The city of Gaza has 5000 years of history but being located on the route between different empires, it has always found itself under the yoke of successive dominations. Due to its long antiquity, it could have been the subject of particular attention by archaeologists and become part of the World Heritage of Humanity. But fate decided otherwise. Let us highlight its rich past history.
Its history began in the Ancient Bronze Age when a first city was established on a hill at the foot of a river flowing a little further into the sea : Tell el-Ajjul. This archaeological site, and the nearby Tell es-Sakan which was partially excavated in the 1930s by the British, was however razed by Hamas bulldozers in 2017.
Pharaoh Thutmose III, known as Napoleon of Egypt, conquered Canaan around 1500 BCE, while the Hebrews were prospering in Egypt (they became slaves later in time). The deity of Gaza was then Dagon, fish god protector of the maritime city. His name also means luck and fortune in Semitic language, like the patriarch Gad whom his mother, Jacob's concubine Zilpa, gave birth to exclaiming: “fortune has come, and she called him Gad” (Genesis 30:11).
After the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, Joshua proceeded to divide the promised land among the tribes of Israel (see Biblical chronology). Gaza was theoretically allocated to Judah (Joshua 15:47). But it is said that the Philistines inhabited the region and formed a powerful pentapolis of five cities: Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron (Joshua 13:3). Who were the Philistines? Historians agree with the Bible that they were among the Sea Peoples who came from the Aegean Sea including Caphtor (Genesis 10:14, Amos 9:7), identified as Crete, who came to the shores of the Levant. Moreover, the name Philistine and therefore Palestine, comes from the Hebrew פלשת which means invasion. Most of the time, these invaders were content to mix with the local Canaanite population. But, in the case of Gaza, which was inhabited by a distinct Canaanite people, the 'Avvim' (Deut. 2:23), war ensued and the population was massacred. The Sea People settled in their place. Whatever the case, the Philistines were mostly formed by the mixture of the above-mentioned people. The Sea People brought to the region their culture, their art and even their technique of war with the introduction of the use of iron for weapons, replacing bronze. With the Philistines, the region entered the Iron Age. (To find out more about the Philistine history, visit the Philistine Culture Museum in Ashdod).
Gaza was also the site of a misadventure of Judge Samson: he fell in love with a prostitute from the city and its inhabitants wanted to set a trap for him during his visit to her home at night. But he escaped by carrying away the city gate (Judges 16:1-3). Samson then fell again in love with the fatal Delilah and returned to Gaza. But this time as a prisoner weakened by treason. At a banquet dedicated to Dagon in which he was exhibited, he gathered his few newfound strength to bring down the temple on his enemies and on him (Judges 16:21-30). We can see in this story the divine punishment against Samson who, having known a prostitute in Gaza, which was prohibited by Biblical laws, was thus punished in Gaza because of another prostitute.
In the 10th century BCE, the Unified Kingdom split into two between Jeroboam and Rehoboam: Gaza fell into the territory of the Northern kingdom. The prophet Amos prophesied against Gaza:
Thus saith the LORD: “For three transgressions of Gaza, even for four, I will not reverse it : because they carried away captive a whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom." (Amos 1:6)
Why does the text change from three to four transgressions? Should we understand the triple transgressions in Biblical times and a fourth one added for future times? In 2023 ?
In fact, after the prophecy of Amos, disasters befell the Philistine city three times: Assyrians with Tiglat-Pileser, Judeans with King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:8), and Pharaoh Necoh (Jeremiah 47:1-2). Gaza was eradicated but the Persian Cambyses II later rebuilt a fortress there called Kadytis (Herodotus, Histories, Book II, 159). And it became the only fortress in the Levant to oppose the army of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE : it took a five-month siege to put an end to it. But the fortress eventually fell, and all its defenders were sold into slavery. (Source : E.J. Chinnock, The Anabasis of Alexander, 1884, pp. 135-139)
HELLENISTIC AND HASMONEAN
With the Hellenistic era, a relative peace reigned over a vast homogeneous empire. The Nabataean nomads, whose capital was Petra, settled on the ruins of Gaza and built a maritime port for their export of spices. At the same time, the Hasmonean kingdom was established in the land of Israel and greatly expanded under the reign of Alexander Jannaeus. And he too seized Nabataean Gaza after a long siege (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13:1-3): he did not destroy it though, because his goal was to seize the lucrative trade in spices brought from the desert roads. It was then that he appointed Antipater, the father of the future king Herod, as governor of Idumea and included Gaza under his governance. Herod's family were from Mareshah in Lower Judea and had made their fortune raising doves (Talmud, Chullin, 139b). Those who visit this archaeological site, also called Beth-Guvrin, should not miss visiting its gigantic underground dovecotes. Antipater was a fine politician who knew how to play on dissensions between Hasmonean heirs. And when General Pompey absorbed Judea under Roman rule in 63 BCE, Antipater sided with Rome. He was rewarded with the reconstruction of Gaza, and later with the choice of his son Herod as King of the Jews.
After the death of Herod, Gaza began to flourish again as a Roman city. It housed numerous pagan temples including the one dedicated to Tyche, goddess of Fortune like Dagon-Gad: the Romans wanted to associate the ancient cult of the city with the Greek-Roman pantheon.
Gaza was ruled by a large 500-member council made up of Greeks, Romans, Judeans and others. Under Emperor Hadrian, who wanted to erase the names of Judea and Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt of Bar-Kochba, around 130 AD, Gaza saw a new temple built for the cult of Marnas, which means Lord in Aramaic, and it became the main cult of the city from that time (The New Encyclopedia of Archeological Excavations in the Holy Land, volume 2, article “Gaza”).
But Christianity spread in the region from 250 AD. The bishop of Gaza, Porphyry, succeeded in convincing the Byzantine emperor to destroy the pagan temples of the city. This was carried out in the year 402 and, in place of the great temple of Marnas, a basilica dedicated to the Christian empress Eudoxia was erected (F.G. Hill, Mark the Deacon: Life of Porphyry, Bishop of Gaza, 1913, pp. 26-27 & p.92).
Jews have been present in Gaza since Roman times, even in the city council. In 508, they inaugurated the construction of a synagogue, one of the largest in the land of Israel because it uniquely featured five naves (The New Encyclopedia of Archeological Excavations in the Holy Land, op.cit.). It is estimated that it was 30 meters by 26 meters in size, with an East-West orientation like the Temple of Jerusalem. Archaeological excavations carried out by Israel after the Six-Day War revealed exceptionally beautiful mosaics, including a famous one showing David playing the lyre. His name is written not in Greek but in Hebrew as follows: דויד. Around him are represented a lion, symbol of Judah, a serpent, symbol of messianic times, and a giraffe which represented grace and wisdom. The large floor mosaic is composed of medallions with animals that existed at that time, similar to the other synagogue of Ma'on discovered at the east of Gaza near Nirim. The mosaic floor of Ma'on can be visited in the Gaza Envelope on the Israeli side. But, the mosaic of the synagogue of Gaza can be admired at the Good Samaritan Museum on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Towards the end of the 5th century, Gaza was home to the school of Procopius, a Christian sophist and rhetorician. The city also appears in the Byzantine map of Madaba (6th century) with a typical Roman cardo, which is a central north-south street flanked by colonnades on each side, and a large basilica, the one dedicated to Eudoxia.
In general, the Byzantines tolerated the presence of Jews, although up to a certain point. In the 7th century, the beautiful synagogue of Gaza was destroyed by fire in unclear circumstances (only floor mosaics remained under the rubble). But this caused the Jews of Gaza to leave the city progressively. There is not much trace of their presence for several centuries that followed, until the arrival of the Mamluks of Egypt (the Mamluks ruled in the region in 1260-1417). Then the Jews were allowed to return to settle in Gaza. During the Mamluks, who were rather tolerant towards the Jews, the Jewish community in Gaza was the third largest after Jerusalem and Safed.
At the time of the Ottoman rule (1417-1917), Meshullam of Volterra, an Italian Jewish traveler who went to the land of Israel in 1481, wrote:
It is a fine and renowned place, and its fruits are very renowned and good. Bread and good wine are to be found there, but only Jews make wine. Gaza has a circumference of four miles and no walls. It is about six miles from the sea and is situated in a valley and on a hill. It has a population as numerous as the sand of the sea, and there are about fifty (sixty) Jewish householders, artisans. They have a small but pretty synagogue, and vineyards and fields and houses. They had already begun to make the new wine. […] The Jews live at the top of the hill. May God exalt them. There are also four Samaritan heads of families who live on the hillside. At the top of the Judecca (Jewish Quarter) is the house of Delilah in which the mighty Samson dwelt. (Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers in the Middle-Ages, edition 2015, VIII Gaza, pp. 179-185)
Another key character was Nathan of Gaza (1643-1680) who helped the world to hear about Sabbatai Zvi, the false messiah, from 1663 when Zvi sojourned in Gaza. Nathan even declared Gaza as a "holy city" and posed himself as the prophet Isaiah who, according to Jewish tradition, will announce the venue of the Messiah. And Nathan indeed declared that Zvi would return to Gaza in 1666 to kick start his messianic rule...Why 1666? The number 666 had some mystic value in Christian and Jewish worlds. In the Jewish world a lot of people fell for such prophecies which caused turmoil across Europe. All the Jews expected Zvi to bring them back to the Promised Land as written in the Scriptures. But Nathan was carried away a bit too far in his own beliefs when he declared that he would go to Constantinople with Zvi to put the Sultan's crown on his head ! Instead the Sultan put Zvi into jail and threatened him to be executed or convert to Islam. Guess what Zvi chose !
It was during WW-I that Gaza came again to the world's attention. The British army encountered Turkish resistance in 1917, but the city eventually fell in November. General Allenby made a triumphant entry into Jerusalem during the Hanukkah festival in December 1917. The rest of the Land of Israel followed and fell in the hands of the British.
In the 20th century, Gaza was part of Mandatory Palestine and, after the 1948 war, the Gaza Strip hosted Arab refugee camps. Since 2007, this region has been under the control of Hamas. But, after the current war between Hamas and Israel in 2023, the future of the city is once more becoming uncertain. Tourism may never flourish in this city. However, the Gaza Envelope is full of interesting sites, related to History, Archaeology, Agriculture and, of course, geo-politics. If you're interested in such tour, don't hesitate to hire the service of a certified tour guide from the Ministry of Tourism, with a licensed vehicle to take you there.
Certified Tour Guide in Israel