Hamdan Taha, archeologist
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 11.11.2011:
The assistant deputy minister at the sector of antiquities and cultural heritage of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities would not enjoy being characterised as the Palestinian Indiana Jones. He dislikes the perception of archaeology as a process of treasure-hunting, a thin step away from looting. Yet Dr. Hamdan Taha’s single-minded campaign to restore Palestine’s cultural heritage is marked by as much determination and ingenuity as the screen icon’s Last Crusade.
Few, if any, have done more to return archaeology to public prominence in Palestine. He was instrumental in reconstituting the Department of Antiquities after a 36-year hiatus between 1948 and 1994, an institution that relies on his 24-hour work ethic and creativity. Taha’s assessment that archaeology is “more of a passion than a career” – one that he has devoted his entire adult life to – speaks volumes of Taha’s belief in its value and potential.
Raised in Al-Shuyukh Village, Hebron, Taha credits his formative environment with sowing the seeds of fascination that would be developed over the course of university studies in Birzeit, Amman, and Berlin. He entered public office through the “momentous event” of the establishment of the Department of Antiquities, which “finally gave us the opportunity to write our history from primary sources.”
He quickly set about the daunting task of repossessing Palestinian archaeology after generations of plunder from the exploitative forces of colonialism and Zionism, and to establish means of protection.
“Following transfer of authority, our most demanding task was to protect resources,” he told us. “There had been no legal protection of ethnographic architecture. Old laws had a colonial accent, linked to finding treasures, allowing objects to be taken from the country.”
Having pushed legislation that better protects Palestine’s unique history, the department faced further threats from the development boom. As major cities expanded, a significant salvage operation was initiated to ensure that the priceless legacies of ancient civilisations would not be trampled upon.
The operation yielded major discoveries. A Chalcolithic tomb in Bethlehem indicated the first human settlement in the city, dating back to the fourth millennium. Other tombs from the Roman and Hellenistic periods were revealed, illustrating the “mosaic of cultures” that makes Palestine such a unique and important location for archaeological exploration.
Taha acknowledges that a major challenge for his department is to ensure that Palestinians take pride in their heritage, and efforts are being made in this regard. A current project in Tell Balata site, Nablus, has turned an urban centre from the Bronze Age into a modern archaeological park accessible to the public.
Community outreach programmes are encouraging visits from local schools and institutions. Facilities and presentations are being implemented to make the site a viable attraction.
Taha believes the public appeal is unquestionable. “Archaeology is an area of fascination,” he says. “It is not difficult to capture people’s imaginations.”
He is a little less convinced about the future of Palestinian archaeology, as the existing infrastructure is ill-equipped to harness the potential of the next generation. “We must strengthen education and training programmes at universities, and expand career opportunities. The Department of Antiquities is the biggest employer now, with 150 people. We need partnerships and involvement from the private sector.”
Taha feels that prospective partners should recognise that archaeology can tap into other sectors for economic growth, including tourism. The department has been able to employ 30 extra staff for the Tell Balata project based on the flagship project’s appeal and ability to generate income.
Yet Taha’s main motivations are not economic. Supplementing his personal passion for the field is a desire to see Palestine make the most of its rich heritage. As a cradle of successive classical civilisations from the Neolithic to the Ottoman periods, there is a wealth of material to be uncovered which he believes will deliver public pride and international prestige. Although he states that an important principle is that his work remain apolitical and objective, that work is underpinned by a belief that archaeology can put Palestine on the map, literally and figuratively.
“Archaeology is a tool to reconstruct the past,” he says. Through his work, it can help construct a future.