Trea­sure trove of ‘an­cient’ ar­chae­ol­ogy tucked away in Gaza

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

GAZA: Nafez Abed’s cramped work­room is filled with sculp­tures and mo­saics with pat­terns from the Byzan­tine, Greek and Ro­man pe­ri­ods. It is an em­po­rium of Mid­dle East­ern an­tiq­uity tucked away in Gaza. And none of it is real. Abed, 55, is a self-taught ar­chae­ol­o­gist, pre­server and re­storer who crafts re­pro­duc­tions of an­cient pieces he finds or has seen in mu­se­ums. He gives his work so much au­then­tic­ity that in­ter­na­tional ex­perts have been wowed by his skills.

A fair-haired, in­tense man, he spends al­most all his time in his stu­dio, built on the roof of his un­fin­ished house in a refugee camp in north­ern Gaza. Its win­dows are cov­ered in plas­tic to keep out the rain that blows in from the nearby Mediter­ranean. “The Mu­seum of Mo­saics” is writ­ten on the wooden door that leads into his work­room. On a large ta­ble in the mid­dle of the dark room stands a re­pro­duc­tion of a statue of Alexan­der the Great, look­ing as if it truly dated from 300 BC, amid oil-fired lamps and copies of coins dat­ing back more than 2,500 years.

“My fix­a­tion with ar­chae­ol­ogy runs in my veins,” said the fa­ther of seven, who trained as a black­smith be­fore de­cid­ing 30 years ago to ded­i­cate him­self to a more re­fined art. “I spend more than 10 hours a day here, sit­ting among my works and re­pro­duc­tions,” he said with a sense of wist­ful­ness. His room was lit by one small lamp, plugged into an ex­ten­sion ca­ble that stretches from the floor below. It was Abed’s fa­ther who got him started, im­bu­ing him with a love of an­tiq­uity and the rich an­cient his­tory of Gaza, where the blinded Bib­li­cal hero Sam­son lived.

Over the mil­len­nia, Gaza has served as a trad­ing port for an­cient Egyp­tians, Philistines, Ro­mans and Cru­saders. Be­neath its sands lie ru­ins from Alexan­der the Great’s siege of the city, Em­peror Hadrian’s visit, Mon­gol raids and the ar­rival of the Is­lamic armies 1,400 years ago. Napoleon and the Ot­tomans camped here and Bri­tish armies passed through in World War I. Abed fre­quently tours Gaza’s beaches look­ing for an­cient re­mains.

Some­times he re­stores pieces he finds and other times he uses the clay in a re­pro­duc­tion, treat­ing the ma­te­rial in such a way that it looks to be cen­turies old. Via ex­ten­sive read­ing on ar­chae­ol­ogy in Ara­bic and English, he has de­vel­oped a range of tech­niques for restora­tion and ag­ing. To a vis­i­tor’s eye, ev­ery­thing looks an­cient. “Some clients, some vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing sci­en­tists who have vis­ited me, thought some of the pieces were real be­fore I told them they were im­i­ta­tions made by own hand,”he said.

Mu­seum qual­ity

As his skills grew, he gained wider ac­claim. By pres­i­den­tial de­cree, he was ap­pointed deputy direc­tor of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion at the Pales­tinian Min­istry of Ar­chae­ol­ogy in 1995 and he has also been in charge of the mo­saic depart­ment. He has trav­elled to Jeri­cho and Jenin in the West Bank to work with Ital­ian and Dutch ex­perts on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites there, and made trips to the Lou­vre in Paris and mu­se­ums in Ar­les and Geneva to help with restora­tions.

In 2005, the head of the Geneva mu­seum vis­ited Gaza with his wife and talked at length with Abed about his skills. “He of­fered me a job at the mu­seum, but I turned it down,”said Abed, mak­ing clear his re­gret. “It was a mis­take.” In 2007, the Is­lamist group Ha­mas seized control of Gaza. Since then, trav­el­ling abroad has be­come much harder and life in­side the ter­ri­tory has grown tougher, with re­stric­tions on the im­port of goods and a se­ries of short wars with Is­rael. In his stu­dio, Abed works in­tensely on a range of mo­saics. One de­picts a beau­ti­ful woman rid­ing a charg­ing bull, a copy of an orig­i­nal based in Naples, Italy.

Another set of seven mo­saics show the an­cient gates to Pales­tine and there are also re­pro­duc­tions of pieces he has seen while vis­it­ing the Nether­lands and France. Most Gazans can­not af­ford his works, but Abed has a few lo­cal clients, in­clud­ing ho­tel own­ers and other wealthy peo­ple who want to dec­o­rate their homes with an­cient-look­ing ar­ti­facts. While that is some­thing, business is not as it once was. “I used to be vis­ited by for­eign­ers, by con­suls and am­bas­sadors, by in­ter­na­tional busi­ness­men and tourists,” said Abed. “There are no for­eign­ers nowa­days. The sit­u­a­tion got bad.” — Reuters

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