A Byzantine church that was recently restored re-opened as a museum in Gaza on January 24 after undergoing a three-year-long restoration project, with the ruling Islamist Hamas party claiming it comes as an “embrace” of their “Christian brothers.”
Dating back to the fifth century AD, the church and its monastery were first discovered in Jabalia, a city in northern Gaza, in 1997. Measuring over 800 square meters, (8,611 square feet), the complex is a massive compound of buildings featuring intricate mosaics and whose walls were once adorned with verses written in ancient Greek.
The mosaics portray hunting scenes, palm trees and animals, among other objects.
Now, wooden walkways floating atop the mosaic floors allow visitors to gaze down at the intricate designs.
The tourism ministry of Gaza says that the church dates back to the era of Emperor Theodosius II, the ruler of Byzantium from 408 to 450.
Archbishop Alexios of Tiberias, the most senior Orthodox cleric in Gaza, officiated at the opening ceremony for the restored church. In an address he brought his listeners back to the long, illustrious history of Christianity in the area, noting that “monasticism began in the Gaza strip in the year 280.”
However, the Christian population of Gaza has been declining rapidly over the last decades, and many of them have emigrated out, especially after the Islamist movement Hamas seized power there in 2007, a report from Hurriyet notes.
There were as many as 7,000 Palestinian Christians in the area fourteen years ago; now there are only approximately 1,000.
Only discovered when local construction workers were rebuilding a major highway in 1998, according to according to Nariman Khella, a Ministry official, the church was founded 1,700 years ago under the auspices of Byzantine royalty.
It is the gravesite of Byzantine emperors as well as more ordinary churchgoers, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
The internecine warfare between Israel and the Palestinian militants in Gaza posed an ongoing problem to the extensive restoration of the site, leading to the French NGO Premiere Urgence Internationale partnering with the cultural authorities of Palestine in taking control of the project in 2018. The restoration ended up costing $250,000; part of the monies also came from The British Council.
Khella stated that as part of the resulting partnership, a group of students studying archaeology were then tasked with the restoration work of the buildings. “They restored and polished dozens of ancient mosaic portraits on the floor of the church,” he recalled.
A team of experts also came to Gaza from abroad to train their local counterparts in how best to go about protecting the church while it was being restored.
Jamal Abu Rida, another Ministry official, stated that there are a total of 400 spectacular mosaic images on the floors of the church. It was his hope, he added, that such restored cultural treasures might be part of a revival of tourism in the Gaza Strip, which has served as an important trade center going back into time immemorial, and which was mentioned in the Bible.
However, Rida added that foreign tourism would revive only if peace prevailed in perpetually war-torn Gaza.
“There is no doubt that Christians around the world love to visit their ancient churches and get to know their places, and we hope that will happen one day,” he stated.
Issam al-Daalis, the head of the government’s works department, said the massive church’s restoration was an example of the party’s “embracing” of its “Christian brothers in Gaza.”