile campaign for independence that led to the defeat of the rebels and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
As for Gaza specifically, it was actually in ruins at the point when the Romans assumed control over the territory of Judea in 63 BC. It had been destroyed by the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus in 96 BC, and was only rebuilt by the Romans in the first century AD.
Since it isn’t currently known exactly when the elites buried in the newly discovered cemetery in Gaza lived and died, it is impossible to know how they would have been viewed by the local population. If they’d served as rulers and administrators during times when relations were good, they might have been perceived relatively favorably, or at least neutrally.
On the other hand, if they were stationed in Judea and Gaza in the second half of the first century, when Roman occupation began to provoke more open hostility, they may have been rejected as outsiders who supported or enforced tyranny. Further archaeological explorations in the Gaza Strip could answer many questions and clear up many doubts. But turmoil in the present has made it increasingly difficult for researchers to study the turmoil of the past, and there is no telling when that situation will substantially improve.
Top image: Men working at the Roman cemetery discovered in Gaza. Source: Gaza Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
By Nathan Falde