With years of war, humanitarian crises and a continuing Israeli blockade, the Gaza Strip’s rich cultural heritage has largely gone unnoticed.
But a few years ago, Nisma al-Sallaq, a local architect and a passionate advocate for the Palestinian enclave’s cultural history, set out to change that.
Along with a growing team, al-Sallaq, 27, set up Gaza’s first digital archive of historical buildings and heritage sites when she launched a multi-dimensional platform called Kanaan in 2019.
With a website, mobile application 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 first settled Gaza thousands of years ago, Kanaan has so far documented 311 historical buildings and 76 archaeological sites on the Strip.
These include the Tel Umm Amer or Saint Hilarion Monastery, which dates back to the late Roman Empire and is considered an important Christian heritage site. The archive also documents the Al-Omari Mosque, a church built by the Byzantines, and transformed 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 nothing but painful scenes of killings and the Israeli siege topping news bulletins,” said al-Sallaq, who hopes the initiative can draw attention to a different side of Gaza.
“They don’t know that Gaza has archaeological treasures, both above and below the ground. Gaza is a gate connecting Asia and Africa. It has witnessed many historical developments through a series of civilisations,” she told Al Jazeera.
As one of the most ancient cities in the world, Gaza was ruled by the pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines before Muslims conquered it in 635. It became part of several Muslim empires including the Ottoman Empire from the sixteenth century until 1917.
The 1948 war that established Israel, transformed the Gaza Strip from a minor port and agricultural hinterland into one of the most overcrowded places on Earth.
An Israeli blockade imposed on the coastal enclave since Hamas took control in 2007, high unemployment rates and UN funding cuts have exacerbated conditions for Gaza’s nearly two million residents.
Division of labour
The core team behind Gaza’s new digital archive includes al-Sallaq and civil engineer Mayar Humaid. For the past seven years, they have committed their time and money towards the project.
“We started the project using our own funds in 2014, but after receiving a local prize in 2016 we expanded our work and team,” said al-Sallaq, referring to a $10,000 award granted by Swiss-based 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 various tasks including researching, collating and documenting historical details, and filming and photographing each site for the archive.
With a website, mobile application and Instagram page to update, the team has its fair share of work to do.
“All the information we collect is uploaded onto the website with a photo, video and description of the historical site provided,” said Humaid, who is responsible for updating the Instagram page “Kanaan Ps”.
Despite the team’s efforts, the website remains under construction and the mobile application needs further updates.
While the team is proud of what it has achieved so far, al-Sallaq said it faced challenges every step of the way, especially when trying to access historic sites that fall within restricted areas.
“Although we have authorisation from the ministry of tourism to conduct our field visits in Gaza, we can’t reach areas along the border [with Israel] due to security reasons,” said Humaid.
“The border sites are located underground in areas Israel calls ‘the underground city’,” she said, referring to a network of tunnels that Israel alleges Palestinians have used to smuggle commercial goods into Gaza, as well as weapons to armed groups.
Initially, Kanaan only focused on documenting Gaza’s historic buildings and sites. In recent years, the project has moved towards artefacts as well.
But to do so, the team has needed a three-dimensional printer and camera, which according to al-Sallaq, Israel bans the import of because of restrictions on “dual-use” products – things that can allegedly be used for both civilian and military purposes.
Instead of giving up on 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.