A farmer digging on his land in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has uncovered a rare relic of the ancient Canaanite religion. The 4,500-year-old stone statue representing the goddess Anat is a reminder of one of the long-lost civilizations that inhabited this eternally troubled region long before the Israelis and Palestinians arrived. Gaza itself is one of the oldest cities in the world, and like many others in the region, its rich history has been threatened by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas sees profit in protecting ancient heritage
Farmer Nidal Abu Eid stumbled upon the carved head of Anat unintentionally and his first instinct was to sell the item; the Gaza Strip is deeply impoverished and the black market trade in antiquities can be very lucrative.
Fortunately, an archeologist who learned of the find convinced him of its great historical value. It will instead go on display in a museum in Gaza and its discoverer seems to be very happy with this outcome, telling the BBC ” We thank God, and we are proud that it stayed in our land.”
That pride is great for archeology, as pre-Islamic artifacts in the Gaza Strip have not always fared well under Hamas. Valuable artifacts have vanished or been destroyed in the past under the Islamist faction’s rule.
Now that is increasingly changing, partly thanks to Palestinians like Nidal Abu Eid who are developing a greater appreciation for the region’s ancient heritage.
Hamas has also realized that protecting local history presents new opportunities; unlike Israel, the Gaza Strip attracts no tourists. This isn’t likely to change any time soon with Hamas in power, but if Gaza wishes to entice visitors in the future it will need to take care of its historical sites and artifacts.
Earlier this year Hamas completed the restoration of a fifth century Byzantine church in the Gaza Strip with assistance from foreign organizations. The Islamist group described the project as part of an effort to show that they embrace their “Christian brothers.”
Statue represents Canaanite war goddess
The Anat statue, meanwhile, predates both Christianity and Islam by thousands of years. In fact, it predates even the Old Testament by more than a millennium.
The Book of Joshua depicts the Israelite conquest of the Canaanite cities, and by that time the Canaanite civilization was already ancient and influential as a culture stuck between the powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Anat is little known to the average person today, but her brother Baal plays a significant role in the Bible as a byword for paganism and idolatry and in narratives that show the Canaanite religion’s continued legacy within the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Anat was a goddess of war, though not exclusively. Some Gaza residents are reportedly amused by the discovery of a war goddess in a land where tensions between Hamas and Israel frequently explode into violence.
For their part, the rulers of Gaza were quick to claim that the statue was a relic of the indigenous Canaanite ancestors of today’s Palestinians and a proof of their claim to the land.
In fact, most Israelis and Palestinians are likely descended in part from the people who made the statue, but the Palestinian interest in the artifact is a development that may protect it and other priceless relics of the ancient past from destruction or black market sales.