Khan Yunis: A Brief History

Khan Yunis inn, western corner facade (1930s). Source: Wikimedia Commons
Khan Yunis inn, western corner facade (1930s). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1387/1388 CE, upon the order of Sultan Barquq of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt, the wealthy emir and executive secretary Yunus ibn Abdallah an-Nawruzi ad-Dawadar established a roadside inn at the existing village of Salqah (as-Silqa), southwest of the city of Gaza and situated along the ancient Derekh HaYam (The Way of the Sea/The Coastal Highway) international trade route connecting Egypt and Syria. A network of such caravanserais served to provide caravaneers and cameleers—as well as their beasts of burden—with lodging and to shelter caravans, pilgrims, and travelers from banditry.

The fortified, limestone inn (whence its alternate name, Barquq Castle) was square-shaped, with its corners oriented toward the four cardinal points, and featured two storeys: the lower floor for animal stables and baggage storage, and the upper floor for guestrooms and a mosque. The burgeoning market town—with its weekly Bedouin souk each Thursday—that soon developed around the hostelry became an important station for commercial caravans in the region and was named Khan Yunis (“the caravanserai of Yunus/Jonah”) in honor of the emir, a high-ranking official respected for his probity and generosity, who was slain upon the order of a rebellious governor of Aleppo and rivalrous emir, Yalbugha an-Nasiri, in 1389. Khan Yunis also served as a regular rest stop for couriers of the Mameluke postal service (barid). Extant vestiges of the inn include the western façade with the entrance gateway, which features on both sides Arabic inscriptions and blazons carved in intaglio, and part of the domed mosque with its minaret.

Khan Yunis inn, interior view of ruins. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1516, the Ottoman grand vizier and eunuch Sinan Pasha successfully led an army against Mameluke forces in a minor battle at Khan Yunis, which paved the way for Egypt’s subsequent conquest by Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire. As commercial activity waned, the Ottoman Turks repurposed the hostelry as a military barracks.

In the modern era, Khan Yunis fostered an economy based on agriculture and produce: apricots, citrus fruit, dates, vegetables, and other field crops. In 1956, during the Sinai Campaign (Operation Kadesh), a controversial incident occurred in Khan Yunis between the Israel Defense Forces and local Arabs, which Israel claimed was combat against militants and which the Arabs claimed was a massacre. Thereafter a special report by the United Nations refugee agency UNRWA related both accounts of the disputed event. Israel withdrew from the city the following year but reclaimed it during the Six-Day War of 1967.

Khan Yunis (Barquq Castle) at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1994, governance of Khan Yunis devolved to the Palestinian Authority, and it soon became a source of terrorist attacks against neighboring Jews dwelling in Gush Katif, the bloc of Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip dismantled during Israel’s unilateral disengagement in 2005.

Today Khan Yunis is the second largest urban area, after the city of Gaza, in the Gaza Strip. It has been a bastion of the terrorist group Hamas since 2006 and is thought to be the site of its headquarters. The city has frequently been the target of IDF counterterrorism operations in recent years. During the Israel-Hamas War of 2023, hundreds of thousands of Arab residents of the northern Gaza Strip were evacuated southward, significantly increasing the city’s population density, at least temporarily. Following a lull in the war to accommodate a disproportionate Israeli hostage-Palestinian Arab prisoner exchange, Khan Yunis became a focal point and strategic target in Israel’s military campaign to eradicate Hamas and to rescue its remaining hostages held in captivity.

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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