Rafah: A Brief History

Rafah columns sketch by Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria, 1881. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Rafah columns sketch by Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria, 1881. Source: Wikimedia Commons

While it does not feature in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Rafah (Arabic; Rafiah in Hebrew; Rapihu in Assyrian; Raphia in Greek) is an ancient seaside town along the Mediterranean coast. Like Gaza, the main site of Rafah was slightly inland with an associated harbor directly on the shoreline (Tel Rafah). Politically, the town was situated within the frontier region between Egypt and its northeastern neighbors; geographically, it was sited at the junction where wilderness and civilization coincided.

Rafah is initially attested in an inscription, dating to the early 13th century BCE, of Pharaoh Seti I of Egypt, who had campaigned in the Levant and Syria to restore Egyptian prestige, and was later mentioned in other ancient Egyptian texts such as the satirical letter Papyrus Anastasi I (c. 1250) and in the Bubastite Portal relief (a.k.a. the Shishak Inscription), at the Temple of Amun in Karnak, of Pharaoh Shishak (Sheshonk) I of Egypt, whose military campaigns had taken him into the Land of Israel during the fifth regnal year (927) of King Rehoboam of Judah.

In 720, Emperor Sargon II of Assyria routed a coalition of Egyptian forces under their army commander Re’u and their Philistine allies including the seren Hanunu (Hanno) of Gaza in a pitched battle at Rafah. The victorious Assyrians despoiled and burned Rafah, and exiled almost a myriad of its inhabitants.

During the Hellenistic era (332–167 BCE), Rafah became a central locus of operations during the Wars of the Diadochi, a series of conflicts between the leading generals who succeeded King Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) and vied for control over his expansive empire. In 306, Antigonus I Monophthalmus (“Antigonus the One-Eyed”) assailed Rafah as part of his failed invasion of Egypt, controlled by his rival Ptolemy I Soter (“Ptolemy the Savior”); in 217, Seleucid ruler Emperor Antiochus III the Great of Syria suffered a decisive defeat at Rafah during the Battle of Raphia, part of his military campaign (the Fourth Syrian War, 219–217) against his rival Emperor Ptolemy IV Philopator of Egypt and one of the classical era’s largest battles with a total of 120,000–150,000 soldiers, and some 175 elephants, arrayed on the battleground. In 193, Antiochus married off his daughter, Cleopatra I Syra, to the youthful Emperor Ptolemy V Epiphanes, and the wedding occurred in Rafah—a symbolic gesture, for Antiochus intended to demonstrate his hegemony over Egypt at the site of the Ptolemies’ last significant victory over his own Seleucid forces.

During the Hasmonean era (167–63 BCE), King Yannai Alexander of Judea conquered Rafah; the town remained under Hasmonean rule until the Roman era (63 BCE–313 CE), when the Roman general Pompey the Great wrested the town from the Jews and the Roman general and proconsul Aulus Gabinius rebuilt the town in 57. In this period, Rafah was cited in the encyclopedic masterwork Geographica by the Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian Strabo, in the invocation to the goddess Isis in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and in the travel directory Itinerarium Antonini Augusti.

During the Byzantine era (324–638 CE), Rafah became the seat of an episcopal see (diocese) in the fifth and sixth centuries, and was represented at the Council of Ephesus by Bishop Romanus in 431. Rafah also appears on the Madaba Map (c. mid-sixth century).

In 635, Rafah was conquered by Arab general Amr ibn al-As and his Rashidun army as part of the early Muslim conquests and soon became a provincial border town and a regional commercial center with a market, a mosque, and caravanserais. During the period of the Geonim (c. 600–1050 CE), Jews settled in Rafah and the Jewish community flourished in the ninth and 10th centuries until it declined and was compelled to migrate to neighboring Ashkelon in 1080; Jews, however, later returned to Rafah and enjoyed a renascence in the 12th century. Under the Ayyubid Sultanate, the town became a postal station en route to Egypt.

In the early modern era, Rafah fell under the sway of the Ottoman Empire and its residents engaged in an economy that featured agriculture, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte of France and his Revolutionary Army swept through the town as part of the French campaign in Egypt and Syria. In 1832, the rebellious Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, conquered Rafah, which he occupied for eight years. In 1863, French intellectual and explorer Victor Guérin visited Rafah, where he was cautioned of Bedouin bandits plaguing travelers in the area and where he noted a pair of upright and intact granite pillars shaded by an acacia mimosa and known to locals as Bab el-Medinet (“The Town Gate”); similar pillars, presumed to be remnants of an ancient temple, were noted by the aristocratic bachelor Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria, who toured the region in 1881 and later that year recounted his journey in his travelog The Caravan Route between Egypt and Syria.

Rafah columns, Matson Photograph Collection (1898-1946). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the early 20th century, members of the Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel and Zionist groups in central and eastern Europe unsuccessfully sought to purchase land and settle in the area. In 1917, during WWI, British armed forces of the Desert Column captured the town during the Battle of Rafa/Action of Rafah, then used it as a base for the subsequent battles for Gaza. The army’s presence attracted economic migrants who repopulated the town, which was reestablished in the 1920s under the British Mandate. During WWII, large British Army camps at Rafah employed local Arabs; in the immediate postwar period, Jewish leaders and community members were confined by the British authorities in detention camps at Rafah. Following Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949), Arab refugees settled in the former British camps at Rafah, then under Egyptian administration in the Gaza Strip.

In 1956, during the Sinai Campaign (Operation Kadesh), Israel briefly controlled Rafah until its forces withdrew from the town the following year, but reclaimed it during the Six-Day War of 1967. In 1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and in recreating the Egypt-Gaza border Rafah was bisected into Egyptian and Gazan halves, with a large buffer zone—the Philadelphi Corridor (14 km in length, extending between the Mediterranean Sea and the three-way Kerem Shalom border crossing)—between them. In 1994, governance of Rafah devolved to the Palestinian Authority. In 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip and transferred control of the Rafah border crossing, the sole crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, to the Palestinian Authority, with Egyptian control over its side of the border. In 2007, the terrorist group Hamas seized control of Rafah when it conducted a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, which Israel and Egypt immediately blockaded.

Screenshot of Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor captured from Google Earth (courtesy of the author).

Subterranean tunnels (whose construction involved child labor and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of persons) beneath both halves of Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor are employed by Hamas and other mass murder gangs for smuggling weapons, ammunition, contraband, and terrorists between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. In recent years, Israel has targeted these cross-border tunnels via precision airstrikes in sporadic military operations, and Egypt has unleashed countermeasures including toxic gas, flooding, and sewage.

In 2023–2024, Rafah and the Rafah border crossing featured in the Israel-Hamas War following the barbaric massacres of October 7 perpetrated by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the many slaughterous residents of the Gaza Strip who invaded western Israel on that infamous Black Sabbath. Hundreds of thousands of noncombatants from the northern Gaza Strip fled southward, including to Rafah, and many sought entry into Egypt via the Rafah border crossing, which Egypt kept sealed for weeks before finally admitting refugees due to intense American and international pressure.

Rafah’s past comprises 3,300 years of history, throughout which it has emblematized the notion of a frontier or threshold, a transition zone between natural terrains and political territories. It is likely that Rafah will continue to figure as a salient locus within its broader border region for the foreseeable future and beyond.

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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