Gaza: The Lost Ancient City

The newest issue of Archaeology Magazine has an interesting feature on the sad state of the antiquities of Gaza (and its small archaeological museum in particular) after the recent conflict. As a lot of people will be aware, Gaza was in antiquity one of the most important and prosperous trading centres of the eastern Mediterranean. It is even depicted as the second largest city on the 6th century Madaba mosaic map, giving some indication of its late antique importance (see most recently Sivan 2008). Yet we know tantazingly little about the city’s archaeology and topography, apart from the testimony of the Madaba map and some incidental finds, such as an early 6th century synagogue mosaic of King David/Orpheus found in 1965 (and later partially destroyed; see Ovadiah 1969, 1982). Some of the archaeological excavations undertaken in recent years have usefully been summarized in the popular journal Les dossiers d’archéologie (Sadek et al. 1999), including a magnificient mosaic floor from a late antique ecclesiastical complex. The city’s main sanctuary, the Temple of Marnas (the Marneion) is only known from historical sources and coin evidence. It is perhaps located underneath the Great Mosque (an interpretation favoured by Glucker 1987), Gaza’s oldest mosque.

I have recently been looking into the very small group of Roman marble sculpture that is known to have been found in the Gaza Strip. It’s a very small group indeed (in fact, as far as I know, it consists of only three pieces, perhaps four, but, of course, much more material may have been found here without any kind of documentation). The find that has attracted most attention is a colossal statue of Zeus (seen in the photo above), perhaps in the local guise of Marnas. It was found in 1879 at Tell el-‘Ajjul 6 km south of Gaza city (on recent excavations on the Tell, refer to Sadek et al. 1999: 55f). This findspot is intriguing: given the size of the statue, it is very likely to have come from a temple – could it have been moved from Gaza’s Marneion at some stage in its history? This intriguing suggestion was put forward shortly after the statue’s discovery.

In 1880, the statue was moved to its present location in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, since Gaza was at this part of the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after its relocation, Captain C.R. Conder was able to see the statue in Istanbul and suggested that the statue originally had stood in a temple in Gaza (Conder 1882). He also reported on the riveting story of the statue’s discovery. According to Conder, the statue had been saved by a missionary from the violence of the local populace who “had at once commenced to break up the statue, and had succeeded in greatly damaging the face” (1882: 147). He also commented on the mutilation of the statue that appeared to him to pre-date its discovery. He noted, for instance, the missing legs that he believed had been sawn off. This is, however, unlikely given that the statue was produced in two pieces, a common modus operandi for enthroned statues. Even so, the report of the statue’s discovery in the 19th century leading to a violent local reaction is, of course, a cautionary tale when studying (late antique) Christian response.

Another statue from Gaza is testimony to the cruel irony of history. The article in Archaeology refers to a nude statue of Aphrodite that, rather than being on display in the Gaza museum, is on permanent loan to a museum in Geneva, as the museum authorities fear the response of Hamas to such an ‘immodest’ image. Sadly, this resonates with an episode in the life of Porphyry, who was bishop of Gaza 1600 years ago, when he confronts a ‘demonic’ statue of Aphrodite:

…in the place that is called the Four Ways, there was a statue of marble which they said was a statue of Aphrodite; and it was upon a base of stone, and the form of the statue was of a woman, naked, and having all her shame uncovered…. [T]he demon that dwelt in the statue beholding and being unable to suffer the sight of the sign which was being carried, came forth out of the marble with great confusion and cast down the statue itself and brake it into many pieces. And it fell out that two men of the idolaters were standing beside the base on which the statue stood, and when it fell, it clave the head of the one in twain, and of the other it brake the shoulder and the wrist. For they were both standing and mocking at the holy multitude (Mark the Deacon, Life of Porphyry, excerpts from 59-61, trans. Hill).

By the way, the title of this post deliberately refers to a 2001 exhibtion, entitled “Antioch: The Lost Ancient City” (with a nice catalogue). Somehow, ‘lost ancient city’ (as tacky as it is) strikes me as a more appropriate title for the case of Gaza. Antioch has, after all, seen major archaeological investigations.

Conder, C.R., 1882. Notes from Constantinople. Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, 1882, 147-149.
Glucker, C.A.M., 1987. The city of Gaza in the Roman and Byzantine periods, Oxford: B.A.R.
Ovadiah, A., 1969. Excavations in the Area of the Ancient Synagogue at Gaza (Preliminary Report). Israel Exploration Journal, 19, 193-198.
Ovadiah, A., 1982. The Synagogue at Gaza. In L. I. Levine, ed. Ancient Synagogues Revealed. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society, pp. 129-132.
Sadek, M., Matar Abu Hassuneh, Y. & Humbert, J., 1999. Gaza. Les dossiers d’archéologie, Jan/Feb 1999, 46-67.
Sivan, H., 2008. Palestine in Late Antiquity, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

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