Gaza: A Brief History

Gaza synagogue mosaic depicting King David of Israel as Orpheus, c. 508/509 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Gaza synagogue mosaic depicting King David of Israel as Orpheus, c. 508/509 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Ancient Era

The lengthy history of the city of Gaza (Greek; Azzah in Hebrew; Ghazzah in Arabic) originates in remotest antiquity. An ancient seaport whose main town originally rested slightly inland upon a low-lying hill along the southern Coastal Plain, it formed the southwestern border of Canaan. According to the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), among the city’s earliest inhabitants were the Avim (Avvites), perhaps one of the proto-Sea Peoples who immigrated to the Levant from the Aegean region in the early centuries of the second millennium BCE. Gaza had oriented itself with the land of the pharaohs to the southwest ever since the days of Pharaoh Ahmose I of Egypt, founder of the 18th Dynasty and first ruler of the New Kingdom of Egypt (the Egyptian Empire)—who had besieged for three years then conquered the nearby Hyksos stronghold of Sharuhen in the 16th century—and the city’s strategic and economic significance in the Near East augmented by the middle of the second millennium BCE. Around 1469, it was conquered by the young warrior-ruler Pharaoh Thutmose III of Egypt and served as the Egyptians’ primary base of operations in Canaan throughout the subsequent 300 years of Egyptian occupation. Gaza is mentioned in both the Ta’anakh tablets (15th/14th centuries BCE) and the El-Amarna letters (14th century BCE) as an Egyptian administrative center.

During the period of the Israelite repatriation to the Land of Israel (c. 1273–1245 BCE), Gaza was allotted to the tribal territory of Judah; while some Judahites might have taken up residence therein, the city’s population remained predominantly Avvite and/or Canaanite until the era of the Judges (c. 1228–1020 BCE), during which the Neo-Philistines (one of the Sea Peoples, Cretan or otherwise Aegean) invaded—circa 1175, possibly initially as an Egyptian garrison—the Land of Israel’s southern Coastal Plain, i.e., western Judah; they soon conquered from Judah cities such as Gaza, Ashdod, and Ekron (which along with Ashkelon and Gat constituted their pentapolis) and their region became known as Philistia. The Neo-Philistine invasion brought an end to the Avim and deprived the Judahites of much of their coastal inheritance. Gaza and its environs were controlled for nearly two centuries by the Neo-Philistines; only with the advent of King David of Israel and with his several victories over the Neo-Philistines, approximately 175 years later, was this region reincorporated into the tribal territory of Judah.

Key to the importance of Gaza was the fact that it was situated along the ancient Derekh HaYam (The Way of the Sea/The Coastal Highway) international trade route connecting Egypt and Syria. The main route ran from On (Heliopolis) in Egypt to Damascus in Syria. In the south the route divided into two branches, one running along the southern Coastal Plain and the other slightly inland, between the southern Coastal Plain and the Shfeilah. These southern branches framed the Philistine pentapolis: along the coastal branch lay Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod, and along the inland branch lay Gath and Ekron. The coastal branch was also known as The Way of the Land of the Philistines, and its extent across northern Sinai, between Tjaru (Sile, modern Tel el-Habua) and Gaza—stretching some 140 miles and featuring a chain of forts, each with a well—was known to the ancient Egyptians as The Way(s) of Horus.

During the era of the Judges, the Israelite Judge and strongman Samson solicited a harlot in Gaza, where the Philistines sought to ambuscade him at dawn; Samson arose at midnight and broke off the city gate’s doors and doorposts, carrying them upon his shoulders away to Hebron. Thereafter Samson fell in love with the duplicitous Philistiness Delilah, through whom the Philistines seized and cruelly blinded Samson, hauling him off to Gaza in brass fetters to do grinding work in a prison. The Philistines packed a pagan hall to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to their idol Dagon for the capture of Samson, who was dragged before them for their amusement and positioned between pillars. Samson got help in order to lean against the pillars supporting a roof on which 3,000 Philistines spectated while Samson was on display. He entreated God for one last burst of might with which to avenge himself against his cruel captors, then leaned with a hand placed on each pillar and toppled the temple on the heads of his hosts.

Artistic representation of Israelite Judge and champion Samson carrying off the gates of Gaza. Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the United Monarchy of Israel (1030–931 BCE), Gaza featured as the most important southwestern locale in King Solomon’s expansive realm. In 734, Emperor Tiglat-Pileser III of Assyria conquered Gaza, which remained a Neo-Philistine city even after its subsequent assault by King Hezekiah of Judah. In 609, Pharaoh Neco II of Egypt conquered Gaza en route to the fateful Battle of Megiddo. In 529, Emperor Cambyses of Persia besieged and conquered Gaza prior to his conquest of Egypt, and the city soon became an imperial Persian fortress. Under Persian rule Gaza retained a certain measure of independence and flourished.

The Classical Era

During the Hellenistic era (332–167 BCE), King Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) marched from Phoenicia to Egypt and, after a siege of five months, conquered and garrisoned Gaza, whose recalcitrant inhabitants had put up a stiff resistance and consequently were sold into slavery. It was in this period that Gaza developed major seaports to its immediate northwest, namely Anthedon (Agrippias/Agrippeum, later known as Tida in Arabic)—populated by Greek immigrants from Anthedon, Boeotia—and Neapolis (Maiumas, later known as al-Mina in Arabic, and identified with the present-day Rimal neighborhood in Gaza). Intrepid Nabateans from Arabia settled the Negev Desert region, wherein they developed the northern segments of their overland Incense Route between Oman and Sheba/Himyar (Yemen) in southern Arabia and the Mediterranean ports of Gaza and Rhinokorura (El-Arish), which doubled as gateways for Greek cultural and commercial penetration into the southern Levant. The Ptolemies of Egypt possessed Gaza as their outpost until it was wrested from them by their archrivals the Seleucids under Emperor Antiochus III the Great of Syria in 198.

During the Hasmonean era (167–63 BCE), by which time there were capable Jewish seamen based at Gaza, the city surrendered to Hasmonean leader and high priest Jonathan Maccabee, who destroyed its suburbs by fire in 145. In 96, King Yannai Alexander of Judea subdued then destroyed Gaza after a year-long siege.

During the Roman era (63 BCE–313 CE), the Roman general Pompey the Great wrested the city from the Jews and the Roman general and proconsul Aulus Gabinius rebuilt and fortified the city in 57. In 30, Octavian (Augustus Caesar) granted Gaza to King Herod the Great of Judea. Herod’s son Archelaus sought confirmation of his rule from Emperor Augustus of Rome, but the latter instead quadrisected the Herodian realm and appointed Archelaus ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, excepting the important cities of Gaza, Hammat Gader (Gadara), and Hippos (Susita), which were annexed to Roman Syria. Under Roman rule Gaza prospered, and the city became renowned for its cultic worship of the Cretan deity Marnas (“our Lord” in Aramaic), identified with Zeus as a rain god—whose temple, the Marneion, was destroyed only in the fifth century CE and replaced by a Christian church—and for its fair (panegyris) that numbered among the three main fairs in Roman Palestine.

During the Byzantine era (324–638 CE), the fourth century Christian scholar and theologian Jerome described Gaza as a large city in his time, and the majority of Gaza’s residents were pagan gentiles. Despite much local hostility to Christianity, a bishopric was established at Gaza, and conversion of the city’s heathen inhabitants was expedited under Saint Porphyrius, bishop of Gaza, between 395 and 420. In 402, all eight pagan temples in Gaza were destroyed on the orders of Emperor Theodosius II of Byzantium; the Eudoxiana, a Greek Orthodox basilica featuring 32 large marble columns and erected upon the ruins of the Marneion in honor of Empress Aelia Eudoxia, was dedicated in 407. The considerable minority of Jews in Gaza was attested by a relief of a menorah, a shofar, a lulav, and an etrog, surrounded by a decorative wreath and featuring the inscription “Hananiah son of Jacob” in Hebrew and in Greek, which formerly appeared on a column of the Great Mosque of Gaza (the relief was defaced with chisels in 1978 and the stone has been smoothed over), and by the synagogue mosaic floor (discovered on the seashore of Gaza’s harbor in 1965) showing a crowned King David, labelled in Hebrew, strumming the lyre while robed as the legendary Greek musician Orpheus, and dating to 508/509 CE. Gaza is depicted as a large city on the Madaba Map (c. mid-sixth century) with colonnaded streets crossing its center and a large church in the middle, likely the Eudoxiana, and likewise appears in a mosaic floor uncovered at Umm er-Rasas in Jordan.

Depiction of Gaza in the Byzantine mosaics at Umm ar-Rasas, Jordan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Rhetorical School of Gaza, whose scholarly luminaries included Christian rhetoricians, theologians, and philosophers such as Aeneas of Gaza, Procopius of Gaza, and Choricius of Gaza (and noted thinkers and writers including Zosimus, Timotheus of Gaza, Proclus, Ulpian, Isidore, and Commodian), flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the institution—known throughout the Mediterranean region, and deemed second only to that of Alexandria—turned the city into one of the primary centers of learning and intellectual activity in the late classical era. Indeed, Aeneas referred to his hometown as “the Athens of Asia”. Christian monasticism, including the Monophysite sect of monks, likewise thrived in Gaza in this period.

The Medieval Era

In 637, Muslim Arabs under general Amr ibn al-As vanquished Byzantine Christians and massacred their garrison in Gaza, whose churches were transformed into mosques (including the Great Mosque of Gaza) as the city became a Muslim locale. Gaza is the reputed site of the burial place of Hashim ibn Abd Manaf, great-grandfather of Islam’s founder Muhammad, and the birthplace of al-Shafiʿi (767–820), founder of the Shafiʿi school of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The city’s Jewish and Samaritan communities were preserved and a Masorete, Rabbi Moses, lived in Gaza in the eighth century. Gaza’s once robust Christian community was reduced to a negligible minority.

In 1033, an earthquake caused the pinnacle of the Great Mosque of Gaza’s minaret to collapse. In 1100, King Baldwin I of Jerusalem captured Gaza during the Crusades, when the city was known as Gadres, and Gaza became a bastion of the Knights Templar and was refortified in 1149/1152, during the reign of King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. But the city declined under crusader control and lost its former importance; the Jewish community also diminished and ceased to exist under the crusaders. In 1170, Sultan Saladin of the Ayyubid Sultanate pillaged and razed part of Gaza; in 1187, following the fateful Battle of Hattin, Gaza reverted to Muslim control when it was captured by Saladin, who had the city’s fortifications destroyed in 1191. King Richard the Lionheart refortified the city the following year, but the walls were again dismantled in 1193 according to the Treaty of Ramla signed following the Battle of Jaffa. In 1260, the Mongols under Hulagu Khan demolished Gaza, their southernmost conquest. Sultan Baybars of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt renovated the Great Mosque of Gaza and endowed it with a vast library comprising more than 20,000 manuscripts. In 1277, the Mamelukes designated Gaza the capital of its eponymous province, and used the city as an outpost in their continual assaults against the crusaders until 1290.

The Great Mosque of Gaza (Great Omari Mosque). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this period the city suffered repeatedly from natural disasters: earthquake (1294), bubonic plague (1348), and flood (1352). Still, good governance (especially that of Mameluke emir Sanjar al-Jawli) allowed Gaza to thrive between such devastating episodes, and the notable Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta described the city as large and populous in 1355. The Jewish community of Gaza revived in the 14th century under Mameluke rule. In 1481, the itinerant Italian-Jewish gem dealer Meshulam of Volterra reported in his travelog (Massa Meshulam MiVolterra B’Eretz Yisrael) that he encountered 60 Jewish householders and four Samaritans dwelling in Gaza. At this time all of the wine in the city was produced by its Jews, and grapes—a major local cash crop—were exported to Egypt and elsewhere. In 1488, the famed Rabbi Ovadyah of Bertinoro visited Gaza and there met its chief rabbi, a certain Moses of Prague.

The Modern Era

In 1516, Gaza came under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, and thanks to the adept Ridwan dynasty the city became a prosperous religious and cultural center for more than a century, a fleeting golden age wherein peace prevailed and the city’s mosques, Turkish baths, and market stalls multiplied. Under Ottoman rule the Jewish community expanded and established an academy (yeshivah) and a rabbinical court (beit din), and some of its sages indited scholarly works. In this period the city’s Jewish community attracted several leading sages who sojourned in Gaza: Joseph ben Moses di Trani (Maharit), in 1587; Abraham ben Mordekhai Azulai, in 1619; and David Conforte/Conforti, c. 1645. Dynasts of the rabbinical Najara family were among the local Jewish community leaders: Israel Najara and Jacob Najara both served as chief rabbis and chief justices on the rabbinical court of Gaza in the mid-17th century.

In 1665, depressed messianic pretender Shabbtai Tzvi sojourned in Gaza, where he lodged with chief rabbi Jacob Najara and where he consulted the brilliant young kabbalist and spiritual healer Nathan of Gaza, who promptly confirmed Shabbtai’s messianic vocation and became his herald. Nathan invited Jerusalem rabbis including Moses ben Jonathan Galante and Samuel Primo to Gaza to seek rectifications of the soul (tikunim) and to join Shabbtai’s entourage. During Tikun Leil Shavuot (the custom of overnight study on Pentecost), in Nathan’s house among a group of rabbis, Nathan fainted and convulsed on the ground in a trance, his limbs twitching uncontrollably, and announced Shabbtai’s high rank publicly in an apparent prophetic episode. Gaza soon became the center of the Shabbatean movement. Shabbtai declared himself Messiah (“the anointed of the God of Jacob”) in Gaza; he rode around on horseback and appointed among his followers representatives of the 12 tribes of Israel, who were to accompany him to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice atop Temple Mount, marking the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple. Nathan declared Gaza the new holy city, thereby affirming his own centrality in the messianic scenario. Jewish pilgrims flocked to Gaza seeking spiritual rectifications from Nathan, such that the houses and courtyards were full and people slept in the city’s streets and bazaars. In 1666, Nathan left Gaza with a coterie of 36 companions to arrange a meeting in Anatolia with Shabbtai, who by then had apostatized and received instruction in Islam; Nathan never returned to Gaza and died in Üsküb (Skopje, Macedonia).

Portrait of kabbalist and Shabbatean herald Nathan of Gaza. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1799, the Jews of Gaza fled before the advancing army of General Napoleon Bonaparte of France, who briefly occupied the city. Around 1880, Jews returned to Gaza in small numbers. They worked as barley merchants, bartering with Bedouin for barley that they exported to European beer breweries.

Since the early 19th century, Gaza has been culturally dominated by neighboring Egypt. In 1832, the rebellious Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, conquered Gaza. In 1838, American biblical scholar Edward Robinson visited Gaza and discovered a city populous and productive of soap and cotton, with well-stocked bazaars but with few ancient remnants owing to recurrent conflict over millennia. In 1839, bubonic plague afflicted the city anew, and war between Ottoman and Egyptian forces in 1840 only aggravated conditions in an already stagnant Gaza.

During WWI, Gaza was an Ottoman stronghold that managed to withstand two failed attacks by the British in 1917 before finally succumbing to a flanking movement by General Edmund Allenby in November of that year. Under the British Mandatory government, the city slowly developed. Wartime bombardment by the British had severely damaged the Great Mosque of Gaza (the Brits claimed that Ottoman munitions had been stockpiled in the mosque and its destruction eventuated when said munitions were ignited by the bombardment), which was restored by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1925. In 1929, Gaza’s Jewish community fled the violent Arab riots. The city subsequently came under Egyptian military administration following Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949) and the armistice agreement that ensued. The city’s population swelled more than fourfold due to a massive influx of Arab refugees from the war. Further Arab-Israeli hostilities resulted in Israel capturing Gaza in 1956 during the Sinai Campaign (Operation Kadesh) and retaining the city for several months before withdrawing, then reclaiming Gaza anew in the Six-Day War of 1967. Thereafter large manufacturing plants for food and textiles were constructed to supplement the local economy of sea fishing, agriculture, and small commerce and industries.

The Contemporary Era

Since 1987, Gaza has become a hotbed of political unrest and terrorist activities by the likes of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other murderous gangs trained and funded by Iran and supported by Qatar and Turkey. In 2005, Israeli premier Ariel Sharon ordered the relocation of Israeli residents and soldiers from the Gaza Strip for security reasons; 8,000 Jews were dislocated from their homes. This highly controversial unilateral disengagement transferred control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, though the latter did not retain control for long. In 2006, in an act that stunned observers worldwide, a majority of Gazan Arabs democratically elected the terrorist group Hamas to govern the Gaza Strip; in 2007, following a short-lived political pact with rival party Fatah, Hamas staged a coup d’état and violently overthrew Fatah to claim complete control of the region. That same year, after Hamas’ violent takeover of the coastal enclave, Israel and Egypt blockaded the Gaza Strip.

As a result of prioritizing its jihadist designs and methodically diverting generous international funds toward such terroristic aims, Hamas neglected the responsible governance of Gaza in favor of its fanatical pursuit of attacking neighboring Israel via rockets, missiles, a vast network of subterranean terror tunnels, incendiary kites and balloons, paragliders, etc. Israel was obliged to engage in a series of limited counterterrorism campaigns to defend itself against the relentless terrorist groups of Gaza: “Operation Cast Lead” (2008–2009); “Operation Pillar of Cloud” (2012); “Operation Protective Edge” (2014); “Operation Guardian of the Walls” (2021); “Operation Breaking Dawn” (2022); and “Operation Shield and Arrow” (2023). Consequently, Gaza and its environs suffered substantial structural damage in recent years and thousands of its residents lost their lives as a direct result of being deliberately and systematically co-opted as human shields time and time again by the terrorists, whose flagrant war crimes have repeatedly gone unpunished by a pusillanimous international community.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas reminded the entire world of its diabolical character by launching a surprise invasion of western Israel, with some 3,000 terrorists breaking through the security barrier and barbarically slaughtering 1,200 unsuspecting Israelis, mostly civilians in kibbutzim along the border, and abducting more than 250 hostages—including infants, children, the elderly, and Holocaust survivors—from Israel into the Gaza Strip. The inhumane savagery displayed by Hamas terrorists and fellow Gazans who accompanied them during this pogrom-like massacre recalled Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. In response, Israel immediately launched “Operation Swords of Iron” and vowed—at long last—to annihilate Hamas. After evacuating most of its residents beyond the Bsor Brook (Wadi Gaza) to the southern Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces effectively reclaimed Gaza in November 2023, and Israel has determined to retain security control going forward.

Gaza’s past comprises 4,000 years of history; its future remains to be determined.

About the Author
Brandon Marlon is an award-winning Canadian-Israeli author whose writing has appeared in 300+ publications in 33 countries. He is the author of two poetry volumes, Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People and Judean Dreams, and two historical reference works, Essentials of Jewish History: Jewish Leadership Across 4,000 Years and its companion volume Essentials of the Land of Israel: A Geographical History.
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