GENEVA: Swiss researchers have uncovered a rare exchange of letters written in ancient Greek during the fifth century in what is now the Gaza Strip, the University of Fribourg said on Monday.
The discovery offers proof of a rich intellectual society in a region that is better known today for a bitter and bloody standoff between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said one of the researchers, Professor Jacques Schamp.
Located amid mounds of manuscripts stored at the Marciana National Library in Venice and the French National Library in Paris, the unpublished texts from an ancient school of philosophy in Gaza were identified after a one-year search, he told AFP.
"They have helped us to learn about people that we knew nothing about until now," said Schamp, who conducted the work with his assistant doctor Eugenio Amato.
The oldest discovery is an exchange of letters between a philosopher called Procopius of Gaza who lived around the years 465 to 529 and a young, and until now unknown, lawyer called Megethios.
"The discovery is important because it is practically impossible today to get your hands on material dated from the fifth century," Fribourg University, which helped to fund the research, said in a statement.
Such correspondence was unprecedented, said Schamp, explaining that researchers sometimes found letters from a Mr. X addressed to a Mr. Y but never the response.
"Here, we really have an exchange with a letter from Mr X and a response from Mr Y. It is extremely rare. For me, it is the only case that I know of," he said.
The documents also offer fresh information on life in ancient Gaza.
"We see that there was an extremely rich intellectual life and that people knew Greek literature to an admirable level," said Schamp.
Researchers spend years hunting for unknown texts hidden among thousands of ancient manuscripts stored, sometimes without any records being made, at national libraries in major cities across Europe.