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A requiem for Gaza's iconic sites, destroyed in the war

What is left of Pasha's Palace amid Israel's bombardment of Gaza. Historians of Gaza say Napoleon slept there for three nights in 1799.
Omar El Qattaa for NPR
What is left of Pasha's Palace amid Israel's bombardment of Gaza. Historians of Gaza say Napoleon slept there for three nights in 1799.

The stately palace where Napoleon is said to have slept for a few nights. The last remaining Turkish bath, offering full body oil scrubs. The antiques shop with its trove of dusty treasures for sale.

So many of Gaza City's gems are no more.

They withstood decades of upheaval, preserving the memory of Gaza's ancient glory as a crossroads of civilizations. Now they have now been decimated in Israel's ongoing bombardment of Gaza, the deadliest war Palestinians have ever faced, prompted by the deadliest day Israelis have ever endured, when Hamas attacked Oct 7.

"It's really heartbreaking to see all this, and to think about the city that I cherish, that I'm from, that I love, in complete ruins," says Palestinian-American author Laila El-Haddad, fighting off tears. Her parents grew up in Gaza and she used to live there. "I just can't imagine why — what the point is of destroying all these places."

The destruction of Gaza's cultural heritage sites is among the crimes South Africa has alleged in its genocide case against Israel.

We asked the Israeli military, the IDF, why it targeted these sites. It said some contained militants and tunnels.

"In response to Hamas' barbaric attacks, the IDF is operating to dismantle Hamas military and administrative capabilities," it said. It blamed "the malicious exploitation by Hamas of civilian buildings, including significant, mainly religious sites, for its own terrorist purposes."

The Israeli military did not announce the targeting of these historical heritage sites. But Israeli media has reported the demolition of contemporary statuesand monuments associated with Hamas.

As Israeli troops withdrew from parts of Gaza City in recent weeks, residents ventured outside to survey the shattered landscapes.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
As Israeli troops withdrew from parts of Gaza City in recent weeks, residents ventured outside to survey the shattered landscapes.

So much has been lost in Gaza, beyond the catastrophic death toll. More than half of Gaza's buildings are estimated to have been destroyed.

But these landmarks showed another face of Gaza, different from the den of misery the world has come to know. For Palestinians, these sites were part of the tangle of threads linking their daily lives to their heritage stretching back thousands of years — an intangible connection to the past that cannot be replaced.

We toured some of those sites ourselves in 2019, and created this mini travel guide to Gaza City, documenting the historical and cultural landmarks that tourists used to visit, before Hamas took control in 2007, and an Israeli blockade, supported by Egypt, sealed Gaza off from most outside visitors.

After nearly four months of war, every site we visited then is now destroyed, badly damaged, or inaccessible.

We could not survey this ourselves. Journalists cannot enter Gaza during the war. So NPR asked Omar El Qattaa, one of the few remaining photojournalists in Gaza City during these months of war, to document the destruction, so we could compare NPR's photos of what existed before this war began to what remains now.

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We shared the images with Ayman Hassouna, an historian of archaeology who had taken us on a tour of these sites in 2019. He fled his home in Gaza City when the current war began.

"I am shocked by the photos," says Hassouna. "I cannot believe what has happened. It's like a nightmare."

Few Gazans have been able to see what has happened to the sites since the war began. Most living in Gaza City escaped to the south in the early weeks of the war. As Israeli troops withdrew from parts of Gaza City in recent weeks, residents who did not flee the city ventured outside to make sense of their new, shattered landscapes.

Omari Mosque, Gaza's most iconic historical site

The Omari Mosque was the oldest mosque in Gaza, dating back to Crusader times. Destroyed by earthquakes and conquests, and rebuilt many times over history, the mosque had a storied history.

Palestinian devotees pray on Laylat al-Qadr at the Omari mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City, on April 17, 2023.
Majdi Fathi / Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Palestinian devotees pray on Laylat al-Qadr at the Omari mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City, on April 17, 2023.
What is left of the Omari Mosque. It was Gaza's oldest Muslim house of worship and previously a Crusader church. The Israeli army said it bombed the mosque to target militants and a tunnel shaft inside.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
What is left of the Omari Mosque. It was Gaza's oldest Muslim house of worship and previously a Crusader church. The Israeli army said it bombed the mosque to target militants and a tunnel shaft inside.

It was originally a 5th century Byzantine church that was built over a more ancient temple. It was converted into a mosque in the 7th century, then a Crusader church in the 11th century, and back to a mosque in the 13th century. The architectural elements of the Crusader church were still apparent in the modern-day mosque, and an etching of a Jewish menorah on a mosque column, believed to have been originally part of an ancient synagogue, was once documented, and was destroyed in recent decades.

Now Gaza's central mosque, with its blue-carpeted floors and stained glass windows, is unrecognizable.

The Israeli military told NPR it struck the Omari Mosque to target militants and a tunnel shaft within the building.

The Samaritan Hammam bath

The Samaritan Hammam, a traditional domed bathhouse restored in the year 1320, was originally run by members of the ancient Samaritan religion. All that remains of the Samaritan Hammam are some archways nearly buried in the building's rubble, and the sign that used to be posted outside.

A Palestinian man relaxes at the ancient Samaritan Hammam, a traditional Turkish steam bath, in Gaza City, on March 3, 2021.
Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Palestinian man relaxes at the ancient Samaritan Hammam, a traditional Turkish steam bath, in Gaza City, on March 3, 2021.
What is left of the Samaritan Hammam. Israel's military said it bombed the ancient bathhouse, alleging militants were based there and used a network of tunnels inside.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
What is left of the Samaritan Hammam. Israel's military said it bombed the ancient bathhouse, alleging militants were based there and used a network of tunnels inside.

Ahmad Elyassi, 38, stood next to the ruins of the bathhouse where he used to bathe with friends. Pinpricks of light used to stream through colorful holes in the domed ceiling. Bath attendants would give full body oil scrubs.

"I am honestly stunned," he says. "I didn't expect they'd destroy it and level it."

The Israeli military said it struck the Samaritan Hammam with "precision munitions" to target a Hamas squad and a network of tunnels inside.

The military said it could not find information about the other landmarks on our list.

Pasha's Palace, where Napoleon is said to have stayed

The Pasha's Palace was built by a Mamluk sultan in the 13th century. A second story was added several hundred years ago during the Ottoman era. It is where Gaza historians say Napoleon spent three nights in February of 1799 during his military campaign in the region.

In contemporary Gaza, it was a museum displaying Gaza's archaeological treasures, including centuries-old ceramic jars that had carried wine and olive oil from Gaza to ports across the Mediterranean — a reminder of a time of peace and economic prosperity for Gaza, and of its seafaring heritage.

Palm trees grow in the garden of the historical Pasha's Palace in Gaza City, in 2019.
Khalil Hamra / AP Images for NPR
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AP Images for NPR
Palm trees grow in the garden of the historical Pasha's Palace in Gaza City, in 2019.
What is left of Pasha's Palace, amid Israel's bombardment of Gaza.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
What is left of Pasha's Palace, amid Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

Now, Pasha's Palace is mostly rubble. Some outer walls and intricate archways remain standing. The current fate of the antiquities it displayed is unknown. The only item visible now is a destroyed car on a mound of dirt in front of the ruined palace.

Antiques shop, packed with treasures

Ayman Hassouna, who taught archaeology in Gaza, walks out of an antiques shop in the middle of the main market in Gaza's Old City, in 2019.
Khalil Hamra / AP Images for NPR
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AP Images for NPR
Ayman Hassouna, who taught archaeology in Gaza, walks out of an antiques shop in the middle of the main market in Gaza's Old City, in 2019.
What is left of the antiques shop, amid Israel's bombardment of Gaza.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
What is left of the antiques shop, amid Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

The Old Town Antique Store, a stall along a once-bustling marketplace, once brimmed with old photo albums, brass hamsa pendants meant to ward off the evil eye, and rare English books.

Among the collection that once stuffed the shop: an original 1924 copy of "Crime and Criminals in Palestine" by a Jerusalem police inspector, and a 1930s telephone book featuring prominent Jewish and Palestinian families who were since scattered into exile and diaspora.

Now the antique shop has been destroyed. Old film negatives are scattered among the debris. Saleem Elrayes, the cheery English-speaking owner who ran the shop for more than 30 years, could not be reached.

Gaza's revered fish restaurant

Gaza's beachside fish restaurant, Al Salam Abu Haseira, is where we sat in 2019 at a long table, dining on grilled fish seasoned with hot pepper, parsley, onions, lemon and tomato. Its specialties were a touchstone of Gaza's seafaring tradition, including shrimp zibdiyeh, a spicy tomato stew, served in Gaza's traditional clay zibdiyeh cooking pots.

The restaurant is now damaged, as seen through its wide windows facing the Mediterranean Sea.

The sun sets over Al Salam Abu Haseira fish restaurant by the beach in Gaza City, in 2019.
Khalil Hamra / Khalil Hamra/AP Images for NPR
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Khalil Hamra/AP Images for NPR
The sun sets over Al Salam Abu Haseira fish restaurant by the beach in Gaza City, in 2019.
The fish restaurant has been damaged in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza City.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
The fish restaurant has been damaged in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza City.

A cafe in an old mansion

Beit Sitti, a chic cafe-restaurant nestled in a three-story traditional mansion, and an ode to Palestinian cultural heritage, is still standing, according to its previous owner, Gaza playwright and caricaturist Atef Salama. But it is locked and inaccessible, he says, and those who have keys have fled Gaza City and are unable to return.

Palestinians sit inside Beit Sitti, Arabic for "my grandmother's house," in Gaza's Old City on Dec. 19, 2017. The cafe is an ode to Palestinian cultural heritage.
Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images
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NurPhoto via Getty Images
Palestinians sit inside Beit Sitti, Arabic for "my grandmother's house," in Gaza's Old City on Dec. 19, 2017. The cafe is an ode to Palestinian cultural heritage.
The archway leading to Beit Sitti as it looks now. The cafe appears to still be standing following Israeli strikes in the area. It was locked and inaccessible to survey if there was any damage.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
The archway leading to Beit Sitti as it looks now. The cafe appears to still be standing following Israeli strikes in the area. It was locked and inaccessible to survey if there was any damage.

Set around an airy courtyard with caged birds and plants climbing the walls, the cafe served a traditional Palestinian breakfast spread of jams and mini flatbreads topped with cheese and za'atar spices. On Thursday evenings, it hosted a young clientele for dinner, water pipes and live Arabic music.

A hotel and museum

An employee sits behind the reception desk of Al-Mathaf Hotel in Gaza City, in 2019.
Khalil Hamra / AP Images for NPR
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AP Images for NPR
An employee sits behind the reception desk of Al-Mathaf Hotel in Gaza City, in 2019.
The reception area of Al-Mathaf hotel is badly damaged following Israeli bombardment. Photo taken on Feb. 3, 2024.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
The reception area of Al-Mathaf hotel is badly damaged following Israeli bombardment. Photo taken on Feb. 3, 2024.

Al-Mathaf, which means "The Museum," is a 36-room room boutique hotel with sea views. It had a resplendent reception area with a patchwork of tiles and stones salvaged from old Gazan homes. The owner's private collection of Gazan antiquities had been displayed in the foyer.

What happened to the hotel was unclear until early February, when Israeli troops had already withdrawn and it was safe for residents to approach the area.

Our photographer found the hotel severely damaged. The reception hall was littered with shattered stones and tiles. Ancient jugs were smashed. Windows were broken, walls were pockmarked and roofs were demolished. The manicured garden of palm trees and cacti outside was ravaged. An exterior wall displayed Hebrew graffiti; one soldier had sprayed a message to his brother, a Hamas captive. The hotel appears to have been set on fire.

We sent photos to Jawdat Khoudary, the hotel owner who left for Egypt.

"I am crying blood from a broken heart," he texted back. "A house can be rebuilt, a son can be born, but when history is erased, it is difficult to restore."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Abu Bakr Bashir