Old town, Gaza strip – With years of war, humanitarian crises and an ongoing Israeli blockade, the rich cultural heritage of the Gaza Strip has largely gone unnoticed.
But a few years ago, Nisma al-Sallaq, a local architect and strong advocate of the cultural history of the Palestinian enclave, set out to change that.
With a growing team, al-Sallaq, 27, created Gaza’s first digital archive of historic buildings and heritage sites when it launched a multidimensional platform called Kanaan in 2019.
With a website, mobile app and Instagram page, the project provides visitors with information in text and video format in English and Arabic, and offers a virtual tour of Gaza’s centuries-old cultural history.
Named after the Canaanites who settled in Gaza thousands of years ago, Kanaan has so far documented 311 historic buildings and 76 archaeological sites in the Gaza Strip.
These include the Tel Umm Amer or Saint Hilarion Monastery, which dates back to the end of the Roman Empire and is considered an important Christian heritage site. The archives also document the Al-Omari Mosque, a church built by the Byzantines and converted into a mosque by the Muslim caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab.
“People think Gaza is just a humanitarian issue linked to wars and a 13-year Israeli blockade and many see only painful scenes of killings and the Israeli siege at the top of the news reports,” said al-Sallaq, who hopes the initiative can draw attention to another side of Gaza.
“They don’t know that Gaza has archaeological treasures, both above and below the ground. Gaza is a gateway connecting Asia and Africa. It has witnessed many historical developments across a series of civilizations, ”she told Al Jazeera.
As one of the oldest cities in the world, Gaza was ruled by Pharaohs, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines before Muslims conquered it in 635. It became part of several Muslim empires, including including the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century until 1917.
The 1948 war that established Israel transformed the Gaza Strip from a small port and agricultural hinterland to one of the most overcrowded places on the planet.
An Israeli blockade imposed on the coastal enclave since Hamas took control in 2007, high unemployment rates and cuts in UN funding have exacerbated conditions for nearly two million Gazans.
The core team behind Gaza’s new digital archive includes al-Sallaq and civil engineer Mayar Humaid. Over the past seven years, they have dedicated their time and money to the project.
“We started the project using our own funds in 2014, but after receiving a local award in 2016, we expanded our work and our team,” al-Sallaq said, referring to a $ 10,000 award given. by the Swiss NGO Taawon Foundation.
A-Sallaq has since hired a group of photographers, graphic designers, IT experts and more civil engineers to set up the platform.
The team divides up a variety of tasks, including researching, compiling and documenting historical details, as well as filming and photographing each site for archives.
With a website, mobile app, and Instagram page to update, the team has its fair share of work to do.
“All the information we collect is uploaded to the website with a photo, video and historical site description provided,” said Humaid, responsible for updating the “Kanaan Ps” Instagram page.
Despite the team’s best efforts, the website remains under construction and the mobile app needs further updates.
Overcome the challenges
While the team is proud of what they have achieved so far, al-Sallaq said they face challenges every step of the way, especially when trying to access sites. historic sites located in restricted areas.
“Although we have permission from the Ministry of Tourism to make our field visits to Gaza, we cannot reach areas along the border. [with Israel] for security reasons, ”Humaid said.
“The border sites are located underground in areas Israel calls ‘the underground city’,” she said, referring to a network of tunnels that Israel alleges the Palestinians used to smuggle goods. trade in Gaza, as well as arms to armed groups.
Initially, Kanaan focused only on documenting historic buildings and sites in Gaza. In recent years, the project has also turned towards artefacts.
But to do this, the team needed a three-dimensional printer and camera that, according to al-Sallaq, Israel bans from importing due to restrictions on “dual-use” products – things that could be used for both civilians and for military purposes.
Instead of abandoning the idea, however, al-Sallaq hired a mechatronics specialist to design a 3D printer for the project. “And he succeeded,” she said, explaining that Kanaan can now document smaller objects.
According to Humaid, the project encouraged people to help protect and restore historic buildings and sites in Gaza.
“A group of artists have taken inspiration from our work and launched initiatives to rehabilitate some of the historic buildings that we have documented,” said Humaid.
Among them is the Al-Kamalia school, established in the heart of the old city in 1237 to accommodate students of religious knowledge and poor members of the community.
Named after the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil, the school is an important example of the influence that the Ayyubid dynasty – founded by Salahdin and who ruled parts of Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century – had on Gaza.
Bringing together a group of volunteer artists, Abdallah al-Ruzi, 38, helped restore the old school as part of an initiative called Mobaderoon.
“We knew that the Al-Kamalia school was a historic building, but with Kanaan’s help, we were able to identify its exact name and historical significance,” al-Ruzi told Al Jazeera.
Ruzi said if Mobaderoon wanted to restore other historic sites in Gaza, they were struggling with a lack of funds.
According to Jamal Abu Raida, director general of antiquities at Gaza’s tourism ministry, the two initiatives have helped support the ministry’s role in restoring and documenting Gaza’s rich heritage.
“Kanaan and Mobaderoon compliment our role in raising awareness, locally and abroad, on historic sites in Gaza,” he said, while complaining that the ministry does not have the financial resources to do so.
Abu Raida said international funding for historic sites in Gaza froze after Hamas came to power. He said donors have slowly started to show some support for the ministry’s work in recent years.
“ Essential ” platform
Khaled Safi, professor of history and civilizations at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, said Kanaan was an indispensable platform.
“Gaza needs these kinds of initiatives, especially given the government’s lack of consideration for this cultural heritage,” Safi said.
“Gaza’s heritage needs more than a digital archive and virtual access. The existing archaeological sites need real protection, ”he added. “For decades, we have seen no government protection or restoration of archaeological sites and buildings in Gaza.
“I have personally witnessed the destruction of some due to a lack of awareness,” he said, explaining that some had been removed as part of plans to build new commercial buildings.
Yet recent years have witnessed a growing movement led by a number of history and archeology professors at Gaza universities to protect the enclave’s heritage.
Working with social media activists, the movement has attempted to end bulldozing and digging operations around historic areas, including historic Tel Al-Sakan, which has seen large parts destroyed in recent years.
Despite the challenges, the team behind Kanaan plans to expand the project further, going beyond Gaza to other parts of Palestine.
“Expanding the digital archive to include archaeological and historical sites in cities in the occupied West Bank is the team’s next step,” Humaid said.
“Our goal is to make Kanaan the premier digital archive for historic buildings and sites across Palestine,” she added.