A myriad of monuments are scattered over 25 acres in the heart of the Gaza Strip. The large parcel of land in the village of Umm Al-Tut is a regular destination for camera-wielding tourists; in the third oldest continually inhabited city. This is where Saint Hilarion Monastery is situated.
"Hilarion is the son of Palestine," Father Manuel Musallam, Pastor at the Holy Family Church in Gaza City, told Raseef22. Born in 291 in Umm Al-Tut, Hilarion was the first monk in Palestine and the founder of Palestinian monasticism.
His parents sent him to Alexandria to learn Christian teachings, of which he became an expert at the age of 15. Hilarion met Anthony the Great, one of the oldest monks in Egypt, before settling down in an uninhabited area in Sinai's desert where he lived in a small hut and dedicated his life to worship.
Hilarion decided to go back to Gaza after his father's death. He then founded a school, a church and an association for monasticism at the small monastery whose remnants are still in Umm Al-Tut.
By 362, Roman emperor Julian took over Egypt and the Levant. He persecuted Christians, particularly monks and priests as well as their students. He also tore down monasteries, including Hilarion's in Gaza.
Escaping the crackdown, Hilarion sailed in a small boat to Cyprus, where he spent the rest of his life without anyone knowing his identity except for a few of his students who traveled with him. He died at 80 in the year 371, before his students transported his body back to Gaza and buried him at the monastery.
Hilarion shrine discovery
Father Musallam says the shrine of Hilarion was hidden under huge piles of sand, before the Israelis discovered it by chance in 1993 and transformed the area into a military site -- with artifacts stolen in the process. When the Palestinian authorities came to Gaza, they cooperated with French experts in 1994 to restore the site.
Israel expropriated many artifacts from Saint Hilarion Monastery, one of the earliest Christian settlements south of Jerusalem, which was buried in sand for 15 centuries before being discovered
Dating back to 300 AD, the tomb of Saint Hilarion was discovered along with mosaics and a baptismal font in the heart of Gaza
During the restoration work, the tomb of Saint Hilarion was discovered along with mosaics and a baptismal font, among other artifacts. Palestinian historian Nasser Alyafawi said that Saint Hilarion Monastery dates back to the Byzantine Empire and was built in 327 after his return to Gaza. On the one hand he escaped poverty and deteriorating economic conditions in Egypt, and on the other hand he supported his family in Gaza after his father's passing, explained Alyafawi, who reiterated that Israel had stolen numerous artifacts from the monastery's site.
The monastery in detail
The northern side of the monastery consisted of rooms designated for students who would come to learn from Hilarion -- prominently renowned as one of Anthony the Great's students -- as well as bathrooms.
On the southern side there were rooms fitted with mosaic floor, which were designated for Hilarion's guests -- mostly monks and priests -- according to Alyafawi. The western side of the monastery included a teaching area that could accommodate up to 400 students. There was also a large chair made of limestone for the teacher to sit down during classes. Meanwhile, the eastern side had an underground crucifix-shaped area.
In the middle of the monastery, there were cross-shaped baptism pools made of marble, where people would sink their bodies as part of rituals to convert to Christianity. Also located in the central part a room for wine making, a fish pond -- one of the first the world has witnessed -- and the saint's bathroom. Hilarion's marble chair in the bathroom as well as other seating still exist, so do the remnants of his tomb in a nearby large room.
Alyafawi explains that the latest discovery in the shrine was Hilarion's tomb, saying that the search conducted by international delegations is still underway in cooperation with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. The area, he says, has witnessed consecutive eras of different rulings and the Christian history in Palestine.
Hidden for over fifteen centuries
Ghassan Weshah, the head of the history and archaeology department at the Islamic University of Gaza, told Raseef22 that the Monastery's site survived for over 1800 years because it remained unnoticed under consecutive Gaza rulers who came to power after the monks fled the city to avoid Roman emperor Julian's onslaught.
The site was not discovered during the Umayyad and Fatimid caliphates or the Ottoman rule because the Romans fully hid the rubble after destroying the monastery. Also, climate conditions further covered signs that Saint Hilarion Monastery once stood in the area.
Weshah explained that crucifix shapes in the monastery as well as Greek and Latin writings on the mosaic floors, including some verses of the Bible, comprise a testament to Christians' presence in Gaza 1800 years ago.