Crowned by a serpent - a symbol of strength - the deity embodied love, beauty and fertility, but also war and conquest.  In the image, the bust in the museum where it is preserved after its discovery at the end of April.

Shortly before the anniversary of the latest conflict between the Israeli army and Gaza militias was commemorated in May, a Palestinian farmer chanced upon a limestone head representing the goddess Anat of Canaan while plowing his land in southern of the fringe Crowned by a serpent – a symbol of strength – the deity embodied love, beauty and fertility, but also war and conquest, for the Canaanites, one of the first peoples to inhabit the Holy Land. The finding, dated some 2,500 years before Christ, has been celebrated by Gazan archaeologists as confirmation of the strategic historical past of the coastal enclave, in a corridor that linked the cradles of humanity, between the successive Egyptian empires and the flourishing city-states. Phoenicians, in present-day Lebanon.

“Our Canaanite ancestors were here before the Israelites,” 43-year-old Bedouin farmer Nidal Abu Eid boasted on a tobacco plantation in the village of Qarara, in the Khan Younis municipality, southeast of the Strip. Barely 500 meters from the spot where his 15-year-old son Ahmed drew his attention to a strange muddy object raised under his hoe, stands a stretch of high concrete wall with a watchtower, inside the 65-kilometre barrier with which Israel seals the blockade of the Palestinian Strip for 15 years. He soon realized that they had found something important.

Father and son point their fingers at the ground where the bust of the goddess Anat appeared. Beside him, Zarban Abu Daher, 67, muktar or village headman, blesses a find that has brought fame to his village through the Arab channels, dressed as a Bedouin sheikh Al Jazeera (Qatar) or Al Manar (Lebanon). “When we cleaned the object, we were surprised by the iridescence it had in the sun. Not for a moment did we think of keeping this treasure, ”the peasant swears by his honor. “We delivered it to a deposit in Qarara that already has 500 archaeological objects, although this is undoubtedly the most valuable. It was like a party in our community”, he recounts full of pride.

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Crowned by a serpent - a symbol of strength - the deity embodied love, beauty and fertility, but also war and conquest.  In the image, the bust in the museum where it is preserved after its discovery at the end of April.
Crowned by a serpent – a symbol of strength – the deity embodied love, beauty and fertility, but also war and conquest. In the image, the bust in the museum where it is preserved after its discovery at the end of April.SOPA Images (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty)

The unusually well-preserved 22-centimetre-tall Bronze Age find was presented to the public by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and Antiquities (controlled in the Mediterranean enclave by the Islamist Hamas movement) at the Ottoman Qasar al Pasha palace, in the Gazan capital, which has a small museum. In statements to the BBC, a ministerial spokesman praised the fact that the sculpture of the Canaanite goddess had stood the test of time for more than four millennia. “These discoveries prove that Palestine comes from the ancient Canaanite civilization and that no one can falsify its history,” the official in charge emphasized.

Like all of the Middle East, Gaza is a multi-millennium melting pot of cultures. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamluks, Turks or British, among others, left their mark on its sandy lands. But it was the Canaanites and Philistines, repeatedly cited in the Old Testament, who gave it a biblical pedigree. It is a territory where archeology is a weapon loaded with the past for geopolitics, which wields discoveries as proof of historical presence.

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Israel preserves in Beit Shemesh, in the province of Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of ancient objects located in its territory since its founding as a State, 74 years ago. Finds from previous excavations are generally found in the Rockefeller Museum, built during the British Mandate (1922-1948) in East Jerusalem (occupied by Israel since 1967 and annexed in 1980). The remains from the West Bank, also under Israeli occupation for more than half a century, are moved to a warehouse near the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumin, east of Jerusalem.

The Egyptian and Canaanite goddess Anat is seen as the ancestor of Athena, also a deity of war and, in the Greco-Latin tradition, of wisdom. To the rarity of finding her image in limestone on a terrace in southern Gaza, is added the scarcity of representations of deities of Canaan that have survived to the present. The Canaanite civilization spread between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River (now under Israeli control) and across the fertile crescent of present-day Syria and Jordan. To a large extent, it conforms to the land promised to the Jewish people described in the Bible. For religious Zionism, the promise of the holy book is equivalent to a title deed. Heavy fighting broke out in the area where the bust appeared in the summer of 2014, with an Israeli tank raid destroying the Abu Eid family’s home.

The whereabouts of the bronze effigy of Apollo

Hamas has de facto governed the Palestinian Strip since 2007 after overthrowing the Fatah Administration, the nationalist party of the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, by arms. The Islamist movement has shown in recent times a certain interest in the preservation of historical heritage. It has halted construction in an area where Roman tombs were located and allowed the reopening of a restored 5th-century Byzantine church thanks to international donations. But just five years ago, local authorities authorized the remains of a Canaanite village to be leveled by bulldozers to make way for new construction. For almost a decade, the whereabouts of a bronze effigy of the god Apollo, 1.8 meters high, which was rescued in waters near the Strip by fishermen, has also been unknown. Militiamen from the Brigades of the Martyrs of Al Aqsa (armed wing of Hamas) seized the unique find, which had been dated to the 5th century BC. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities limited itself to reporting in 2013 that work was being done on its restoration.

Crammed into a 365-square-kilometre coastline — similar to tiny Malta — more than two million Gazans are desperate after fifteen years of blockade and four wars with Israel. With an unemployment rate of around 50% (70% for young people), nine out of ten contaminated aquifers and continuous electrical blackouts, the UN has been predicting for some time that the Palestinian enclave is on the way to becoming an uninhabitable territory. The unexpected appearance of the head of the beautiful and fearsome Anat in the garden of the Bedouin Abu Eid, a stone’s throw from the peephole of the Israeli snipers seems “a small miracle”, confesses the discoverer of the remains of the goddess of love and war while offering a cup of tea to the visitor.

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