KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip — All that is left of the Sheikh Youssef shrine is a room surmounted by a dome made of ancient marble. Located on the main road in the village of Bani Suhaila, east of Khan Yunis, the shrine houses a tomb that Gazans believe contains the remains of a mysterious but righteous Muslim man.
Although the shrine is in an area crowded with pedestrians and residents, it has become so deserted over the past few years that the municipality of Bani Suhaila has closed it. People have become less inclined to visit the shrines and mausoleums in Gaza that were once filled with people and hosted festivals each year.
One shrine, al-Khodr, is currently being restored as a cultural site by the NAWA for Culture and Arts Association with funding by UNESCO. Parts of the shrine, located in a residential area in the city of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, will be used as a library.
Assad Ashour, an archaeologist and the former head of excavation at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that there are only six ancient shrines and tombs left in Gaza. A large number have disappeared as a result of government and community neglect.
Ashour said, “The remaining ones include al-Khodr shrine in Deir al-Balah, al-Zaouia al-Ahmadiya shrine in al-Daraj neighborhood in Gaza City and Sheikh Mohammed shrine on the outskirts of Khan Yunis. There is also the shrine of Sheikh Bashir in al-Tuffah neighborhood east of Gaza City, where I did some exploration five years ago. I found tombstones taken from other locations and some marble panels from different mosques.”
He added, “The last and largest ancient shrine is the shrine of Sayyid Hashim, the grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, located inside Sayyid Hashim Mosque in Gaza City. But people are starting to forget all about it as well.”
Ashour lamented the widespread neglect, saying, “There were times when people from all over Gaza would visit these shrines, but no longer. No government authority pays attention to them in the absence of financial resources, with people preoccupied with the growing concerns of daily life. Only al-Khodr shrine has recently been restored with funding from UNESCO.”
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in the West Bank does not offer financing to its Gaza counterpart for the restoration and preservation of shrines. The Gaza ministry must rely on local taxes collected by Hamas.
According to Ashour, al-Khodr shrine, which was poorly rebuilt in the 1930s, is considered a holy place for Muslims who believe that a Muslim sheikh named al-Khodr is buried there. He said, “However, the writing on the tombstone indicates that the shrine holds the remains of a Christian saint named Hilarius who escaped Roman persecution in the fourth century, when Emperor Julian recanted from Christianity and destroyed the monastery built by Hilarius on the shore of the Sea of Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip, which is considered one of the largest monasteries in Palestine. Only parts of this monastery remain, and the site is now known as Tell Umm Amer.”
Jamal Abu Rida, the head of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage at Gaza's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that his ministry is interested in preserving the shrines and other archaeological sites in the Gaza Strip.
“Despite the ministry's financial hardships and lack of manpower, we are able today, with funding from UNESCO, to restore al-Khodr shrine in the city of Deir al-Balah. But we need to preserve all shrines and mausoleums all around the Gaza Strip,” he added.
Abu Rida called for amending some articles of the Palestinian Antiquities Law No. 5 of 1929, passed in the era of the British Mandate over Palestine. The law lacks measures to prevent the violation of archaeological sites, including shrines. He also pointed to a need for a budget that will allow the ministry to restore and preserve these shrines.
The drop in visitors to Gaza's shrines and mausoleums is attributable in part to the increase in religiosity and religious awareness, as Muslim clerics have been telling people that visiting shrines conflicts with Islamic directives.
In this context, Muslim scholar Mohammed Skeik told Al-Monitor that there is a difference between visiting the tombs to meditate, which is allowed in Islam, and visiting shrines to beg for divine intervention, which is not allowed. He said that very few people visit certain shrines in Khan Yunis these days.
“The hadiths about the Prophet Muhammad discouraged lifting the graves from the ground and building [shrines] atop. In addition, according to our Islamic doctrine, Muslims should be buried in Muslim graves, not in special places. Ignorant people started worshiping the shrines instead of God,” he said.
Skeik explained that people used to frequently visit shrines such as Sayyid Hashim's in Gaza City. Muslims would come from abroad to beg Sayyid Hashim to pray for material gains.
He said that Shiites started building shrines in the beginning of the fourth century after the prophet's death. “For the first three centuries after the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, there were no shrines to attract people to the city. In the fourth century AH, Shiites began building shrines for their imams, such as al-Hussein shrine in Karbala, Musa al-Kadhim shrine in Kadhimiya in Iraq and Sayyida Zeinab shrine in Syria.”
Although the majority of the population in the Gaza Strip has stopped visiting shrines and mausoleums, some are still hoping to preserve them as part of Palestine’s cultural heritage.
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